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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2001

ICT Could Be Death Knell of Professoriate as We Know It

Michael Kompf
There's somethin' happening here, What it is ain't exactly clear" — Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield ("For What It's Worth," 1966).

What is happening in the growing overlap of information technology and the delivery of higher education is becoming increasingly clear and it's not good news for the professoriate. Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth" lyrics seemed an appropriate point of entry because the definition, recognition and rampant exploitation of 'worth' have taken scholarly ambition and brought it into the marketplace in ways beyond the everyday concern of most.

The very nature of professional and personal worth in the academy and how it is determined has shifted from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of revenue-generating activities while many of us were looking the other way. Some of us, myself included, were in the midst of the fray, not recognizing issues or struggles for their potentially dark nature.

Of many important examples, the most imperative is the marriage of higher education with distance education programming and information and communications technology (ICT). This marriage has taken place without a fair and comprehensive prenuptial agreement and is a death march for the professoriate as we know it. This statement may have a sky-is-falling connotation, but only for those whose practices have not been touched by ICT.

The dark side of ICT is most visible in the rapidly growing trend of university corporatism. The ideals of accessibility, excellence and advancement have been transformed into ideals of cost-effectiveness, market share and the control of knowledge. One of the most tragic aspects of this change as the edu-business takes flight has been the unrewarded exploitation of knowers: the professoriate.

Many institutions have invested heavily in the use of technology in the name of modernization and enhanced curriculum delivery. Faculty, sometimes enchanted by the prospect of new toys, throw themselves vigorously at the task of relearning and transforming their knowledge and curriculum for local delivery, or distance delivery through the World Wide Web.

Most are surprised on discovering the intense workload, the duration of the task and the new learning about self and craft that occurs. Most are even more surprised to find that upon completion and successful delivery of their courseware, they have also successfully threatened their job and inadvertently given over rights to use of their curriculum.

I have personally experienced the shock of learning that a curriculum produced whilst in the employ of a university is owned by that university unless arranged otherwise.

Imagine developing an academic program and supporting courses, taking curricula and transforming it into an innovative distance delivery model, only to be told once it was in place that not only would further program involvement be redundant but that access to your own work could only be had with permission of the university administration.

Imagine courses developed running under your name as "instructor" but not having any input into revisions, supervision or the entitlement to use reviews and ongoing evaluations as part of merit, promotion or tenure processes.

Imagine your face, name and work reaching hundreds, if not thousands of students in the same canned format, well beyond shelf life to the point of professional embarrassment. Imagine courses and programs generating millions of dollars in revenue by offering courses without instructors or the support of recognized authorities in the field.

Imagine the righteous indignation of fiscally driven bean counters when the issues of intellectual property rights and copyright issues are raised in ways that question administrative assumptions of eminent domain over all that is created in the academic micro-kingdom. If you can imagine all of the foregoing then also imagine the indignation of being cast aside as redundant once stripped of your ideas and work.

Would that this list of horrors existed only in the imagination. The foregoing events have happened. They represent relational and proprietary landmarks in the transformation of knowledge, knowledge producers and the marketing of the mind.

Universities, colleges and other institutions have gradually come to terms with a new fiscal construction of teaching and learning. Administrators, in most if not all cases come from the ranks of the academy. While most are learned in their respective fields, organizational and administrative acumen tend to be developed through the micropolitics of the university, rather than the business model now taking hold. The inner fight some might have once faced between tradition and transition has been replaced by a call to arms for institutional survival and growth at any cost. Accountability measures have been implemented in the name of survival leading to near-universal cutbacks and a most sinister justification for changed expectations of the faculty as professionals and as persons.

The sense of vocation that brought many to the collegium is now further replaced by satisfactory accumulation of workload points and activities that feed university coffers. The definition of worth has moved from mind to wallet. Faculty members, once evaluated by teaching, research and writing and service — these criteria are used in my university — now have a fourth aspect of performance evaluation: funds attracted.

Whether through applications for grant money or the development of innovative ideas, activities and programs, faculty members are now fund-raisers, whose enjoyment of success is limited to job retention and the 16 minutes of fame such inclusions provide in one's CV. Some universities have developed, or are at least entertaining the development of marketing branches that seek to find niches for enterprise activities with the enlightened inducements of recognition, compensation and credit.

Until commodification of faculty work includes fair recognition, compensation and credit, I call for colleagues to examine the potential for exploitation and declare a moratorium on the development and sharing of curriculum and other work for use beyond personal control. The allure of new ICT toys and innovations for teaching and learning, whether presented seductively or coercively, are devices that conceal the separation of self and work for institutional gain.

The following passage from Kurt Vonnegut's prophetic 1952 novel Player Piano is worth pondering:

"The group, five ranks of ten machines each, swept their tools in unison across steel bars, kicked out finished shafts onto continuous belts, stopped while raw bars dropped between their chucks and tailstocks, clamped down, and swept their tools across the bars, kicked out the finished shafts onto ...

"Paul unlocked the box containing the tape recording that controlled them all. The tape was a small loop that fed continuously between magnetic pickups. On it were recorded the movements of a master machinist turning out a shaft for a fractional horsepower motor. Paul counted back — eleven, twelve, thirteen years ago, he'd been in on the making of the tape, the master from which this one had been made ...

"He and Finnerty and Shepherd, with the ink hardly dry on their doctorates, had been sent to one of the machine shops to make the recording. The foreman had pointed out his best man — what was his name? — and joking with the puzzled machinist, the three bright young men had hooked up the recording apparatus to the lathe controls. Hertz! That had been the machinist's name — Rudy Hertz, an old-timer, who had been about ready to retire. Paul remembered the name now, and remembered the deference the old man had shown the bright young men.

"Afterward, they'd got Rudy's foreman to let him off, and, in a boisterous, whimsical spirit of industrial democracy, they'd taken him across the street for a beer. Rudy hadn't understood quite what the recording instruments were all, about, but what he understood, he'd liked: that he, out of thousands of machinists, had been chosen to have his motions immortalized on tape.

"And here, now, this little loop of tape in the box before Paul, here was Rudy as Rudy had been to his machine that afternoon — Rudy, the turner-on of power, the setter of speeds, the controller of the cutting tool. This was the essence of Rudy as far as his machine was concerned, as far as the economy was concerned, as far as the war effort had been concerned. The tape was the essence distilled from the small, polite man with the big hands and black fingernails; from the man who thought the world could be saved if everyone read a verse from the Bible every night; from the man who adored a collie for a want of children; from the man who ...

"What else had Rudy said that afternoon? Paul supposed the old man was dead now — or in his second childhood in Homestead. Now, by switching in lathes on a master panel and feeding the signal from the tape, Paul could make the essence of Rudy Hertz produce one, ten, a hundred, or a thousand of the shafts."

Michael Kompf teaches in the faculty of education at Brock University.

References: Vonnegut, K. (1952).
Player Piano. New York: Dell (pp. 9­10).

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.