Twofish's Blog

July 21, 2006

Some firebombs about University of Phoenix and Harvard

Filed under: academia, personal, university of phoenix, wikipedia — twofish @ 4:22 pm

I seem to be good at throwing firebombs.  It is much easier to throw them when you are on the outside.  Let me throw a few

* The AFL-CIO should come in and attempt to organize adjunct faculty at the University of Phoenix into a teacher’s union

* Harvard and MIT should increase their situation enrollment to include millions, and should we should stop talking in terms of an “admissions process” or have the concept of admissions at all

The reason I think that the teachers at UoP should be organized, is that I’d like to see UoP try to take on Harvard, and the key to Harvard is its social networks.  I’m not talking just about the “old boys network” of jobs although that is part of it, I’m talking about the social networks that you need to do real research and collaboration and high level classes.  When I was at the University of Phoenix, I desperately wanted to help create a graduate physics department there.  I learned a *huge* amount about online teaching (including the fact that I was a rotten teacher at first, but I got better) and that kept me in for the first few classes.  But while teaching Algebra I and Introduction to Astronomy has its rewards what I really wanted to do was teach oh….  Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity.

The trouble was that I had no idea what the mechanism is for doing that.  You might argue that teaching Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity might not be in the University of Phoenix’s mission, but then I have to step back and say “whoa. who decides what the University of Phoenix’s mission is.  Shouldn’t I have some sort of say?”  Another reply would be that UoP is a for-profit, which is fine, let me think of a way then to figure out how to make QM and GR profitable.  Maybe I can’t do quantum mechanics, but may be at least business calculus would be useful, and I had some ideas on how to rewrite the Intro to Astronomy course to make us useful for business types (hint: who deals with large numbers?)

But the trouble is that there was no organization forum that I could have this conversation in.  Looking at the comments, I think part of this is due to the fact that once you start have this conversation about curriculum in which the adjunct faculty are not merely taking orders, then you start having conversations about other things.

Like the fact that adjunct faculty are paid crap….  But there are two institutional motivators for UoP to start thinking this issue through

1) You can get away with paying crap if there is something else people are getting in return.  If I were working on trying to develop curriculum on QM, I’d be willing to work for slave wages, because I’m getting something in return.  I *was* very willing to teach a few courses in algebra for slave wages, because I was learning about online education, but after the fifth course, I wasn’t learning anything new.

2) At some point, UoP is going to saturate its market and face competitors and the general strategy then is to go upmarket.  At some point, UoP (or someone else like Capella) is going say we don’t just want UoP graduates to work for Harvard CEO’s, we want the UoP graduate to have a serious shot at being the CEO.  That means creating a UoP “power network” that can compete with the Harvard “power network.”

(Socio/historical point: Creating an alternative power network seems impossible because the existing power networks are good at portraying that they are invincible and legitimate.  If you look at history, you’ll find that existing power networks are almost always more fragile than they look, and this is especially true during times of rapid technological change.  The first step in overcoming an established power network is to “free the mind.”  If you can even *imagine* University of Phoenix overwhelming Harvard, then you’ve taken the first step to having it happen.

Alternatively, if you present a serious threat, then the existing power networks will try to co-opt you, which make give you want you want.  I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the Wikimaina is being held at Harvard Law/MIT Media Lab or that IBM uses Linux.  What I’m trying to push for is an MIT-UoP collaboration.)

There are some very good things about UoP and Wikipedia.  The first is that they show that you don’t have to have an admissions process to do something useful.  The second is that they are now big enough so that people take them seriously.  The other thing is that they are coming around about the same time where there is a serious breakdown in the traditional networks of power.  The sign of the existence of the breakdown is well……


If the traditional networks of power were functioning properly, they’d find a way to include me,  I’d get in through the admissions processes, become a member of the status quo, and defend Harvard and MIT against UoP and Wikipedia.  Instead, I’m on the outside of the old power networks.  I’m not a faculty at a major university.  This gives me the incentive to challenge the old networks.  At the same time, I have enough of the social resources of the old networks to create new networks that challenge them.  I have a Ph.D. and contacts in academia, and I’m part of the MIT community, and I’m going to use this social capital to help the new networks challenge the old ones because the old ones aren’t getting me what I want.

And I’m angry…….

The reason I hate the old networks and the concept of “admissions” is that I’ve been through too many admissions processes.   It’s demeaning, it’s degrading, it’s inhuman to go to a committee, and beg and plead for them to let you in.  I’ve been too many “admissions” processes with job interviews, elite universities, and so forth that it is refreshing to have something like Wikipedia and Wikimania, open source software, where you just go.  The justification for these processes is to select the “worthy” but if that’s the case, what am I doing on the outside.

I’m doing what I’m doing since there is no chance that the traditional power networks will give me what I want if I ask nicely.  If I ask loudly, then may be they might listen, or if I bash down the door.  In some sense I don’t care if I “fail” or “succeed.”  If I just go into my room and cry because the interviewers won’t let me in and then do nothing, I become a little less human.  If I cry, and then run out intent on bashing down the door, I feel better about myself regardless of what happens…..

The journey is as important as the outcome.

(The rest of this is quasi-personal so you can skip this if you just want the academic stuff….)

The nice thing about blogs is that they give you an idea of the whole person.  It might seem strange and irrelevant that at the same time I’m talking about wikipedia and academic issues, and that the other time I have this major personal issue involving rage and hate toward the “fairy princess”.

But they are really the same issue.

The “fairy princess” is the ultimate embodiment of an admissions process which won’t give me information and won’t let me in, and which I’m extremely mad at.  If you just read my dispassionate writings on academia, you really won’t understand the depths of and the origins of feeling and rage that underlie it.  To understand that, you have to pierce the divsion between the personal and the professional (which the internet is doing anyway).

This is one of the trends in that technology is making.  It used to be that you could maintain a sharp distinction between work, school, family, leisure, but technology is really breaking these divisions down.

And to connect this to *another* thread about University of Phoenix.  One of the concerns I have is that UoP and other online schools are “training the worker” and not “educating the person.”  I’ve had to draw on a lot of my reserves of learning history, philosophy, and psychology to understand the connection I’m making between the feelings I have for the “fairy princess” and the feelings I have for the “Harvard post-doc admissions committee.”

UoP might be teaching people to get MBA’s, and someone needs to do that.  But who is going to help the person figure out if he wants an MBA, or if he should spend more time with the kids, or whether to have kids, when to have kids, or who they have kids with.  OK you get your MBA, you make more money.  How much more money is enough?  Why do you want money?  What are you going to do with that money?  What is money?
Those are the big questions…..  And the one’s I’m trying to figure out…..  I’ve got the skills… I don’t need anyone to teach me C++ or bookkeepping.  If I need to learn, I’ll buy the book.

What I’m trying to figure out is …. Do I stay in Austin and be content with a reasonable salary, or do I do the wild thing and go to NYC and try to make bazillions????  How does this impact my wife, my kids, my co-workers?  What moral obligations do I have to them?  What moral obligations ***don’t*** I have to them?  What’s important.  Happiness?  Honor?  Love?  What is love?
And I’m worried that UoP by focusing on “training people for the job” isn’t helping people to answer those questions as well as they could.  *Someone* needs to help people answer these questions.  Academia has traditionally help do this.  If academia abdicates this responsiblity, then who picks it up, and if *no one* picks it up then we really are in trouble.


1 Comment »

  1. Hi Twofish,

    All large human institutions tend to go the way you describe. Perhaps Schumacher (no, not the racing driver) had it right in his book ‘Small is Beautiful’. P’raps things should only be small. One of the reasons for the tests, admissions, rankings, etc., is fear. The fear of ‘failure’ at a multitude of levels which is fuelled by the crazy desire to add numbers to everything. It’s so much easier to monitor your success when there’s a ‘top ten’ and you’re one of them. Drop down to number 11 and you’re a failure!

    However, in education, we’re all part of the same process. we say do this course and we’ll award you a label – BSc, BA, MBA, PhD. They’re not numbers but they’re effectively the same thing – a pass or fail. it seems to me we’ve got two choices, beat ’em or join ’em.

    Beat ’em is probably a bit Utopean – the world’s gone a long way down the League Table road and is unlikely to turn back now. As for the desert island to set up your own colony, they’ll all be swamped by rising sea levels in the next 15-20 years so there’s no long-term future there!

    Join ’em? Well you could do that and refuse some of the rules. A few colleges attempt to do just that and some have minor success. Entry to a course without GMAT may a bit risky but not a totally preposterous idea. In the 1980’s the UK government introduced a new qualification of DipHE (Diploma in Higher Education) and allowed a liberal entrance regime. This was what is currently called an associate degree in the US. In the first few years of teaching on this course it was a heady experience with a whirlwind of talent which had been lurking in the shadows. It’s (the DipHE’s) lack of acceptance by the play-it-safe brigade of recruiters rang its death knell – but it was good while it lasted.

    Perhaps the great democratiser, the internet, will allow new form of courses and delivery to become available and allow some flexibility around the edges of the employment industry, giving back a bit of power to the people.

    Keep Rebelling,


    Comment by Dr Rhiannon Meredith — April 24, 2007 @ 11:18 am

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