Friday, June 21, 2013

Careers, and the professoriate

While on vacation a friend and colleague sent me a small article warning about the end of the professoriate as a viable career. I was quite curious about it so I had a quick look (after all, it was about MOOCs in part, and I had a little spare time in the middle of the day once museums closed).
On the surface it seems like an interesting conversation starter, but for me that's all it is: a conversation starter. I would have loved to hear more of Cary Nelson's speech where the blurb of "If we lose this battle for intellectual property, it's over. Being a professor will no longer be a viable career. It will be a service industry. That's it.” It's hard to speak more cogently about this without hearing the entire context. That said, I do think that this is an interesting point to dissect on its own, assuming of course that there isn't any other information that modifies this statement.
Personally I think that the battle for IP has been lost for quite some time. I speak from a position of mild ignorance on the subject, but it seems to me that as authors, people in the academe sign off all (or most?) of their rights when they publish their articles or book chapters in journals or books of collections. At this point in time I don't quite know what to make of this because it seems like a good quid pro quo: your work gets to be seen by many in such a volume and you get notoriety, which can lead to teaching gigs and paid engagements down the road. Sure, royalties would be nice, but we aren't all superstar academics.
The article points out that there is a certain elitism around the discourse of MOOCs. This is probably true when it comes to xMOOCs; see coursera and EdX for example, and in recent articles about the cost of buy-in, or being rejected for not being elite enough to be on the platform. That said, I do think that there is a certain elitism when someone says that
There is a professor on his campus, he noted, who made nearly half a million dollars from one of his textbooks. That's nearly five times his annual salary.
First, lets tackle the salary: if $500,000 is nearly five times what one makes per year, then that makes the annual salary around $100,000. To me, a professor on a 9-month contract, teaching a few courses per semester (fall and spring), and being paid to work on his or her research (that benefits them financially as well, obviously) - well that's elite! I am not expecting a revolution here, I would just like to point out that there are many professionals at universities, with careers, that make much less that the salary of the professor, and they don't have roaylties coming in.
Second, I am firm in the belief that knowledge should be free. Now a textbook may also have the contributions of others in the text (photos, graphs, graphic designer, software, and other) so the cost may not be completely free. That said, I don't expect texts to be completely free for all subject. Some subjects however (text-heavy subjects like history or philosophy or English for example) I do expect to be as close to free as possible. If a university is paying a faculty member to not only teach, but also produce research, then that research is already paid for, there shouldn't be additional profit made from it that lines the pockets of well paid faculty, certainly not when there are loads of underpaid adjuncts with little job security.
If elite tenured faculty want to keep their high salaries, they need to make their intellectual contributions open access. They can still retain their IP, but they need to let the content loose for free. Otherwise let's pay them as we do adjuncts and have them subsist on royalties. I know I am bring extreme here (and I a, certainly not seriously advocating for this option) but let's think more critically and logically, and with all information available, about this issue before we sound the alarms.
Your thoughts?
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