Saturday, March 9, 2013



As everyone who reads a newspaper or a blog knows by now, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, has put an end to perhaps the most valuable perk in Silicon Valley, permission to work from home.   That model seemed to make perfect sense in an internet company; doesn’t it simply fulfill the core promise of the internet itself, that interaction on line can be as rewarding and effective as face-to-face contact?  Mayer’s reasoning was interesting:  she admitted that working from home was more productive than shlepping into the office and hanging out by the water cooler, but, she said, it was less innovative.  For innovation, you need that water cooler, or cafeteria, or couches in hallways, or any place that encourages 24-year-old whiz kids to excite each other with new ideas, to improve and refine and think of new uses for the company’s products.

That’s not a new idea; Steve Jobs, when he designed Apple’s new headquarters, made sure that even going to the bathroom routed you past watering holes and gathering spots.  I don’t remember Walter Isaacson, in his biography of Jobs, mentioning any real or expected decline in productivity, so we don’t know whether that would have been a successful trade-off for the Magus of McIntosh.    But, in a Times’s op-ed page last week titled “In Defense of Telecommuting,” a sociology professor from UT-Austin commented that the powers-that-be at our large research universities, “among the most successful engines of innovation in our economy,” never have to artificially enforce face-time between faculty members.  “To give one small example,” she wrote, “two of my colleagues, at Cornell University, a demographer and geographer, recently came up with the idea for a study to improve the retention of women working in science while chatting during their children’s after-school swim lessons.” 

Ah, yes.  But what works at Cornell (my undergraduate school) might not work at NYU (my current employer).  Ithaca, NY, is at best a medium-sized town, with a somewhat limited palette of restaurants, cultural and sporting events, and pools that offer children’s swim lessons; in my day, and I imagine now, wherever faculty happened to find themselves off-campus, other faculty would have found their own ways there.  Ithaca, Boulder, Ann Arbor, Austin, and State College, PA, are, to varying degrees, almost suffocatingly insular places, but Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia (think Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley and Penn) are geographically and culturally polyglot and diverse.  If I’m not eating in the vicinity of Astor Place, I almost never run into my colleagues or my students.  The same was even more true of  Brooklyn College, where I taught from 1967 to 1998:  it was, and is, a commuter school, and though there are a cafeteria and lounges, they’re almost empty; faculty and students  met in the classroom for 75 minutes, and then either retreated to their offices, if they had them, went home.

All this connects to the Next Big Thing in education – MOOCs, the clumsy acronym for Massive Open Online Courses, in which a superstar professor lectures to thousands of enrolled students worldwide, who will eventually take online exams and receive course credit without ever having set foot on the campus (which might itself be virtual).

Why not take this to its extreme:  just have the students read a book and pass quizzes on it.  No, say the innovators of this potentially huge money-maker, that would defeat the principle of collegiality.  After each lecture, the students will have the opportunity to interact with their teacher, advancing ideas and asking questions.

Are they kidding?  Picture the virtual classroom as if it were a real place the size of, say, Madison Square Garden -- 20,000 students, 7,000 of them with hands in the air.  I’ve taught lecture courses at NYU with as many as 120 students in them, and I didn’t field questions and queries after I was done speaking; I had three TAs, each of whom met two sections of 20 students once a week, to do that.  How many TAs will a big-time MOOC require?  Where will they come from?  Mine were graduate students studying for Ph.Ds in English, but in a virtual university, they’ll be on-line too.  So, at least in one model, there’s no face-to-face contact at all.

Is that so bad?  How would Baxter Hathaway’s creative writing class at Cornell all those years back have suffered if each of us students had submitted our stories and poems online and discussed them via teleconference (which hadn’t yet been invented)?  Here’s how:  I’d never have met my fellow student Tom Pynchon, never have had coffee with him after class, never have picked one of the most subtle, original and powerful minds I’ve ever encountered.  College – at least a humanities college – isn’t a place where you’re trained to regurgitate factoids.  It’s a place where you find your cohort, the people who shape your character and outlook and become your friends.  There are no friendships in the MOOC landscape.  

And there may be perils, having to do with isolation and distraction and social infantilization and possibly even worse things.  “Officer, I know I ran that red light at 60, but I was tweeting my BritLit final.” 

1 comment:

  1. Totally, absolutely right. What's the point, really? Maybe there's just a "get smarter" pill that people could take, shades of Flowers for Algernon (and look how THAT turned out). It's a version of the factory model of education, a massive distillation of "information" that doesn't necessarily correlate to learning, thinking, or education. There is a philosophy prof, at Harvard, I think, whose lectures on youtube have gone viral in China, and while that's great, I wouldn't say that the viewers of the video are "learning." Although if they watch the (doubtless illegal) video, perhaps they will start agitating for actual liberal arts colleges within their own country's boundaries. Now THAT would be a revolution in education.