The Problem That Has No Name: Or, If Computers Are A Labor Saving Device, Why Am I Working A Double Shift?

September 17, 2011, 1:46 pm

"Danger, Will Robinson!"

This is the first in a series of posts that addresses labor conditions in the academy, and the potential problems attendant to replacing people with machines.

In case you have wondered where Tenured Radical has been in the past week, we have been getting our classes up and running.  One of the things we have been thinking about, as we worked 14 hour days (probably a modest 6-8 on the weekends) during the first two weeks of school, is that we do not even work close to a 40-hour week during the term.

Do the math: at minimum, I would say that we are currently clocking a 90 hour week, which leaves us no time for blogging, reading, going over the copy edits for the new collection, going to the gym, or cooking those gourmet dinners that some of our friends like to post about. But get this: when I got out paper and pencil to account for how I spent my week, of the 90 hours spent working each week,  fewer than eight were spent in actual face time with students. 

Class prep — because I have taught all of these courses before — is also not terribly onerous: I am estimating it at another five hours per week so far.  One course is a writing intensive, and I expect to spend an average of six hours weekly marking papers. Astonishingly, because I am in institutional transition, I would also point out that of the remaining 65 hours that are as yet unaccounted for, I will spend fewer than three each week in meetings with faculty colleagues.

Currently I am so busy that the idea of making dinner dates with friends makes me apprehensive, so I don’t do it. Under these conditions, scheduling two or three hours away from work in the evening means shortening up my sleep time to under seven hours, which my 53 year old brain cannot tolerate.

So mostly, what am I doing for those other 60 hours for which I have yet to account?  Answer:  I am on my computer.  I am doing email, I am clicking boxes to approve things for my students and advisees, and I am adjusting and building my teaching platforms.  In fact I spent a rather large amount of time this week addressing a problem that had cropped up in my writing-intensive course.  Students suddenly became unable to upload the papers that they were expected to share with each other for the following day.  Since I became aware of the issue around 6 P.M., when the earliest finishers started trying to deposit their work,  I ended up spending an evening on it that I would otherwise have spent preparing the class itself (of course, given that it was long after working hours, I would have preferred catching up with Boardwalk Empire, reading a novel or staring glassily into space.) No technophobe, I opened up the settings to see what was wrong, and there went the rest of the night, with a quick break to warm up something from Trader Joe’s.  At one point, I found myself displaying the platform on three separate browsers to compare the settings that had worked to the settings that hadn’t, creating exact parallels between the settings on each browser, and testing each (as if I were a student) to see if what we were dealing with was a browser rather than a software issue.

Note to Chrome?  I hate you.  Fix yourself and we can make up.

None of my various experiments worked, even as I eliminated all possible sources of the problem.  In the end, I figured out how to work around it by setting up the same exercise in a different way, and I wrote the students to explain what I had done in time for them to upload their work.

This alone took up a whole evening — and given my proclivities for things techie, was not uninteresting, but it meant that I had to get up extremely early the following day to actually prepare for the class itself, which does not happen online, but in a classroom in the meat world. Yesterday, so that this would not happen again, I interrupted my grading to consult with one of my favorite people at Zenith, the one who does desktop support for my part of the university.  Together we discovered that in fact it is no longer possible to set up the part of the teaching platform the way it was the first week of school. What we concluded in the end was that a security patch that had been installed in the platform that week had produced an unanticipated outcome (this happens all the time, by the way and wasn’t their fault), and the way I ultimately solved the problem by tweaking the settings turned out to have been the shortest distance between A and B after all.

Needless to say, this made me feel particularly proud of myself, not the least of which because in high school I was an utterly dismal student of mathematics, something I would ascribe in retrospect to a mysterious inability to access the parts of my brain devoted to logic and reasoning that seem to be functioning quite well now.

But here is the thought this experience, and a review of my two weeks in Hell, left me with.  Except for a couple years at the beginning of my career, when I changed jobs annually and was learning to teach, I never worked so hard in the first two weeks of school before everything went online.  In the codex version, the start of school was the easy part:  readings were on reserve at the library, or in a course pack, after having been copied by the office staff; memos about various events (that we actually had time to attend) arrived in your box; and with lightning speed we faculty signed endless forms that resulted, by some miracle and the work of actual hands in the Registrars’ office, in our students having class schedules.

Now I am not proposing that we go back to the bad old days of copyright violations, frantic notes being pinned to our office doors, and the grounds staff out there felling trees so that they could be pulped into the reams of paper later filed and forgotten by nimble hands that typed envelopes in their spare time.  But has it ever occurred to y’all that faculty are actually doing more work than we ever did because everything can be done by us on computers — and better yet, from the privacy of our homes, at all hours of the day and night?  I never had a student follow me home with a drop/add slip.

One is reminded of Betty Friedan’s insight in chapter 10 of The Feminine Mystique that “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available.” Technologies that are billed as labor-saving devices generally have paradoxical effects: multiplying the tasks that any one person is responsible for, creating new, previously unknown tasks, and concentrating more labor in a single job category (in this case, mine) as other jobs are eliminated or modified to exclude these tasks.  Furthermore, Friedan argued, breakthroughs in scientific housekeeping like the “no-iron” shirt did not liberate the housewife from ironing, but instead raised the universal standard for ironing.

Assuming that we neither can, nor wish to, turn back the clock on the use of technology in education, and that some of us have found our pedagogy and intellectual lives transformed by technology in good ways, let us imagine — in the coming weeks — how to further assess the redistribution and recalibration of labor in the university since the widespread introduction of personal computers and web-based technologies.  Let’s think about whether the university actually saves money by going on-line, and under what conditions teaching and administrative staff cannot actually be replaced or reduced through technology.  In fact, in addition to the investment in hardware and technical staff, might shifting higher education to on-line platforms actually mean a greater re-investment in full-time, well-paid, highly educated labor, rather than the reverse, which is what many critics of higher education claim?

Stay tuned for upcoming posts — and as always, readers, leave a comment.

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