A reply to Martin Weller
But then along come MOOCs, and they’re all about the personality.
Martin Weller, ‘The role of personality in education‘
Martin Weller, Professor of Education Technology at the Open University, is asking important questions about about the pros and cons of stripping authorial personality from higher education course and content design.
In a sector shaped by the persistent anticipation of audit, personality is a bit of a handful. The hallmarks of personable teaching—improvisation, creativity, anecdote, all the idiosyncratic connections that an individual gets to make between one thing and another—are flatly at odds with the ideals of standardisation and repeatability that assure the student experience. These ideals matter, especially when the same course is franchised to external partners. On the other hand, even connectivist MOOCs lean hard on celebrity as a selling point. But then again, too much creative personality, too much popularity, introduces a kind of cultishness to learning that we really have been trying to move beyond.
MOOCs hothoused this dilemma, but didn’t invent it. We already have celebrity academics with their own TV shows; there’s no end of scholarly charisma being retailed across small islands, archaeological digs, and in TV science labs. And on campus, we struggle with personality across student surveys and intellectual property policies: we haggle over the idea of the individual as creator of educational content whose expertise is the guarantee of student experience, while setting up procedures to assure the depersonalisation of content production so that students are protected from the vagaries of charm.
Personality: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.
As it happens, Martin was himself the personable frontman for one of the many MOOCs I’ve failed to complete. And I’m using the term “frontman” carefully here, because this was the question I asked on his blog: what does gender have to do with personality in MOOCs in particular? (At least one answer, shared by Pat Lockley: “Online Students Give Instructors Higher Marks If They Think Instructors Are Men.”).
In 2013, Carl Straumsheim at Inside Higher Ed totted up the numbers of xMOOCs led by male and female faculty. The difference was exactly as you would expect. When the world’s elite institutions first hustled to get their star talent up on the small screen, just in case there was a rankings bounce to be had, the faces that appeared were male. Women showed up in team-taught MOOCs, but as with television news reading, it took a while for women to be allowed to front the cameras alone.
The article wasn’t immediately popular with IHE readers. Here’s a comment:
As the article notes, there are likely numerous reasons for the gender disparity, none of them pointing to persistent discrimination in the way faculty are selected to teach these courses. That more men than women win Nobel prizes doesn’t mean that the Nobel selection committee practices gender discrimination.
The first sentence is histrionic, you didn’t even get the headline right (the courses aren’t masculine), and the author has his own gender gap in the ratio of females to males quoted. This is not a very auspicious beginning to today’s edition.
And yet another:
“More female professors are experimenting with MOOCs, but men and STEM classes still dominate course offerings.”
So? And this is a problem why?
Women dominate in the student body, admin, staff, programs like psych, education, nursing, dentistry, english, anthropology, veterinary science, biology, microbiology, theater, music, film, etc. Since women dominate almost all aspects of higher education, doesn’t the principle of “diversity” demand that men dominate at least one, or maybe two, of the hundreds of programs found in higher ed? This may be a naive and is there no room for men in higher ed anymore?…
These comments tell us something about the struggle that higher education still has with gender. We tend to examine this problem through outputs and consequences—how many women make it to senior levels, how many are stuck in long-term casual work, how the historic feminisation of some low paying professions results in the underrepresentation of male academics in those disciplines, and so on.
But the part we find hard to explain is how this persists in such a systematic way–how anyone, let alone a whole marketing team, gets to imagine faculty as typically male, or how we still end up with all male conference panels. It’s much easier to make an example of Tim Hunt or Matt Taylor than it is to recognise the discrimination that’s engrained in the norms we associate with professional success.
There are two parts to this discrimination. The first is that higher education rewards chronic overwork because it makes good business sense to use competitive recruitment and selective promotion to motivate everyone to work longer hours than they’re paid for. This is exactly the message of a ghastly bit of career advice that popped up in Science Magazine this week, that has been deservedly criticised for its valorising of overwork and family neglect as the price that higher education is entitled to demand. Here’s how Eleftherios Diamandis did it:
I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.
My colleagues and I managed to publish numerous papers, and I was invited repeatedly to present at national and international conferences. I was able to demonstrate, in the department’s annual report, scientific productivity comparable in quantity and quality to the full-time academics in the department. I made sure these activities were noticed.
I made myself visible by participating in every research seminar—not easy, considering the hour-long drive and how busy I was at the company. Each time I entered the lecture room, I made a point of passing in front of the department chair before sitting down. At the end of every seminar, I made sure to ask a carefully crafted question or two.
Quite apart from how awful all of this is, the high school maths is that a full-time employee working 16 to 17 hours a day is saving their employer the cost of hiring a second employee, and someone doing this as an extended job audition while hired only as an adjunct really is handing over the candy.
And although both men and women are driven to overwork in higher education, Diamandis’ example slots tidily into 2014 research by Youngjoo Cha and Kim Weedon showing that familial caring responsibilities still make it much harder for women with children or other dependents to exploit overwork culture to further their own careers. As Cha and Weedon map out with great care, this means that the rise of highly compensated corporate overwork (including in academia) therefore contributes directly to the gendering of the pay gap in the labour market as a whole.
Research metrics drive the culture of academic overwork, since research performance is the sweet spot where institutional and individual self-interest converge. But Australia and the UK are now actively developing measurement frameworks to boost the status of university teaching, and this is where we get back to Martin’s problem with personality. If we are going to include peer observation of teaching in an evaluation framework—and as a peer reviewer of teaching, I think we should—we need to be really scrupulous in critiquing the association of charismatic performance and apparent popularity with effective teaching. Otherwise, as Martin suggests, “we risk highlighting the extrovert academic, the jokester, the good looking one.”
As Martin demonstrated, accidentally but usefully, there is every chance in the current situation that the A-list charmer who gets highlighted first will turn out to be male. And further, it turns out that there are things that we say and believe about men who are highly successful leaders of large teaching enterprises like MOOCs, including in the way that we joke about their appeal (“loveable, cuddly“), that we simply don’t say about successful women.
If we’re going to measure the art of teaching with any kind of sophistication, we need to work out urgently why this is still the case.