A Medieval Strategy for a Digital Age
By Perry Glasser
In the very near future, with any luck, many professors will emulate Abelard. No, not that part, Heaven forbid.
You'll recall that the medieval French monk was a professor in Paris who impregnated Heloise, a student 20 years his junior. Soon after he was castrated by a family that was less than pleased by their daughter's defilement, Abelard relocated to another university, a career move that was, though late, clearly prudent. Unfortunately, rival professors at Abelard's new gig persuaded students to accuse the now-chaste monk of heresy. Contemporary social scientists, literary scholars, and historians who have prepared for tenure review by making sure their resumes list no publications in the wrong journals can sympathize with Abelard's punishment, which was to recant his work by submitting his latest book manuscript to the flames, one page at a time.
What many professors may find appealing in all that is the business model under which Abelard worked. The seducer-philosopher-monk was also an entrepreneur.
If you're tired of hearing about how your brother-in-law the lout made a fortune with his string of dry-cleaning businesses, here's a chance to show your snickering family the worth of a doctorate: Demonstrate to them that technology, which is creating an electronic equivalent of the 12th-century Sorbonne, will open grand business opportunities for you.
Contemporary professors should find Abelard's working environment oddly familiar. In the High Middle Ages, the church and state did not quite know what to do with the enclaves of students and scholars springing up in Bologna, Krakow, Oxford, and Paris. The young people on those campuses joined secret societies, drank a great deal, and fought each other over trifles. But since they were the children of the privileged, who were being educated to perpetuate that privilege, university authorities were loath to impose ordinary discipline. Instead, they enforced their own codes of behavior that were strikingly different from the standards of the surrounding communities.
Faculty members, however, being much less privileged, were closely controlled. In the medieval university, freethinking was labeled dangerous, and so instructors had to apply for licenses to teach. But since intelligence and the ability to teach were "gifts from God," and a gift from God was not to be exploited for worldly gain, no professor was paid a salary. Churchmen might sell lucrative indulgences, but professors were kept poor and pure.
Just as an enlightened board of trustees today might grudgingly acknowledge that professors must earn enough to eat -- despite the fact that the joys of teaching should be their own reward -- the medieval university hit upon a compensation system that kept the likes of Abelard in olive oil, cheese, and bread. The wealthiest students were encouraged to give their teachers gifts, a means of payment inoffensive to God. At every lecture, students left their offerings at the door. In effect, professors worked for tips. A popular teacher lived well; a less-effective teacher sought alternative employment.
Be not horrified: Technology may well bring such an arrangement back, and that, friends, is sure to be a good thing.
The received wisdom of the moment is that higher-education administrators love the Internet, and faculty members loathe it. (Except for e-mail. Everyone loves e-mail.)
The logic of the received wisdom is simple enough to follow. Administrators love reducing costs, and they see cost reductions with every desktop computer that can ease the expenses of registration, book ordering, admissions, and campus communication. With the money saved, they know they can hire more administrators who, in turn, can save even more money. No savvy administrator would pass along savings to students, since to do so would be to commit the marketing error of making the institution appear cheap.
Using savings to elevate faculty salaries would be worse yet, as to do so, uncoupled with an increase in productivity, would increase costs. (Besides, since no one can measure faculty productivity, better not to worry about it at all.) Always remember that dormitories, gymnasia, and student unions are not costs, but are income-producing assets subject to capital investment, while faculty-member compensation is, like toilet tissue, paper plates, plastic forks, and library books, a cost to be kept from running wildly amok. That's why administrators love the Internet.
To some extent, of course, faculty members love it, too. The Internet brings together colleagues from afar; it allows research to be reviewed and refined by peers. But to the extent that professors also teach, the Internet can seem like a loathsome bunch of faddish technologies that distract from the regal beauty of scholarship and Socratic interaction with students.
Some doubts are justified. Those wise in the ways of cyberspace view the Internet as a threat to a professor's proprietary intellectual assets: If you put your lecture notes on line, will Johnny or Jane come to class at all? How many ruthless publishers are surfing the Net in search of brilliant, pithy, provocative exercises and assignments to be abducted into a profitable anthology? What's more, constructing a World-Wide Web site for a class looks dangerously complicated and has all the appeal of performing stoop labor. Fie on it! Teachers, concludes the argument, loathe the Net.
All that is sad. Consider the wisdom of reversing attitudes. The Digital Age will resurrect the medieval model of the university, a model that puts teachers at the center of business, directly compensated for their performance.
As the Web becomes easier to use, and more professors get on line, the public will become aware of the fact that education can occur without ivy-covered brick and mortar. As that happens, administrators will be disintermediated into oblivion, while faculty members will be elevated into independent, entrepreneurial thought leaders. In every business that has become Web-centric, mid-level managers have vanished with the click of a mouse, and the savings have been passed on to consumers. For that to happen in higher education does not require every professor to become a cyberwhiz: Forward-thinking companies are providing tools and services so simple that anyone bright enough to produce a dissertation can effectively and creatively operate on line. You don't have to be a technician to order a book from Amazon.com, do you?
It will work like this:
Suppose your proposal for that class dear to your heart is turned down, yet again, by your department. Once more, your colleagues reluctantly, sympathetically agree that teaching and learning should not be ruled by the pocketbook, but they underscore for you the unpleasant reality that budgets this year do not allow them to offer a class sure to draw only a handful of students. Besides, someone has to take on the important labor of teaching undergraduate core-curriculum sections.
Though the stock market soars and administrative parking lots have waiting lists for permits, your chairman quotes the dean's recent remarks about austerity. You know the speech by heart. (Like migratory birds, deans come and go, but austerity is always with us.) The culprits that have put us in this fix are neither the cyclotron being built for the crew over in physics nor the salaries being paid to the recreation agents working in student affairs. The real problem is the profligate use of the photocopying machine by those wastrels in the liberal arts.
Fed up, you decide to strike out on your own. You go independent. If Oprah Winfrey can recommend a book and thereby sell 100,000 copies, you can probably find 15 people somewhere in the world with sufficient intellectual curiosity to explore any topic with genuine worth and substance. Right now, the on-line world is glutted with training courses for technicians who want to become Microsoft certified in one application or another, but a few poetry workshops are beginning to flower on the heap of geek-speak. Why not your special offering? Surely there are worthies out there who will want to explore with you the fiction of Wyndham Lewis or the biology of coral reefs.
Suppose you design a class that will convene once each week for five weeks -- for example Tuesday evenings from 7 to 9:30, Eastern standard time. It will be like any other, except that it will meet exclusively on line and could draw enrollees from all over the world. Though they are geographically dispersed, your students will be able to meet and work with each other via electronic means -- through e-mail, of course, a bulletin board as well, and in real-time interaction in a chat room available only to those who possess the password given to them when they register.
You won't have to combine your beloved course with others to provide the path to some kind of validating diploma. Your 15 registrants will attend your class purely for the love of learning. Think of it: Students who don't need to be reassured that critical thinking is a skill that leads to a "good job." You'll ask the students to check the bulletin board once a week. The notion of a midterm and final examination may be irrelevant for this group of motivated learners, but at your first session they may agree that research projects that can be shared with the group will augment some of the skills they wish to develop.
Registration will have been managed by a service such as Blackboard.com, a company that can already be visited at www.blackboard.com. That service collects whatever fee you indicate via major credit card, and keeps 20 per cent for its own services. The company also sponsors an electronic bulletin board where teachers and students can post messages. Blackboard.com and competing services will teach you how to prepare and post materials in as elaborate or as basic a style as you wish. If you believe plain text is plenty, fine, but if you want to gussy things up a bit with pictures, charts, or graphs, the hosting services will handle that, too.
Before the course starts, you can prepare an electronic course pack through a service like the one found at www.digitalpacks.com (which gathers, publishes, and distributes digital copies of work in the public domain and, for an additional fee, negotiates for copyrighted material). You can charge your students accordingly. Just think: When students register, they can download the course pack, along with the assigned initial reading (so that you won't have to be bogged down with administrative details on your first Tuesday-evening session). Textbooks, of course, will be easily had from any number of on-line bookstores.
Your main concern will be figuring out how much to charge for your five-evening series. Aside from that, all you'll really have to do is prepare to teach and engage in some mild marketing -- perhaps a few judiciously placed classified ads. But as Blackboard.com and competing services grow, expect students to be perusing sites to see what is being offered. Don't underestimate the power of word of mouth. On the Internet, good news and rumor travel at the speed of light. Suppose after two weeks, by popular demand, you have to add a second section? Easy.
There are other benefits, as well. Have you ever wondered about running a class where the gender of students is unknown to participants? In those chat rooms, students can take noms de Web, and baritone voices need not monopolize airtime.
Certainly, the technology today can feel slow and uncertain, but look at the state of the Web in 1993 and think of where it will be in 2003. You can count on widespread Web access via cable television soon. Instead of dialing up the World-Wide Wait, your students will watch images and text form instantly on TV screens.
And the best part? You will be a member of the electronic village, a place where professors are compensated at rates determined by the market.
Degree-granting programs already exist on the Internet, but make no mistake: If on-line access becomes pervasive, the need for brick, mortar, and ivy institutions will become less and less evident. Certainly, young people will continue to need a halfway house between adolescence and adulthood called the "dormitory," but not all learning and teaching need cater to adolescents.
So professors who complain about being exploited by their institutions should look to the medieval university for an alternative model. Those frustrated by obstinate curriculum committees with all the imagination of a bucket of rocks are advised that it is time to put up or shut up. Those trapped in departments whose missions have been perverted into performing a service to the rest of the university's core curriculum can, with sufficient courage, ditch teaching loads that overemphasize introductory lessons for all but those undergraduates with the most bovine intellectual powers.
Thumb your nose at pigheaded, obstinate, small-minded, power-mad deans. The "new economy" is bringing with it a model of higher education in which teaching skill, talent, insight, creativity, and encompassing vision will earn what they are worth.