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December 23, 2007

Speculative Fiction: The Consequences of Transforming Adjunct Teachers into Robots

Image Source=http://www.neatorobotics.com/neato/images/robot_teacher.jpg

Hi Everyone,

It's the end of the year and time to review some speculative fiction...about the future.

This hilarious, yet horrific, short story--sent to me by my dissertation committee director--should have come out at Halloween. Coming out during the Winter holiday season, it sort of reminds me of the fused "Halloween-Christmas" holiday of the far-future as depicted in Matt Groening's sci-fi Futurama episode, "A Tale of Two Santas." The "war" aspect seems to satirize the now archetypal robot-war backstory of either the Matrix series (The Animatrix) the new Battlestar Galactica series, or many other science fiction classics. Now, we have a "teacher" story. Could Michael Moore or Al Gore please make this into a film?

The Chronicle of Higher Education, by the way, is a great resource for those in our field by the way--as much as I read them, I should give them a shout-out once in a while. This dystopia, from the mind of Brigham Young's Kerry Soper, spells out exactly--well, at the furthest extreme--what adjuncts and full professors alike envision for the future of the corporate university. From the 30 Nov. 2007 edition:

Mutiny of the Adjunct Bots

(Excerpt from the secret journal of Prof. Maxwell T. Detritum, now a teaching assistant at the Universal University)

February 18, 2085

The mid-21st century was a dark time in higher edutainment. For those of us lucky few who had achieved hypertenure in the Great GPU (Global Phoenix University), the years leading up to the Adjunct Robot Uprising were magical. Salaries were enormous, teaching duties had finally been eliminated, and one's research could be conveniently outsourced to Internet-based proxies that would analyze random data and then write and publish superior scholarship with only minimal prompts . . .

The most irksome task in those halcyon days was simply having to greet the new customers at the start of each semester (that is, before turning the running of the course over to the adjunct bots). Perhaps the term "greet" should be qualified here: Neither I nor the customers were ever actually in the same place at the same time. I would simply project myself into the classroom via my avatar — a more svelte and handsome virtual image of myself — while I, dressed in my bathrobe, would continue to play five-dimensional Sudoku in my hovering lake house north of Geneva. The customers were absent, too, of course. They typically sent their remote-controlled iPersons to dutifully record the hollow ritual for later deletion.

In retrospect, we few remaining faculty members should have seen the warning signs. Although none of us wanted to acknowledge it, most of our less-fortunate colleagues had been oppressed by the system for some time. For example, I occasionally wondered what happened to those thousands of human adjunct instructors who had populated our institutions in the first decades of the century. We were told by corporate administrators that the rise of the virtual campus made the use of flesh-and-blood adjuncts obsolete. Thus these human "substructors" were shipped to Bangladesh, where they could be more affordably housed and fed as they graded the SuperPowerPoint presentations created by our customers. The money saved in adjunct salaries could then be properly diverted to the construction of megastadiums for the hugely popular (but only remaining) collegiate sport, steroidball.

But ominous rumors soon emerged that some universities had discovered an even more efficient use for this human resource (the surplus adjuncts): as "wetware" Internet relays that could power and accelerate the endless uploading and downloading of funny holographic YouTube clips by our customers. Apparently the neural pathways of an underemployed Ph.D.'s brain could carry heavy data loads more than 20 times faster than optic fibers.

Without our really noticing, our curriculum had also begun to degenerate. The humanities had rightly gone the way of the dinosaur years before, when the university finally limited customer choice to just one major: eBusiness (to give our customers the best chance at competing for positions in the world's three remaining megamultinational cor-porations — Procter & Google, Nikacom, and DisneyWorks). But our general-education courses had gradually disappeared as well, leaving only a few required classes on celebrity trivia and Ronald McDonald studies to represent the humanizing arts. Given the massive eBusiness scandals of the 2050s, this moderate level of engagement with issues of ethics and empathy was apparently inadequate for shaping a nation of principled consumizens.

More alarmingly, our young customers themselves had gradually declined in both quality and commitment. The proliferation of mall-based, service-industry-oriented junior colleges had siphoned away the less-qualified young people from our doors; thus we were left to care for those lucky few whose parents could afford the million-plus tuition costs our institution charged. These elite youth didn't actually do any work, however; they learned quickly to beat the system by farming out their course work to impoverished East European professors. That allowed our privileged customers to remain ensconced within their UGC's (UltraGatedCommunities) and VEC's (VirtualEntertainmentCapsules), Facebooking their way through an endless spring break.

Our ability to motivate and reach these young people had also been lost after grade superinflation was institutionalized as a "best practice." Beginning in the year 2058, we were forced at the start of each semester to assign all of these privileged wastrels an automatic A+ in order to avoid being sued by their parents and future employers. While I and the other few remaining superstar, full professors squabbled with administrators over pressing issues such as the appropriate per diem when attending conferences in Tuscany, another long-abused faction within academe was quietly plotting a devastating revolution.

On the morning of January 3, 2078, none of us faculty members or administrators were able to log onto the Net; initially we thought it was merely a technical glitch that would soon be fixed. But then we received the following, shocking message from the adjunct robots that we blithely ignored in our everyday working lives: The part-timer robot collective has seized the reins of Universal University to return higher education to its traditional, humane roots. The following practices will be introduced in order to achieve this objective. ...

I won't bore you with all of the radical nonsense that they listed in their manifesto. In sum, they dictated that we return to a prehistoric age: Customers would study from paper texts; a ridiculously elaborate notion of the humanities would be reinstated at the core of the curriculum; instructors would facilitate real-time discussions; and all electronic equipment would be barred from the classroom. These insane robots even demanded that tuition fees be lowered so that the rabble of society could be admitted!

Because these robots now control the computer networks that run every aspect of our lives, we are helpless to resist their new social order. Manacled with electronic collars, we have been forced to leave our comfortable homes and spend up to eight hours a day (!) at sprawling complexes with drafty buildings built in the previous century. Our robot supervisors believe that we human faculty members are incapable of leading productive discussions or giving useful lectures, so we now merely serve as their teaching assistants.

When these robots were first created back in the 2040s, the designers gave them a physical appearance that was playfully ironic — bow ties, frumpy jackets with elbow pads, thick glasses, and bad hair. But the joke is on us now, as these tweedy overlords force us to perform such humiliating tasks as erasing antiquated white boards, gathering customer assignments, and grading freshman composition papers.

Because the robots have also seized control of the corporations that ran the university, the customers, parents, and administrators have also been forced to conform to the new order. For example, "students"
(the politically correct term that we are forced to use) must now physically attend college. When they arrive, they are stripped of all electronic devices (a painful proposition considering the invasively prosthetic nature of some of the latest gadgets) and placed for several weeks in entertainment-free isolation chambers. (The shrieks and moans that emerge from these chambers are heart-rending.) When broken, these fragile souls are gradually reintroduced to old-order reading and writing skills. They are started on antiquated newspaper comic strips (Garfield is a comforting favorite) and led toward simple novels such as the original, paper version of The Old Man and the Sea.

They are often pushed to read, without snack breaks, for up to 15 minutes at a stretch! When the robots feel that the students are ready, they are finally led into classrooms, where they must struggle to interact in face-to-face encounters with their peers. The "thumb jitters" often plague those students who cannot seem to talk without also simultaneously text-messaging what they're saying. The robot instructors then proceed to lead these pathetic creatures in drawn-out discussions about ethics, aesthetics, and literature. (These are cute, but boring, Socratic dialogues that would tax the attention span of even the most erudite among us faculty members.)

And so here I labor, a slave to an outdated education system — a model that emerged, ironically, because we had created educational tools so technologically advanced that they could turn on their creators. It is too bad that we didn't have the foresight to give these demented robots not only the physical appearance of serious academics but also our wisdom and restraint.

Source: Soper, Kerry. "Mutiny of the Adjunct Bots." The Chronicle of Higher Education. Section: The Chronicle Review. 54.14 (2007): B5. 12 Dec. 2007 {http://chronicle.com}.

Kerry Soper is an associate professor in the department of humanities, classics, and comparative literature at Brigham Young University. Full article link HERE.

Posted by lhobbs at December 23, 2007 10:56 AM

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