Who Cares? MOOCs, CAS:T, Care Work, Student Evaluations and the Work of Evaluating Students

Guest Post by Kathleen Lowrey, Associate Professor, Anthropology

In a recent New York Times article on the rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Udacity’s David Stavens is quoted as saying, “We reject about 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us,” because “students will want to learn from whoever is the best teacher.” If the article (and others like it) is any guide, it looks as though the overwhelming majority of MOOC-calibre teachers are men. This may well be down to the fact that most MOOCs launched to date have been in male-dominated science and technical fields. However, in this regard MOOCs — innovative as they may be in other respects — repeat a pattern that characterizes contemporary university teaching as a whole.             

The public face of university teaching is still that of the tenured professor, and by the numbers, that face is still male. Go into university classrooms, however, and you will start to see a lot of women teachers. By the numbers, most of these teachers do not have, and never will have, tenure. They are doing a tremendous percentage of the “grunt work” of university teaching: introductory level, marking-intensive courses. In Canada, these teachers are in labour market terms literally invisible: data on their absolute numbers and the percentage of FTE they cover are not collected. In the United States, where such data are collected, they are the absolute majority of university teachers. It is not a narrow majority: according to educational policy researcher Gary Rhoades, tenured faculty now represent less than 30% of all people teaching at American colleges and universities.

As Marc Bousquet discusses in his 2008 book How the University Works, this large majority of university faculty is disproportionately female just as its tenured minority counterpart is disproportionately male. The members of this academic majority work, often for years, on fixed-term contracts with pay much lower than that of their tenure track and tenured colleagues and with no long-term job security. They are supposed by many of their better-compensated colleagues to be motivated by love: of their disciplines, of teaching, of academia itself. They do it, despite the low pay, the insecurity, and the petty humiliations of lacking things like a permanent office or even a budget for pencils, because they care. 

Feminist economists have produced a large literature on what they call “care work,” focusing on childcare, eldercare, domestic work, health care, and K-12 teaching. This kind of work is overwhelmingly done by women, and when it is poorly remunerated this state of affairs is frequently justified (not least by the workers themselves) by reference to love and the idea that this kind of work isn’t, and shouldn’t, be done for money alone. Society condemns self-interestedness in these kinds of workers, while — nominally at least — also celebrating the noble altruism of the ones that, “because they care,” are happy to work long hours for low pay. To inquire closely into these dynamics is to open a disturbing window on to how much society cares about the people these underpaid laborers care for:  children, the elderly, the disabled, the variously dependent.

Contingent academic labourers don’t enjoy the dubious benefits even of empty social encomia, however, because “officially” they do not exist. They can sometimes enjoy the kind of respect accorded university professors, by maintaining the masquerade of being one of them. Many students and most members of the public have no idea that many of the people in the front of their classrooms enjoy neither tenure nor decent pay. The main threat to pulling off this performance is the contempt of too many tenured colleagues, who protect their own sense of academia as a virtuous meritocracy by affirming — privately or publicly — that if contingent faculty deserved tenure-track positions, they’d find them somewhere. To admit how many of them there are — how dependent the functioning of the contemporary university is on their presence — would be to open an awkward conversation about how much universities, and their most privileged employees (tenured faculty), actually care about the people those underpaid labourers care for: students.

The current terms of the conversation insist that “student-centered learning” is the heart and soul of modern higher education. Say what you will about the contemporary university, but it trembles before nothing as it trembles before student evaluations, does it not? This focus on student opinions is what has brought us MOOCs, which will allow students to enjoy only the finest in university teaching. Consider that 98% rejection rate touted by Udacity’s David Stavens, above. Its message is that only an elite 2% of teachers, the meritocratic superstars, will be allowed to “teach” — or, at least, to do the showy and public aspects of university teaching.

But is broadcast mode the most important aspect of teaching? In all this, where is the evaluation of students? A cynic might suggest that “student evaluations” have migrated to the center of the late modern university as “the evaluation of students” has been relegated to its contingent, underpaid margins. MOOC promoters are candidly cavalier about how students will be evaluated, but this is actually of a piece with the current, quiet modus operandi in universities rather than a heady departure from it. As long as the public face looks the part — and is a highly-paid “superstar” — who cares anyway? The answer, of course, is that, care workers do:  underpaid, unprotected, marking student work one essay, one lab report, and one problem set at a time. After MOOCs as before MOOCs, they will do the service work of noticing which students are struggling, and how, and which students are blossoming, and how, and they will do the personal contact work of interacting with students about it. Students will continue to be — as they are now — grateful, but they may also be a little contemptuous, and why not? Those workers are not the stars of the university show. 

So who, if anyone, should worry about this state of affairs and its reinforcement under a new regime of MOOCs? University administrators don’t, and tenured professors could, but — if the history that got us here is any guide — mostly won’t. Contingent academic faculty care tremendously, but it’s clear how much we care about that. That leaves students. They ought to care very much, because of what the proliferation of that class of invisible care workers shows about how much universities actually care about student work.

Universities quietly maintain the fiction that student work is mostly evaluated by people in a structural position to assess it both independently and generously. Independently, because they are tenured: when they call good work good and bad work bad, they do so because their dispassionate judgments have no bearing on their continued employment.  Generously, because they themselves enjoy consolations of time, resources, and respect that redound to their evaluative practice: they sit in quiet private offices, attentively marking a reasonable volume of student work, and have no fundamental reasons to resent the students they teach nor the institutions which employ them. Those “in the know” — graduate programs, professional schools, prestigious employers — appropriately discount educational credentials produced under the actually existing conditions of most academic work. By contrast, the more universities depend on such labour the more careful they are to make sure most students and much of the public do not understand (to use Bousquet’s apt phrasing) how the university works.

MOOC promoters, by shining such a bright light on their stellar 2%, are performing the same sleight of hand as universities, but far more brazenly: pay no attention, please, to the man (or as is far more likely, those women) behind the curtain. Figuring teaching as performance asks grownups who know better to play a game of “let’s pretend.” Let’s pretend that the largest part of teaching is showmanship rather than care work; let’s pretend learning is all about showering attention on what goes out from the teacher rather than devoting attention to what comes in from the students. The fact that the whole charade hasn’t fallen apart already – that the New York Times instead reports on the shameless mantra to double down on it – is a testimony to what fine, but what thankless, work the university league of care workers is doing, much as their counterparts do for the rest of society. The very young, the very old, and the very dependent are rarely in a position to protest the conditions of work of their caregivers and what those conditions reveal about their own social value. Students, though, are. If they don’t, it’s pretty clear at this point that no one else who can make a difference will.


Michael Bérubé, “From the President: Among the Majority.” January 2012. Modern Language Association website.

Marc Bousquet, How the University Works (NYU Press, 2008), chapter 1, “Your Problem is My Problem.”

Laura Pappano, “The Year of the Mooc.” New York Times. 2 November 2012.

Martha S. West and John W. Curtis. AAUP Faculty Gender Equity Indicators 2006.

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8 Responses to Who Cares? MOOCs, CAS:T, Care Work, Student Evaluations and the Work of Evaluating Students

  1. Laura Gibbs says:

    What an EXCELLENT article – thank you so much for putting things so clearly here. I have shared it over at Google+ and am very glad to learn about your blog. Much appreciated!!!
    (I am a very happy teacher of NON-massive online courses…)

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    A thoughtful discussion of contingent, gendered academic labor in the MOOC model: the pervasive devaluation of “care work” done by the powerless, especially when on behalf of other powerless groups, their social and economic counterparts “rarely in a position to protest.” Ultimately, anthropologist Kathleen Lowrey calls on students who are in a better position to protest, noting, ” If they don’t, it’s pretty clear at this point that no one else who can make a difference will.”

  3. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    Dear Laura — Many thanks! I just read a plug for your work by Jason Baird Jackson (reminded me I should check his blog more often!) and it looks like terrific stuff. Clearly the problem is not online courses per se, but the idea that teaching and learning are infinitely “scaleable”.

    I should clarify — this is not actually my blog, but one dedicated to issues affecting the Faculty of Arts at my institution, the University of Alberta. Various faculty members like me have “guest blogged” here, but it is primarily administered by my Arts colleague Carolyn Sale, from English and Film Studies, who has also authored many posts here.

    Anyway, much of what goes on at the U of A will surely sound familiar to someone at another Prairie / Plains Public Uni like U Oklahoma (even one across the border) and vice-versa! Glad for the connection 🙂

    • Laura Gibbs says:

      I wish we had a blogging platform like this for my school – I poked around and found other good posts here and have gladly subscribed! And Jason is such a great guy – he was at Oklahoma before he moved on to Indiana, and all the things he is doing with open access, open folklore, etc. are just fantastic. Anyway, thanks again for this great blog post – it is a really important contribution to the MOOC discussion and I haven’t seen this constellation of ideas expressed so clearly and forcefully elsewhere. Now we will just have to see if we can make a difference by insisting on this dimension of the discussion!!!

      • Kathleen Lowrey says:

        I agree with you — I love Jason’s approach to OA, and am glad to learn of the projects you have underway on that front. The discussion of MOOCs, Open Access, and the like really does need to move in some new directions.

  4. darthvadersmom says:

    Shared on Facebook. Terrific article. Thank you.

  5. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    Thanks very much!

  6. Rolin Moe says:

    There is a lot of truth to your argument, stuff really worth exploring. If MOOCs are supposed to be the “Best Professors,” we need a rationale for what “Best Professor” means, and your argument that adjuncts are more pedagogically-minded than tenured profs deserves some thought. The gender critique is also topical and important to consider.

    Your use of the Udacity quote regarding 98% of professors is not a proper contextual quotation, nor is it representative of how MOOC professors are chosen. Udacity is a for-profit company operating independently from universities (though they do have a partnership with San Jose State University to develop three courses). Their pool of teachers is diverse, at least in regard to higher education experience. Some are tenured professors, some are people with only a B.A. There are two women teaching Udacity courses, one of whom is an adjunct at SJSU. While I don’t know the intricacies of their hiring practices, a bit of research shows it to be an open call, just like any job where someone is applying externally. In that realm, 98% rejection is not at all uncommon. As for MOOCs more traditionally aligned to higher education, such as Coursera or EdX, professors are chosen through a nomination process. Now, I doubt adjuncts are a part of that world, certainly, but that is an argument to be made agains the specific institutions, and not the MOOCs.

    This is not to say that MOOC criticism is unwarranted; not at all. MOOCs need to be held to the greatest of scrutiny. Why are only 2 of the 22 Udacity courses taught by women, yet the number of female assistants in classes is close to 50%? What educational training to MOOC instructors have: online, face-to-face, any at all? What is instruction if there is no two-way communication opportunity for students to interact with professors, and if knowledge is constructed (which is the prevailing theory of the day), how does it make sense for a student to interact with an assistant who is not setting the dominant knowledge ideology? You do have a great start here, but I feel like basing it on the 98% quote is disingenuous.

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