Friday, December 2, 2011

Keeping up with the Times

Just a quick comment on this piece on "The Dwindling Power of a College Degree," which appeared in the NYT Sunday Magazine for November 27:

Computers have hurt workers outside factories too. Picture the advertising agency in “Mad Men,” and think about the abundance of people who were hired to do jobs that are now handled electronically by small machines. Countless secretaries were replaced by word processing, voice mail, e-mail and scheduling software; accounting staff by Excel; people in the art department by desktop design programs. This is also true of trades like plumbing and carpentry, in which new technologies replaced a bunch of people who most likely stood around helping measure things and making sure everything worked correctly.

As a result, the people whose jobs remained valuable in that “Mad Men” office were then freed up to do more valuable things. A talented art director could produce more work more quickly with InDesign. A bright accountant could spend more time thinking of new ways to make and save money, rather than spending endless hours punching numbers into an adding machine. Global trade works much the same way. It’s horrible news for a textile factory worker in North Carolina, but it may be great for a fashion designer in New York.

Has it, in fact, been great for that art director and accountant and fashion designer? Or, in addition to producing more work quickly, thinking of new ways to make and save money, and so on, are these workers not also having to take on paperwork, maintain correspondences by voice and e-mail, and schedule meetings and what not via Outlook? The technologies do not do the work on their own - they still require people to run them. Except that those people are no longer dedicated staff that (in my opinion, more efficiently) manages the operations of a workplace.

In the workplace of higher ed, I recently heard from a colleague that how a few of her now-approaching-emeritus faculty member typically handled attendance (until quite recently) was that they circulated a sheet of paper asking students to sign in - then passed along the sheets to their full-time department secretary to keep track of student absences! So that the older faculty members could not understand how and why younger faculty members complained that they could not "count" attendance in their grading. Hint: Because it takes a lot of time to keep track of student attendance. Time that younger faculty members do not necessarily have b/c we have absorbed a lot of workplace operational work ourselves... (Not to mention whether or not it is even appropriate to ask department secretaries to do work like this...)

Here is what I found a bit frightening:

A general guideline these days is that people are rewarded when they can do things that take trained judgment and skill — things, in other words, that can’t be done by computers or lower-wage workers in other countries. Money now flows around the world so quickly, and technology changes so fast, that people who thought they were in high demand find themselves uprooted.

I think we tenure-track faculty members cannot take for granted that professors will always be needed. (We know that they are not always wanted...)

It is happening already, believe it or not, in K12 schooling. Read this piece, "How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools," from The Nation's November 16 issue.

The new normal sucks.

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