Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Academic Busking

You know, as universities rush to get on the distance-learning bandwagon, one may legitimately ask what exactly the universities themselves contribute (besides brand prestige) to non-credit programs like edX. When working as an adjunct, I was paid the equivalent of one student's tuition, for a 90-seat class. For the same cost, any one of those students could hired me directly and had my undivided attention. The only value the university added was a room, bookkeeping, and credit towards a degree, for which it took a ~98.9% cut. Even pimps and record labels don't take that much.

Indeed, musicians can sometimes make more playing on street corners than they could if they "made it big," once the record company takes it's share. Why not academic busking? Sure, it's not practical for an scholar to, y'know, run out to the local stoa or peripatos and start teaching at the crowd. But if there is a demand for online, no-credit lectures, then why shouldn't the ones actually producing the content be the ones controlling, and yes, profiting from it? Why not cut out the middle man and provide courses directly to students?

There seem to be a couple of projects out there with similar ideas. Two for-profit companies, Udemy and Straighterline's Professor Direct, allow professors to create their own course content and set their own price for online courses. Of the two, Udemy seems the most scholar-friendly (it allows for free courses, while Straighterline sets a $49 minimum). But these are still, ultimately, commercial companies.

My vision of academic busking would work more like open-source software, crowdfunding, or voluntary pricing for music, where the students have some degree of choice about whether or how much they pay. Contrary to free-market dogma, these models actually seem to work, if one can drum up enough interest. Perhaps one could provide a "premium" service, where students get individual attention, while the basic content is free.

(I suspect I'm going to turn this into a paper proposal for the SBL's "Blogger and Online Publication" group.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


I'm unsure why I have been hesitant to delve into the world of Biblioblogging. It certainly seems to combine two of my major interests: biblical studies and technology. Maybe I've got a hidden traditionalist streak, or maybe I worried about damaging my job prospects by being too open and visible. I'm not a...typical Bible scholar, and in academic situations, I often feel the need to present myself as especially "serious" and "professional," in order to compensate for my unusual appearance and background.

Because, much to my chagrin, I have learned that a great deal of scholarly success is social. It's about who you know, who invites you to what committees, who asks you to contribute to a book, and who on the search committee recognizes your name. And this is really not my strong suit. Especially face-to-face. It's an introvert thing. I am more comfortable online, where I can take time to think about what I want to say. But I'm also more prone to be myself. My strange, caustic, blasphemous self. I need to balance the risk of becoming notorious with the advantages of making connections with other scholars online.

And as I continue to beat my head against the academic job market, and watch cash-strapped universities put revenue streams before pedagogy, I have to wonder how much life is left in "traditional" academia. It may be time to start embracing new paradigms. Instead of fighting the change until there is no choice, then scrambling for slapdash solutions (as has been the case with copyright), it may be time to proactively start establishing new standards that take into account the unique qualities of the internet.

For better or for worse, the barriers to entrance to the internet are not as high as those in academia. Anyone can start a blog, and people with...questionable credentials can cultivate some amount of recognition, even legitimacy, by sheer persistence and force of will. *coughjimwestcough* This may chafe those of us who jumped through all the hoops to do it the old fashioned way, but it also may open the doors for scholars who have something to contribute, but due to circumstance, geography, or the simply absurd cost of education today, have not been able earn an advanced degree. Novice scholars can interact with more experienced ones without mobbing them at conferences. And for all the potential pitfalls presented by the lack of vetting and peer-review, Bibliobloggers have shown themselves capable of providing meaningful feedback to breakthroughs in "legitimate" scholarship, sometimes before the "legitimate" papers go to press.

I have wasted a tremendous amount of time on Facebook, looking at cute cats and having superficial interactions. I've cancelled my account, and I hope to devote some of that energy to sharing my work and connecting with people who share my scholarly interests. I don't know how much original content I will have for this immediately (beyond kvetching about the academic job market), but it is a beginning.