In Frank Capra’s 1941 classic Meet John Doe, Barbara Stanwyck plays a newspaper reporter who’s about to get fired. For her final column, she makes up a letter by John Doe, a fictional unemployed person, threatening suicide on Christmas Eve. When the letter attracts intense public interest, Stanwyck and her editor hire a bum played by Gary Cooper to assume the role of John Doe. Cooper, playing John Doe, becomes famous enough to give radio speeches at $100 a pop, all penned by Stanwyck.
Joining Cooper in his odyssey is another bum played by Walter Brennan. At one point, in a fancy hotel suite, he unleashes one of the key speeches of the movie, the kind of speech that makes you wonder whether Frank Capra was actually a closet leftist:
“Then you get a hold of some dough and what happens? All those nice, sweet lovable people become heelots. A lot of heels! They begin creeping up on you, trying to sell you something. They get long claws and they get a stranglehold on you. And you squirm and you duck and you holler and you try to push ‘em away but you haven’t got a chance. They got you. First thing you know, you own things. The car, for instance. Now your life is messed up with a lot more stuff. You get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and court rooms and lawyers and fines and a million and one other things. And what happens? You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You gotta have money to pay for all those things.”
When Cooper tries to go back to his free and happy life, his editor tracks him down and forces him to continue giving Stanwyck’s cheery speeches in support of his aspiring Huey Long-like political career. At the end of the movie, Cooper himself contemplates actually committing suicide.*
I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few superprofessors don’t feel the same way after reading this article in Slate. Commercial MOOC providers, being heelots of the first order, are already considering replacing their superprofessors with Hollywood actors:
“From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX, who was until recently a computer-science professor at MIT. “So just imagine, maybe we get Matt Damon to teach Thévenin’s theorem,” he added, referring to a concept that Agarwal covers in a MOOC he teaches on circuits and electronics. “I think students would enjoy that more than taking it from Agarwal.”
Assuming Matt Damon is too expensive, the Lords of MOOC Creation can always replace their superprofessors with cheaper-but-more-telegenic lecturers, grad students or even adjuncts. Something like that is already happening, as the same Slate article describes:
One for-profit MOOC producer, Udacity, already brings in camera-friendly staff members to appear with professors in lecture videos. One example is an introduction to psychology course developed earlier this year in partnership with San Jose State University. It had three instructors: Gregory J. Feist, an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University, who has been teaching for more than 25 years and who wrote a popular textbook on the subject; Susan Snycerski, a lecturer at the university who has taught for 15 years; and Lauren Castellano, a Udacity employee who recently finished a master’s in psychology from the university, advised by Feist.
In the course’s opening lecture, the three stand together and go over the ground rules, but after that, Castellano takes the lead on camera. Feist and Snycerski make regular appearances throughout the 16 lessons, but often only briefly, to explain a concept or two, or to be part of a demonstration or skit with Castellano.
Does it bother the more-experienced professors that they get less screen time than their younger colleague? “That’s a Udacity decision,” said Feist. “They’ve discovered that it works well if you have these younger people doing most of the instruction, but in fact the content is coming from professors. They wanted someone who students can identify with.”
Commercial MOOC providers like Udacity are primarily interested in attracting eyeballs that they can eventually monetize. Unfortunately, education isn’t sexy unless it has a sexy spokesperson. If you don’t want to turn off students with all that nasty reading, why would you want to turn them off by having an old, unattractive person take over their computer screen for huge chunks of time?
While the “I’m not a real professor, I just play one on the Internet” jokes practically write themselves, there’s still a serious point to be made here. Educational goals will inevitably fall by the wayside when heelots have cars to pay for and mortgages to service. More importantly, the resources that pay for their cars and mortgages could be going to students or, God forbid, professors. This includes adjunct professors who currently live lives comparable to Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in Meet John Doe.
Yet I still pity the poor superprofessor. While many of them may have wanted to be rock stars with followings like John Doe, what the heelots giveth, the heelots can taketh away. Those responsible for getting you groupies can always turn the spotlight on someone else, whether that person happens to be qualified to do your job or not. Indeed, one might argue that this is the natural outcome of separating content delivery from actual teaching. I simply expected that it would be the academic lumpenproletariat who would feel the effects of that decision first, long before the superprofessors did.
One might also argue that this is the natural outcome of introducing commercial values into higher education. I actually wouldn’t go that far. It’s more like the natural outcome of allowing commercial values to dominate higher education above all other things. While we can never go back to a non-existent free and happy time when professors were only in it for the sake of education, at least we can go back to a free and happy time before administrators and the people who want to sell them expensive edtech treated disruption like a positive good, no matter how many people it hurts in the process.
In other words, it’s not the MOOCs that are the problem here. It’s the heelots who are running them.
*As my memory of Frank Capra films other than It’s a Wonderful Life is far from perfect, I used both the IMDb and Wikipedia entries for Meet John Doe to help write this summary. The quote is my (probably bad) transcription of the video at top.
Jonathan Rees is a professor of history at Colorado State University at Pueblo. This essay originally appeared on his blog.