Monday, August 22, 2005

Ostensibly saving paper, but really making labor, at a state university

I've written before on this blog using the example of my state's recent years of university budget-cutting to illustrate how public and legislative support for both the quality and quantity of information labor -- and education for future information laborers -- can so easily evaporate or become sidetracked into sensationalist trivia. Here's another good example from a fellow university in our state system. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh this year, professors in the College of Letters and Sciences are now prohibited from handing out paper syllabi in an effort to save pennies:

In making cuts, Zimmerman says, the college tries to protect its academic mission and the syllabus policy would never have been adopted if anyone thought it would hurt students. He adds that many professors elsewhere have already stopped handing out syllabuses. “A good number of people we’ve spoken to have never even seen a hard copy of a syllabus,” he says.

From an educational perspective, the policy could help students if they go to professors’ Web sites before classes start, and either read or print out a copy. “If they think about class before they show up the first day, it might enhance student learning,” he says.

The bait and switch here is typical of much writing on the "effects" of cyberspace on material labor practices -- an assumption that one can unproblematically replace the other. "Telecommuting" replaces travel using automobiles, "telemedecine" replaces rural health care clinics, "distance education" replaces the construction of pesky brick-and-mortar classrooms, and of course Google replaces the public library. Right? But such facile comparison hides the complexities of virtual and material practices.

With regard to syllabi, we need to think of them not simply as equivalent material artifacts where one has physical costs and one is virtually free, but artifacts that are produced and used in particular ways for particular purposes. For example, I'm a professor at a big state university who prints out paper syllabi for all of his students on the first day of class -- whether that class has 500 students or 5 students. I believe students will be able to follow along with my explanation of the class purpose, method, and details better with a physical piece of paper before them. I believe they will be able to better decide whether to take my class if they have that piece of paper to regard over dinner that night. And I believe that if they take my class, that piece of paper will serve as a valuable reminder of what they learned later. I've kept paper syllabi from classes I took two decades ago in college.

Yet at the same time the printout of my class syllabus comes directly from the website I create for my class. The printout has the URL of the website prominently displayed. I advise and expect my students to visit the "live" class web site weekly in case something changes or in case I have good information to add. Both informational artifacts serve a different purpose in education, and have different space/time roles. Together they enhance each other.

They both have different production and labor dynamics as well. The paper syllabus, presented on the first day, forces me, the instructor, to have my course worked out in detail weeks beforehand. The web syllabus allows me to be dynamic in my educational practices -- to a degree. I know the students have the original printout and I restrain myself from deviating too much from my original plan. Plus, the paper syllabus can be printed out "in batch" at very low capital and labor and spatial/temporal costs, in a centralized, specialized copy center (reaping economies of scale and expertise). If I had all my own students print their own syllabi, it would take a myriad of decentralized printers, all of which need service, toner, electricity, and attention. I would be trading off my own brief labor and the paid labor of professional printing staff for the much more time-consuming, unpaid labor of my students, plus the largely invisible but costly labor of network printer support staff.

Even when one actually counts the dollars and cents, the policy doesn't add up:

The college never figured out the exact cost of printing syllabuses, he says. But copies cost the college about 2 cents a page, nearly all of the university’s 11,000 students take at least some classes in the college, and syllabuses run from a page to 15 pages.

My back-of-the-envelope estimate shows that if each of these students took 2 L&S classes with a syllabus of 10 pages each, the total cost per semester would be $4,400. That's about the cost of ten distributed printers -- which will likely break down frequently -- or perhaps one-tenth the annual salary of one service person to keep those printers in working order. I'd take the copying if I were truly interested in cost-cutting.

This whole issue -- and so far my whole response to it -- has been over a triviality which distracts the public, the legislature, the university staff, and the students from the real issue:

Zimmerman says that the Wisconsin system’s budget “has been cut relentlessly” and that deans have no choice but to try to save every penny. Zimmerman has been dean for 14 years, and his college’s budget (about $18.5 million) is down from where it was when he started. Not a single unit in his college is receiving more money now than when he started, despite inflation generally and huge increases in costs such as scientific equipment.

Education is being sacrificed here to other state priorities -- and private profits -- over a decades-long term, and we're arguing over two-cent copies, blaming professors who want to educate their students in the most effective way they know how. Incredible.

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