Politics Of Knowledge
If you asked me to describe the historical forces that shape the movement to share eductional resources openly, I probably would have gone back to the 90’s and started with the emergence in earnest of distance learning technologies. The moment that teaching materials could be replicated and distributed to a nearly limitless audience at almost zero marginal cost was the moment when the debate over the value and ownership of teaching materials really heated up. Before then, the queston of who owned things like syllibi and lecture notes was in many ways–forgive me–academic. Once these things could be loaded into course management systems and offered to the whole world at once (with the assumtion that low-wage adjuncts or grad students could “provide feedback” to all the students), these materials came to bee seen as having market value, and the ownership question became an economic matter.
What I would have missed in this, which is captured brilliantly by Richard Ohmann in his collection of essays, Politics of Knowledge, is the labor conditions into which this debate emerged. In the 2002 essay “What’s happening to the University and the Professions?”, he traces the decline since about 1970 of the professoriate in American schools and the growth of what he calls the “casual labor force” of teaching assistants, floating A.B.D.’s and rejected PhD’s that have taken on an increased load of the teaching at the university level. The financial pressures that drove colleges to this change are real, and without taking sides (for the moment anyway), it’s simply worthwhile to remember that the debate over ownership of materials emerged during a time when professional opportunities were diminishing for those interested in academic careers, and many who thought they would end up in tenured positions with time and energy to conduct reseach ended up with more marginal carreers as adjunct instructors with heavy teaching burdens at low wages and with little time to spend on their own academic or creative interests.
When I was creating the distance learning program at Emerson, the decision to have the instuctors develop materials on their own and then license use of those materials was primarily a financial one; we simply didn’t have the budget to pay for the creation of the materials. But it was also a political one, a reaction to the labor conditions above. The Division of Continuing Education at Emerson hired on a part-time basis exclusively, so almost all of the faculty I worked with fell into the category of “casual labor.” While many were working professionals who taught at night for extra income, many–especially the writing instructors–were people who twenty or thirty years ago might have been tenure track professors instead of adjuncts. Having been already so marginalized, few would be willing to cede ownership of the only intellectual property most had the time or energy to create–their teaching materials. Settling on a price for this would have been impossible.
What’s facinating about open sharing in this context is how it resolves these tensions. Instructors end up as the undisputed owners of their teaching materials, and also get the professional boost of participating in the “gift economy” that underpins research publication. (See Corynne McSherry’s wonderful Who Owns Academic Work?” for more on this.) At MIT, this has proven an equally attractive proposition to both tenure-track professors and the various non-tenured instructors. The schools also (should) realize many of the benefits that MIT has, and it certianly clears up the whole “Who owns what?” debate. I’ll be watching OCW’s at institutions with larger adjunct populations to see how this plays out.