While the forces shaping our current understanding of labor within an academic context are complicated and interlocking, in this essay, I want to examine a range of possibilities that technology and the shift to a digital economy present to feminist scholarly practice. From the tools of writing to the place of learning—to the very boundary of authorship itself—the reconfiguration of academic work has produced both utopian and apocalyptic proclamations from all points on the political spectrum. If, as bell hooks notes, “[o]ne of the most powerful counter-hegemonic narratives that can lead us down the path of critical consciousness is the idea of democracy,” how can we as feminist scholars intervene to ensure that everyone has a voice and is empowered in this emerging educational landscape?1 As always, there are powerful financial interests at stake, but notions of left and right, democracy and oppression, are increasingly muddled by an economy that touts openness and accessibility through the tools of digital technology while simultaneously featuring an ever-growing concentration of wealth and control over resources. [End Page 156]
The recent discussions of massive open online courses (MOOCs) serve as an exemplary case in point, where issues of affordability and quality seem to cross the liberal and conservative divides. The language of class bias and privilege at times seems everywhere and nowhere, while almost universally the stated objective is a more educated populace and in turn a more democratic culture (nationally and internationally). Clay Shirky rightly points out the shocking and rising disparity between ever-increasing tuition for students and ever-falling income for graduates, and Ian Bogost correctly targets the defunding and privatization of education as the key culprit in this burgeoning gap.2 Moreover, given the diminishing—and highly unlikely to return—investment in public education, it is particularly appalling to see supposedly “free” MOOCs siphoning away large sums of state funding, especially when we know that these are venture capital–driven enterprises.3 Suddenly, free and open seem troubled terminology, and online education yet another dubious revolution.
My interest here in bringing up MOOCs is not to resolve this heated and very much in-process debate on their merits or failures, but to ask us to step back from our technological essentialism (on both sides of the divide) and consider how we might engage with “online education” in a much more diverse and productive way. As someone who has been teaching in hybrid, fully online, and face-to-face (F2F) contexts since 2008, I have seen enormous pedagogical value in online education’s possibilities. This was something that I had not expected to experience. I had entered the online education world as somewhat of a skeptic, especially as our department chair at the time was both encouraging and demeaning of the activity—“it’s just a bunch of lectures and quizzes.” This criticism of online structure—which is now identical to the standard attacks on MOOCs—is only partially and sometimes correct, depending on the circumstances. There is nothing about an online class that requires the structure of “lectures and quizzes,” and indeed there is nothing that prevents an F2F class from adopting precisely the same organization.
As Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk note in their pointed and thoughtful critique of MOOCs, “For Whom Is College Being Revinvented?,” a key problem is not so much technology in itself but the industrialized context of contemporary education that produces a two-tiered system of elites and others, which an online component (especially MOOCs) can facilitate and, indeed, exacerbate. That the division between these two domains is founded on class dynamics is no surprise, and Carlson and Blumenstyk have no illusions that MOOCs are there to democratize as much as to expand and entrench the gaps in resources and opportunities already in place. As they argue:
Part of the problem is that the two-tiered system that Mr. Aoun fretted about is already here—a system based in part on the education and income of parents, says Robert Archibald, an economics professor at the College of William [End Page 157...