A grassroots counter-MOOC, Brooklyn artisanal style

At a moment when the most discussed disruption in higher education is the anonymous, asynchronous learning of massive open online courses, a separate disruption — one that brings small-scale seminars out of the university and into the public sphere — is thriving in Brooklyn. For the next six weeks, I’ll be spending my evenings discussing feminist theory in a sci-fi bookshop tucked away in an eerily deserted corner of DUMBO. Sharing in the discussion are women from a range of backgrounds — some are artists and writers, some have PhDs or other grad school experience, some are lawyers, some are in publishing. We’ve had just one session so far, and I can tell that the class will be an interesting twist on a grad seminar — the dense, complex readings will be there (in manageable doses — after all, we’ve all got day jobs), as will the conversation and debate of a successful seminar, but without the pressure (or posturing) that often accompanies the grad school experience.

The class is part of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, a collaborative of grad students and recent PhDs who are working to make the walls of the university a bit more permeable. The model is interesting to me for a few reasons.

First, the classes are good for the students. While NYC has an abundance of opportunities for people seeking to learn something new — lectures, readings, and workshops, as well as playful events like Nerd Nite and Secret Science Club — there aren’t a whole lot of options that are sustained over multiple weeks, and even fewer that are seminar-based, outside of actual university courses. The students get the benefits of participating in a small, focused, rigorous class, with smart and thoughtful faculty and peers. It’s not particularly cheap, but it’s a lot less costly than a university course would be — and it’s also more fun.

Second, it seems like a potentially great thing for the faculty involved. This factor is particularly interesting to me as so much of my focus lately has been on the career paths that follow graduate education. A class of this nature would be fun to teach, and if you’re working as an adjunct or on a teaching assistantship, you might come out just as well financially. (I’m speculating here, with my only data point being the tuition rate, though I’d imagine they operate with a pretty low overhead. Still, as far as I can tell, most of the faculty do teach regular courses at other universities in the city.) It’s risky, to be sure, but they’ve been in business for a few terms now, and they’ve been getting some great press and strong partnerships.

It makes me wonder: if the model grew, and enough of these kinds of collaboratives popped up and provided an alternative to adjuncting that was both financially and substantively appealing, might it pressure universities to improve the pay, benefits, and treatment of adjuncts? That’s admittedly a pretty big leap (I could go down a deep rabbit hole about supply and demand, which most people reading here have probably already thought about quite a lot anyway). Still, I love that this group is hacking the academy in a way that’s good both for learners and for instructors, and that retains one of the best aspects of being a student: learning in a community.