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I'm an Associate Professor of English Education. My time is spent preparing to teach, teaching, reading, writing, working with pre-service and practicing teachers, serving on various committees, and trying to keep my office from over flowing into the hallway.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Lessons from Apple's Investment in Human Capital

Apple released a list of their suppliers for the first time. The Mashable article offers links to the company's 2012 business report and the list of 97% of their suppliers. The more than 150 companies, including Foxconn, have some pretty significant labor violation numbers. Perhaps moving in the right direction, Apple has joined the Fair Labor Organization. As many articles, blogs, and comments have pointed out, Apple is not the only one involved in the exploitation of the people of China. The comments on the Mashable article itself are crediting Tim Cook for the shift toward more transparency; whereas, the Facebook comments are looking at Daisey's monologue as the catalyst.


 "Human capital" is an unpleasant term to me, but I deal with the terms "cultural capital," "social capital," "linguistic capital," and "financial capital" regularly. I am human capital to someone; anyone who works producing goods and providing services for the human economy is being defined as human capital by someone. It makes me most  uncomfortable to think of myself as movable pawn, a cog in a machine, dispensable.


After I finished my post last night I read about a worker in the U.S. who committed suicide: a Chicago teacher. Mary Thorson, a 32 year old elementary school P.E. teacher and 8 year Army reservist, walked in front of a truck on a busy interstate on Thankgiving Day. In her car, she left a six page note that detailed the plight of the children in the district and the lack of resources and leadership to help them. Bullying from administration has been linked to this suicide. At a December 6th meeting, teachers were given opportunity to comment on Ms. Thorson's death:
      "People are afraid," Lena Watts-Drake, president of the District 169 teachers union, told 
       the board.  Other teachers in the crowd murmured "uh-huh" and nodded in agreement. 
       Jimerson said at the meeting  that teacher get chastised for taking sick days and are 
       worried they will lose their jobs if they speak up.  In an interview later, Jimerson said 
       some teachers are cornered and criticized by district administrators in hallways. Two 
       current teachers and one former teacher, who did not want to be named for fear of 
       retribution, made similar statements and agreed with Jimerson's description of the 
       atmosphere.
So, no one likes to feel like human capital, whether it's the person who teaches your children or the person who makes your iPod. 
Nicholas Kristof has the most emailed Op-ed piece on the NYTimes this week: The Value of Teachers. This article, based on the results of a Harvard study titled The long term impacts of teachers: Teacher value-added and student outcomes in adulthood, praises the impact of excellent teachers on students. Kristof highlights that the study shows "that parents should pay a bad teacher $100,000 to retire (assuming the replacement is of average quality) because a weak teacher holds children back so much."  To unpack this statement would take another post, but it fits with the idea that we are all dispensable in the eyes of the "a tough-minded business investment."  When teacher's are labeled "good" and "bad" based on standardized tests, our human capital quotient becomes even more unsavory.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Robots aren't making your technology


The BBC is reporting "Disruption at Beijing store on iPhone 4S launch"
After you read this story, are you asking yourself, "Why are they throwing eggs and yelling 'liar'?" I was. So was the USA Today brief parodying a conversation with Siri:
     "Siri, why would a crowd of 500 Chinese throw eggs at Apple's main store in Beijing?"
     "Because the store didn't open at 7 a.m. to begin selling the new iPhone 4S."
But the breaking Bloomberg piece seems to get at the heart of the matter: no supply for an overwhelming demand. Imagine the media firestorm if people across the U.S. waited out in the cold all night (sub-freezing temperatures) to buy a product made in their own country, only to find out that you weren't one of the lucky 1000. In our product-hungry culture that would make the news. To add to the irony, this coveted product was probably made by some of the potential consumers themselves or perhaps the relatives of those who make the 4S. However, at $980 and with only 3 carriers in the entire country of almost 1.4 billion, it's unlikely that the iPhone is affordable and sustainable for many Chinese people right now.
 In other "Where does my technology come from?" news--Today, "Foxconn Resloves a Dispute with Some Workers in China." Apparently, out of the 150 potential suicide victims at the Wuhan plant, 45 resigned, and the rest were given pay raises.
















Then there was this:
     "The company has also begun a huge program to invest in robots and to move some of its
     production to the central and western parts of China, where labor is less costly and more
     abundant. The company says the new locations also allow migrant workers to live closer to
     their hometowns."

I remembered Mike Daisey's comment from Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory about how he envisioned where his tech products originated: robots in a factory piecing together his iPads, xBoxes, and Kindles. Admittedly, I held this B-movie induced vision of automation in my head as well. But that's Hollywood. In the Wuhan plant alone there are 39,000 people working many more hours a day than most of us could ever imagine spending in our workplaces.
Perhaps on some levels similar to the reasoning behind the stampedes at Walmart on Black Friday, the people of China want to actually be able to buy the product their country's factories make. I'd throw eggs, too.

Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory | This American Life




I promise I hadn't listened to this week's episode of This American Life when I posted yesterday. The news story is what prompted my long neglected return to my blog. However, I now see the importance of maintaining a thread for what I find online and in mind.


The news story coupled with the podcast have me thinking about using these in my comp class as an issue-driven discussion and writing exercise. As Daisey notes, few people stop to think about who makes their technology. Daisey's counterargument to Kristof's defense of sweatshops, that the U.S. sold manufacturing jobs out of this country without the workers' rights that went along with them, seems to bear out in the current global market.


I do have to comment on Ira Glass's insistence that they fact check because Daisey wasn't a journalist. He did, however, seem to have quite a concise interview protocol. Interviewing 100 people is pretty significant, especially for qualitative design. I guess he didn't try to record it, though he should have since he had his iPhone.


Perhaps this might be the way to introduce the "social justice with your discipline project." In many ways an issue like this transcends disciplines, as those who are in technology, education, business, and the human and social sciences all have a stake in 1) people who create and consume, 2)the current and future state of our global workforce, and 3) developments in technology. By providing an example such as this, I scaffold the students to find their own social justice issues within their fields. I do want to be aware to focus on the those who are actively seeking to solve the problem, such as the SACOM mentioned in the TAL piece. Awareness without action is demoralizing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Would you die for your cell phone?

"Did 300 Workers at an Xbox 360 Factory Threaten Mass Suicide?"
What if it is true? What if 300 workers are so upset, so distraught over the working conditions, that they are willing to take their own lives? What then should we, as consumers of these products, begin to do in response?
When I heard last year that a Foxconn worker jumped to his death, I was not only deeply saddened, but confused. His death came on the heels of several self-immolations in the Middle East, but this man at Foxconn killed himself perhaps because his employer would not listen to him and his coworkers. The company he worked for produced a product that the world, particularly the U.S., wanted so badly that he and his coworkers worked in conditions so untenable that he would rather die, at work, than face another day.
I am not a stranger to suicide, but I have experienced the loss of loved ones through suicide from a Western perspective. Self-immolation and mass suicide for workers' rights are difficult for me wrap my mind around. Considering the implications of rampant consumerism is not difficult, however. With the impending release of the iPad 3, I am wondering just how much better this new product is going to be. Is it worth hundreds of workers being pushed to the brink of annihilation? Will it be that much fun for me, and will I even consider these workers when or if I use it?
What does this post have to do with education? What is so critical about a suicide pact at a plant in China that manufactures Xboxes and iPads? Not much, unless I ask myself how much I really need that next new thing. Not much, unless I and my students question where that cell phone or laptop we can't part with came from; whose hands made it and what might they have been thinking when they did. Not much, unless I help humanize an otherwise inhumane exchange of goods and services.