Monthly Archives: February 2013

asecs president julie candler hayes on “disrupting disruption”

[When I saw Julie Candler Hayes’s President’s Column (in the winter ASECS news circular (January 2013)), I thought it might spur some response from the readers of the Long 18th.  So, with her permission, I’m posting it here, in the hopes that we can begin a discussion about the future of 18th century studies and the historical literary specialties in the contemporary university.  Julie and I are particularly interested in hearing how ASECS could further this conversation at future meetings. So what are our options in this environment for higher ed?  Thanks, DM]


Disrupting Disruption

In my fall column, I promised that I’d use this space as a chance to discuss some of the recent writing on some of the issues facing higher education. I (finally) read one of the most-discussed higher ed books of recent years—at least among administrators—Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring’s The Innovative University (2011). Of all the current books, this one has probably filtered the furthest into the national conversation, whether or not people read it, through the proliferation of Christensen’s term “disruptive innovation,” coined in his earlier work on corporate culture. (For a more extended overview, see Christensen’s 2011 white paper, “Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education.

In a nutshell, Christensen’s model distinguishes between “sustaining innovation” that industries implement to improve high-cost products and maintain their market dominance, and “disruptive innovation” that allows a savvy competitor to introduce a low-cost alternative. The low-cost alternative may not have all the desirable qualities of the original, but if effective, it will come to dominate the market, add sustaining innovations of its own, and replace the older product. Translated to higher education, the key disruptor in Christensen’s view has been the advent of for-profit online degree programs. It’s worth noting that The Innovative University underscores the need for other changes, such as curricular reforms that support timely degree completion and career preparedness, improved advising and student support systems, greater interdisciplinary, more undergraduate research, an end to competitive athletics, and an expansion of capacity (through both online learning and year-round operation) to decrease the need for selectivity.

I need hardly point out that there is much to criticize in The Innovative University. Christensen’s claim that the for-profits “fund their own operations” rather than rely on state support or philanthropy ignores the fact that the for-profits receive 25% of federal financial aid moneys while enrolling only 10-13% of fulltime students—and have dramatically higher non-completion and loan default rates; his insistence on the low operating cost of the for-profit sector refers blithely to the “low cost” of online adjunct instructors, something we can hardly take lightly amidst current debates over reimagining graduate education, creating new career pathways for PhDs, and reforming the working conditions of contingent faculty, as advocated by the New Faculty Majority and the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.  Indeed, the recent financial and accreditation troubles of one of the leading for-profits, University of Phoenix, may signal that their peak has passed.

That said, Christensen’s account of the challenges facing higher ed is all too accurate, and as the list above suggests, many of his recommendations are important. The “high fee high aid” model that has propelled many institutions both public and private is moving the cost of higher education increasingly beyond the reach of many and is not sustainable in any case. Distance learning has its usefulness, in terms of both revenue and institutional outreach, but if we value the full range of experiences and relationships provided by an immersive residential education, then it’s incumbent on us to be creative in our use of technology, smart in our use of resources, and attentive to the needs of students who trust us to give them the knowledge and skills that they need to go into the world.

At the Vancouver ASECS, a roundtable discussed the question, “Will tomorrow’s university be able to afford the 18th century?” I was optimistic then and I am optimistic now that not only the 18th century, but the full range of humanistic inquiry can thrive in tomorrow’s university, but we need to make that university our project today.

Julie Candler Hayes


[PS: DM here.  If my link to the Markides article in my comment below is not working (my UH library proxy seems to be interfering), here’s a link to the article, which is freely available online. Thanks.]


asecs 2013: initiative for digital humanities, media, and culture workshop, wed. april 3rd

Laura Mandell, of 18thConnect, has asked me to post this announcement for all interested ASECS attendees:

The Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture (IDHMC) will be hosting a special workshop at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Conference (ASECS) to be held in Cleveland this Spring 2013.

Creating a Publishable, Digital Textual Edition

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013
8:30 am – 7:00 pm

For workshop agenda, click here.

To register, click here.

This workshop will be taught and sponsored by 18thConnect. For additional information, please contact Laura Mandell, mandell-at-tamu-dot-edu.


welcome to the university of pret a manger

I think any academic who reads this TNR piece about “emotional labor” at the upscale English coffee/food chain, or the essay that inspired it in the London Review of Books, will recognize the similarity between the weird emotional demands of Pret’s workplace and those placed on faculty, staff, and especially TAs in US institutions of higher education.

Here is a sample of “Pret behaviours” listed on a now-yanked corporate webpage:

Among the 17 things they ‘Don’t Want to See’ is that someone is ‘moody or bad-tempered’, ‘annoys people’, ‘overcomplicates ideas’ or ‘is just here for the money’. The sorts of thing they ‘Do Want to See’ are that you can ‘work at pace’, ‘create a sense of fun’ and are ‘genuinely friendly’. The ‘Pret Perfect’ worker, a fully evolved species, ‘never gives up’, ‘goes out of their way to be helpful’ and ‘has presence’. After a day’s trial, your fellow workers vote on how well you fit the profile; if your performance lacks sparkle, you’re sent home with a few quid.

This could be on an MLA advice column for potential job-seekers, and of course we really do like the idea of genuinely friendly people acting as our doctors, teachers, nurses, policemen, and so forth. And who wouldn’t want to have as a colleague someone who “goes out of their way to be helpful”?

What seems strange to me is the idea that people must be coerced into such “behaviours.” And, of course, I naively thought that one of the ways to create a pleasant environment for one’s customers is not to treat people like complete assholes. So yes, apart from the small group of people who actually get off on the flattering insincerity of upscale bootlicking, I think this approach to management is actually counterproductive for staff and quite unpleasant for customers.  But what do I know?  I may have been served by a succession of cowering baristas for most of my life without even knowing it.

As someone who spends a lot of time reminding faculty and various others not to treat their students like non-humans, I feel a little ambivalent about the way in which the “service mentality” creeps into higher education, whether as the “loving our work” phenomenon so aptly diagnosed by Marc Bousquet, or the strangely schizophrenic attitude of hyper-rich institutions like Harvard towards their highly privileged faculty and students.  The problem is that the “caring for students” in those places is either caught up in superexploitation, as in many if not most public institutions, or in the careful maintenance of a reputation for caring, as at many of richest private institutions.

The tip-off, as we saw in the Harvard cheating debacle that either was or wasn’t a cheating debacle, is that instead of trying to educate all parties (faculty, students, parents, etc.) about the appropriate forms of collaboration either for teaching or learning (remember, a significant contributing factor was the lack of appropriate coordination of TAs), the university simply lowered the boom and silenced everyone about the incident.

From my perspective, one of the missing dimensions to Bousquet’s argument about superexploitation, and one I’d love to see him take up at some point, is why he himself continues to do what he does, or why any of us in higher ed still continue to care about our work, our students, or the consequences of what we do for others.  I think there is some tacit notion of a non-exploitative professionalism buried deep in there, but it’s difficult to disentangle those feelings from what we already know about institutional life and its risks of exploitation.

So what allows us to continue to interact with people, even if we feel that we work within institutions that may not always have ours or our students’ best interests at heart?  To what extent can we maintain a decent relation with others under such circumstances?