Category Archives: Higher Education

one definition of a “public good”: not just unprofitable, but impossible to profit from . . .

Robert W. McChesney’s Salon piece nails the higher education/journalism analogy, and reveals something that all our talk about “business models” fails to acknowledge:

There is probably no better evidence that journalism is a public good than the fact that none of America’s financial geniuses can figure out how to make money off it. The comparison to education is striking. When manag­ers apply market logic to schools, it fails, because education is a cooperative public service, not a business. Corporatized schools throw underachieving, hard-to-teach kids overboard, discontinue expensive programs, bombard stu­dents with endless tests, and then attack teacher salaries and unions as the main impediment to “success.” No one has ever made profits doing qual­ity education—for-profit education companies seize public funds and make their money by not teaching. In digital news, the same dynamic is producing the same results, and leads to the same conclusion. (h/t Brad DeLong):

This is the extraction economy argument all over again, in which private companies make money by seizing public funds and not performing the now-privatized public serve (e.g., education, public parks, museums, etc.) . It’s a quieter, more plausible-sounding way of denying people the public services they once expected and received, while funneling money towards one’s friends and donors.

In the case of journalism, it has resulted, as McChesney observes, in a relentless attrition of the paid labor force of journalism that once provided the content, even while the quality of the now outsourced product declines to the point where no one would want to spend money on it. The internet’s effect has been to whittle away at the business model that once sustained newspapers (car dealerships and department stores once paid for local news), without leaving anything that could plausibly take their place. We might make a similar observation about all the “disruptive” models of education we’ve been hearing about lately.  How, exactly, does giving away content on the internet lead to the financial health of the institution giving its content away?  Who does end up paying for something that’s supposedly “free”?

It’s also worth noting how much the new online journalism, like the new higher education “business models” rely on massive amounts of “volunteer” labor from underemployed or aspiring laborers, who offer them free content in the hope of “exposure” rather than pay.  (And even if this kind of writing is conceived, like graduate education, as a form of apprenticeship rather than de facto pauperization of the profession, it still suggests the long-term unsustainability of the model).  I’ll leave the last word to writer/editor Teresa Nelson Hayden, who commented in this way on the value of the writing done “for free” in the public sphere:

“The role of journalism in a democracy is a public trust. It is much abused. It is a scandal. Writers aren’t expensive, but they aren’t free. If Atlantic isn’t paying them, someone else is. By not paying its writers, the Atlantic has thrown itself open to manipulation, astroturfing, and other disinformation. The principle you learn in Cinema 101 is that movies don’t film themselves. There’s always someone behind the camera. The same goes for journalism. We thought we knew what it was: this publication hires these writers. Now we know other agendas and relationships were in play, and we don’t know what they were. So yes, we feel betrayed.”


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.]

Robert Scholes’ Rise and Fall of English, take two

I finished Scholes’s Rise and Fall the other day, and when I was done I felt that it was a lucid attempt to grapple with the largest questions surrounding the future of English Studies, as these problems were perceived circa 1998. Some of these issues still seem apposite, like the relation between K-12 and higher ed teaching; some, like his meditations on theory in the classroom, less so.  However, I left it wishing, perhaps a little unreasonably, that it had been written a little more boldly.

One of the problems that I had with the book was that it seemed specifically addressed to an audience of tenured, historically-based literature specialists who seem a lot more marginal now than they did in 1998, without it having much to say to the once-marginalized groups (the rhetoric and composition specialists, the creative writers, the underemployed adjuncts or the ambivalent graduate students) who really do make our departments different than they were in the 80s or 90s.

Even if some of the problems and solutions struck me as dated, though, there are still lots of moments worth pausing over.  This is one of my favorites, from Chapter 5, “A Fortunate Fall,” which I offer to you for consideration:

The idea of academic research as a “contribution to knowledge,” the ideal of “original research,” requires an assumption of progress toward more adequate descriptions of reality. In the sciences, research receives its justification and its support–despite all the lip serve to “pure” knowledge–from the exploitable discoveries or patents to which it may lead.  In the humanities, research receives its justification–despite all the lip service to the advancement of learning–from its applicability to teaching.  In fact, I would say that all important research in the humanities is simply teaching by other means than the lecture or the seminar.  And conversely, published work in English studies that has no use in teaching or makes no contribution to learning is unimportant–trifling stuff.  When Chaucer said of his Oxford Clerk that he would gladly learn and gladly teach, he was implying that the two activities were connected by more than the repeated adverb (172).

I happen to think this is true, and I was happy to see a figure like Scholes saying this as directly as he does.  Having said that, it seems that all the growth areas in literary scholarship are occurring in fields developing a dimension of exploitable discovery in their research, either in the hopes of Digital Humanities scholars to digitize, assemble, and analyze unprecedented amounts of verbal materials from the past and present, or in the continued effort to assemble, collect, and analyze more and more literary and cultural productions in the present from groups previously underrepresented in our cultural record.

So here’s my question: do we need to recognize Scholes’s allusion to Chaucer to conduct such research? And how might this kind of research activity relate to curricula and teaching, if this is where the scholarship of the field is indeed moving?


What Matters in Humanities Education

Since we like to talk about teaching here too, readers might be interested in my report on the Teagle Foundation‘s convening on “What Works and What Matters in Student Learning.” The conference specifically addressed the humanities. This link will take you to the web page for the event; scroll down a bit for reports by me and by Ashley Finley of AAC&U. I welcome comments and feedback on what you think matters.

extraction economy

[aerial image of wastes from Moncks, S.C. coal power plant, 2009, from J. Henry Fair, Industrial Scars; for more info, visit]

As I was reading about the UVA debacle over President Teresa Sullivan’s firing, which apparently involved a “hostile takeover” of the university by its business school, its Board, and Goldman Sachs, I kept thinking that we are reaching (have reached?) the limits of the one-time alliance between financial elites and public universities.

Once upon a time, universities could view (or depict) these relationships as at least an exchange in which the legitimacy of cultural capital was bestowed upon donors for their philanthropic, disinterested, financial support.  And to the extent that boards and their members allowed universities, their administrations and faculty, the independence to pursue their mission, this arrangement could work, in many institutions (including my own).

In the wake of continued state and federal disinvestment in public higher ed, however, the smiles and handshakes have faded away at certain schools, and it now seems that at least some of these boards, and some portion of the bankers and businessmen and -women who populate them– consider our public universities their property, or better yet, another group of businesses for them to take over, extract the value, and discard. (And we should not neglect the role of state governors in promoting this kind of cronyism between university boards and the corporate community)

An exasperated UVA professor attempts to spell out the consequences of this university-as-business metaphor:

The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.

One of the details that has slipped out from the post-mortems for Sullivan was that she was unwilling to make certain changes related to online education.  My suspicion, which is echoed by a historian and alumna who has done her own investigations, is that the distance ed issue is not just about eliminating tenure and the normative classroom-based, face to face model for instruction, though those clearly align nicely with other right-wing prescriptions for higher ed.

No, the management jargon of “strategic dynamism” may very well simply describe how private companies (perhaps even Goldman Sachs’ own Education Management Corporation) plan to capture public instructional funds that otherwise would have gone to teachers and students and face to face instruction.  It is just another form of asset-stripping.  This is the beauty of the instructional outsourcing model that many lower-tier schools have already adopted, and which flagship schools like UVA, Berkeley are now getting pressured to adopt.  And this is the Extraction Economy as it works in the field of public higher education.

I’ll leave the final word to blogger Atrios, who introduced me (far too late, I admit) to the very useful concept of the extraction economy a few months ago:

We’re basically in an extraction economy right now, where the real money is in finding points to siphon off all of the income that people generate. Unregulated utility monopolies, rapacious health insurance companies and the medical industry generally, and of course Big Finance, are all devoted to increasing the slice of your life that they can steal from you, fair and square.

So here we are.  What shall we do about it?


[thanks to RS for the links]

UPDATE: The WaPo has published an anonymously sourced piece that explains the rationale used by Rector Dragas to fire Sullivan, which focuses solely on Sullivan’s refusal to eliminate departments like German and the Classics.  This seems farfetched to me, but no matter.  No one who thought this might be a bad idea, or a violation of existing governance or state law, was quoted.

michael quinn patton unknowingly addresses the assessment debates in higher education, and tells us why accountability data is (almost) never used:

I’m having enormous fun with this classic argument about the hows and whys of program evaluation, which has lots of implications for higher education’s experience of “accountability”:

[Patton, Utilization-focused Evaluation, p. 88]

I’m impressed by the fact that Patton in 1978 is chiding fellow-evaluators for ignoring political and personal factors that help determine the shape, direction, and use of their studies. He argues that because evaluators would rather imagine themselves as “scientific researchers” rather than participants in a political process, they engage in a process that wastes the time of all involved, and ensures that no one uses the information gathered.  Even if the present generation of evaluators has escaped this kind of scientism,  however, it seems that many pundits, administrators, and especially politicians persist in this naive view of the role of “data” in “decision-making.”


Why do students hate groupwork? Part 2

[X-posted on Assessment for Learning 101]

One of the most-read posts on this blog is David Mazella’s classic, “Why do students hate groupwork?”  The original post prompted a lively discussion, including comments by students themselves telling us why, in fact, they hate groupwork.

I was thinking about this discussion yesterday at my MLA panel, “Academically Adrift,” which featured Josipa Roksa, one of the authors of the book after which the panel took its name.  Offering a brief overview of her findings (with co-author Richard Arum), Josipa introduced the section on study groups by saying, “This is the one that always gets me in trouble.”  And indeed, part of the discussion that followed concerned this issue.

In short, Arum and Roksa found that students who worked in study groups showed significantly lower learning than those who studied on their own.  What does this mean for collaboration?

To me, the most interesting point that came out of the conversation was that the problem might not be group work itself, but the way it is done.  Roksa speculated that there is a tendency for the professor to assign group work without enough structure and also without providing any training for students in collaboration itself.  We tend to come up with a project, give it to a group of students, and say “go collaborate,” which turns out to be ineffective.  She briefly discussed a colleague of hers who teaches a semester-long course specifically on collaboration.  So perhaps her answer to the question posed by Dave’s original post might be that students hate it because they don’t know how to do it and as a result they don’t learn much.

What I found particularly interesting was Roksa’s emphasis on collaboration as a skill that needs to be learned.  As someone raised on theory that taught me how gender, race, and all kinds of identity formations are constructed, I had never given much thought to collaboration as “constructed” as well.  Perhaps for too many of us, it seems like something that students should just know how to do.  But apparently they don’t (and in fairness, we often don’t either).  I wonder, then, if we should be thinking about ways to get collaboration skills into the curriculum—not just in the form of collaborative assignments but as a learning outcome goal in itself.