In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
A savvy professor caught me in the hallway to discuss a presentation we had both seen on social media and its potential for local businesses. She had a great question that really threw me: what if colleges actually used social media well?
I like the question a lot. It requires some definition, but that’s fine.
By “colleges,” I don’t mean individual faculty, staff, or administrators. I don’t even mean PR or marketing offices, who usually control a given school’s Facebook page. (For my money, the “Monsters University” page pretty much defines the genre.) I’m thinking about an entire college adopting social media thoughtfully and thoroughly.
As a thought exercise, it gets radical pretty quickly. And that’s why it’s fascinating.
The animating principle behind the organization of traditional colleges was the scarcity of knowledge. Before movable type, the scarcity of knowledge was based on the scarcity of print; “recitation” sections were literally recitations of texts. (Even the word “lecture” comes from the Latin verb “to read.”) In that setting, the model of one person standing in front of many, reading from a prepared text, made sense. It was the only economically feasible way to share information.
With movable type the game changed a bit; it became possible to expect students to read outside of class. (Now we’d call that “flipping” the class.) They didn’t always do the reading, heaven knows, but it was possible. At that point, the value added by the professor had to go beyond simply reading the text. The professor was expected to analyze texts, to pit them against each other, and to help students develop the skills to interpret -- and even challenge -- the books themselves. Entire academic departments sprung up to interpret the sudden proliferation of print.
In this model, information isn’t as scarce as it had been, but it was still expensive in large quantities, and the skills needed to interpret it took more development. Professors were valuable in showing students how to handle the material, and in guiding them towards the “right” material. The definition of “right” material changes over time, but the principle remains.
Now, with the web and social media, the entire concept of information scarcity is moot. Now the role of the professor is something like “sherpa,” helping students navigate through mountains of information. Students can access information from just about anyone and anywhere; the goal now is in knowing what to do with it.
Colleges have fought the most recent shift. We still allocate lecture time as if it were a scarce commodity. Online classes are different, but for the most part, they’re still based on the traditional model. They’re like filmed plays, as opposed to movies. We charge higher rates than we ever have for access to lectures, even though information has never been more available from more sources more freely. And we act as if the only way to learn information is to ignore most of what has come along in the last ten years.
Yes, I’m overstating, but not by much. I’m not discounting individual professors’ innovations. I’m looking at the institutional framework within which they’re contained. We’re so wedded to the traditional ways that it’s actually controversial to award credit for skills and knowledge acquired anywhere except in a classroom.
And that’s just the teaching part.
Some of that has to do with privacy. Readers of a certain age will remember when it was common for professors to post grades on their office doors, alphabetically by social security number. That’s unthinkable now, but it was once common practice. The openness of social media coexists uneasily with privacy concerns, as Facebook users have learned repeatedly.
But most of it, I think, is economics. We can’t figure out how the producers of knowledge will get paid. Since colleges are clusters of producers of knowledge, it makes sense that colleges would be uniquely skittish about this shift. But the shift is happening.
Wise and worldly readers, what would colleges look like if they used social media well?