In today’s Academic Minute, Julian Agyeman of Tufts University explores how the concept of spatial justice can strengthen the economy and social fabric of communities. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
The American Association of University Professors on Saturday released a statement strongly questioning President Obama's proposal to evaluate colleges and favor those with high graduation rates and low costs in the availability of Pell Grants and generous terms on student loans. "The solution to the current crisis in higher education, characterized by rising tuition and student debt, is not a report card based on poorly defined metrics," said the statement, by Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the AAUP. "Albert Einstein was reported to have said, 'Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.' In his rush to measure the performance of higher education institutions the president should remember this maxim. The creation of so-called report cards based on graduation rates and earnings of graduates from colleges that serve diverse student populations will result in a race to the bottom, driving public universities and non-elite private universities to standardize their curricula to insure they get a passing grade. For millions of working class and middle class students, particularly students of color, the president’s plan will result in a decline in the quality of higher education, in the name of increasing graduation rates.If we were truly interested in increasing graduation rates, we would provide more funding for K-12 education to insure that students were better prepared for college. If we were truly interested in controlling or reducing tuition, we would increase public funding of higher education both at the state and federal level by taxing the rich, particularly the top 1 percent who have benefited disproportionately from government bailouts and have been the recipients of the lion’s share of income growth since the 1970s."
It's time for professors to stop seeking jobs when the only purpose is getting a raise at their current place of employment, writes Heather Dubrow. And it's time for departments to stop rewarding such tactics.
Among the mountains of literature dedicated to "best practices" in pedagogy, the consensus has emerged that engagement is key, and that we teachers can no longer – as we did throughout history – willfully try to drag students violently by the ear into our own umwelt and call it learning. Rather we need to create an active halfway space between world-bubbles, thus allowing learning to happen more organically, through a mutual reorientation.
This is precisely what I tried to do in a recent course exploring the topic of reality TV. Here I was either brave or foolish enough to structure the class like an actual reality TV competition. And while I admit the initial thrill of conception involved the perverse prospect of voting students "off the island," I could not have anticipated the pedagogical benefits of such a novel format until I tried them out. The first half of the course was quite traditional, with scholarly readings about the history of the genre, and related themes such as narcissism, exhibitionism, attention economies, surveillance, and the new employment option of simply being watched (There is an excellent book on this topic by Mark Andrejevic, which served as the main textbook). It is truly remarkable how much more conscientious students suddenly become when they are informed that an A on the dreaded midterm paper will earn them "immunity" from the first challenge.
The competition section was loosely based on "Project Runway," which emerged from my own institution, the New School, in New York City (specifically the design school, Parsons). Students would be given a challenge a week – some individual, some in groups – and then face a revolving group of expert "judges" to see how well their response connected to the critical aspects of the readings. (I tried to juggle the dual roles of Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum in this scenario, dispensing equal parts encouragement and fear with each alternate comment.) Examples of challenges include, "pitch your own (progressive) reality TV show," "create your own (self-reflexive) reality TV persona," and "report back from your own Thanksgiving holiday as if it were a reality TV show.”
After each challenge the “contestants” would reflect on the competition via "confession cams" recorded on their own laptops or phones, and posted to the blog (a meta-meta exercise in self-reflection, given that reality TV is already a meta-phenomenon). Instead of running around a fabric store, trying to buy enough satin or leather to make an edgy, fashionable dress in less than an hour, my students were running around the library, trying to find appropriate readings to supplement the syllabus. (Those who were voted off switched to the "production" side of the competition: some helping with filming, sound, editing, etc. Others worked on publicity around the college and online, as well as making their own commentaries on the unfolding events. It was therefore possible to be voted off early, but still get an A.)
One of the most striking differences between the students’ umwelt and my own became clear from the very beginning, when I initially took great pains to reassure the class that while we would be filming sections of the competition for archival purposes – and to heighten the sense of being on TV – these would not be made public in any way. To my surprise, all the students were disappointed, going so far as to say, "Well what’s the point in filming it then?!" This emphatic question – and the new Facebook-saturated Zeitgeist that it distils – then became a touchstone for the whole semester, concerning naive assumptions about identity, action, performance, and modes of witnessing. Why is it that the millennial generation does not think anything is worth doing or experiencing unless it is immediately "shared" and "liked" online? How might this backfire when it comes to friends or future employers? And who benefits most from this automatic compulsion?
So what began as a "so-crazy-it-might-work" idea soon revealed itself to be a new way for students to critically reconstruct their own relationship to the media – and thus to themselves – while also shaking up all my cherished notions about traditional modes of teaching the humanities. Whereas the host of "Project Runway" encourages the contestants to "make it work," I exhorted the students to "think it through" (indeed, I was tempted to call the course "So You Think You Can Think?"). And in one of those perfect moments of synchronicity, I could even offer the perfect prize to the winner: a paid internship to work on a film about reality TV by one of my former students, Valerie Veatch (whose first film, "Me at the Zoo," on viral celebrity and its discontents, recently premiered at Sundance).
What’s more, I am almost grateful that the National Security Agency global spying scandal did not erupt during the first run of this course, even as it would have spectacularly underscored the social and political tendencies which the class was designed to question. Even if we loathe reality TV, and claim to never watch it, that doesn’t mean we haven’t all been engulfed in its logic, mannerisms, motifs, conventions, and conceits. One reason I designed the course was to test my theory that even young people who feel themselves to be far above televisual trash are still exposed to, and shaped by, the emotional currents in creates in the world. Reality TV threatens to eclipse reality itself, even in those rare moments when the cameras aren’t running.
Quite simply, identity is now influenced by things like the confession cam, the idea of immunity, and the asymmetrical power dynamics of "the judges." Even as our most significant political figures threaten to become little more than grotesque characters in the latest installment of "The Real Housewives of Congress" or "The Vatican’s Next Top Pontiff." So while the challenge of education is to almost literally burst each other’s bubbles, the bigger challenge is to figure out – across the generations – how to stop our collective umwelt being shaped by this omnipresent model of thought and behavior.
Dominic Pettman is professor of culture and media at Eugene Lang College and New School for Social Research, where he recently won the University Distinguished Teaching Award. His most recent book is Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology.
In today’s Academic Minute, Adam Siepel of Cornell University explains why humans and chimpanzees are drastically different despite sharing much of the same DNA. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
Pennsylvania State University held a telephone press conference for reporters Thursday regarding its “Take Care of Your Health” wellness initiative. Administrators said the plan was an educated and well-intentioned attempt at managing skyrocketing health care costs – projected to grow by 13 percent by next year absent intervention – without passing that burden on to employees through higher deductibles and co-pays. Susan Basso, vice president for human resources, said Penn State’s average employee deductible is about $250, compared to a regional average of $1,500. The university believes that its new plan will lead to earlier detection of illnesses, leading to better health outcomes for employees and lower health care costs in the long run for Penn State, she said.
Donald Fischer, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Highmark Health Services, Penn State’s insurance provider, said that several studies – included one funded by Highmark– showed that such measures led to $1.65 in health care savings for every $1 spent on wellness initiatives. An independent researcher involved in that study, Ron Z. Goetzel, director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, said the study offered sophisticated controls and was published in a peer-reviewed journal. It’s backed up by additional independent studies, he said.
The call followed a media blitzkrieg of negative coverage of the wellness measure, capstoned by a Harvard Business Review blog post called “The Danger of Wellness Programs: Don’t Become the Next Penn State.” Faculty have expressed outrage at the program’s punitive surcharges of $75 to $100 for not completing biometric screenings, online wellness profiles and physical exams, and for smoking and covering spouses and domestic partners eligible for health insurance through their own employers. Some faculty also have raised concerns about the uploading of their personal medical information into WebMD online, a third-party electronic records system.
During the call, David Gray, Penn State’s senior vice president, said seeds of the plan were in place as far back as 2008, and that the Faculty Senate was briefed on the plan in 2011, before the Jerry Sandusky story broke. He called that a fact some in the media “missed."
Basso said that although other university wellness programs have focused on positive participation incentives, Penn State saw no cost savings after pouring “millions” of dollars into such incentives in the past. Surcharges were the most “transparent” way to drive participation, she said, rather than artificially inflating health care contributions for employees to then offer a discount. No personal information will be used for punitive purposes and the employee medical information recently uploaded to WebMD will never be available to Penn State other than in aggregate form, she said.