• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    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.

Title

Lessons From a YouTube Rat Hole

It's all about context.

October 26, 2020
 
 

In March, before we realized just what we were up against, we assumed that when The Boy came home for the summer, we’d need a third car. I commute with my car and TW commutes with hers, so for him to have a job, he’d need a car, too. (Public transportation wasn’t really an option here even before the pandemic.) As a good academic, of course, I had to do my due diligence, which involved starting with Consumer Reports and eventually discovering a world of car review videos on YouTube. We wound up neither needing nor buying a third car -- when I worked from home and he needed to get somewhere, he drove mine -- but I fell into a rat hole of the world of car review videos. And in doing that, I found something potentially useful.

As a genre, car review videos have the same conventions and star system as any genre. Scotty Kilmer is probably the most well-known; he’s an opinionated mechanic who tries to guide his viewers away from what he calls “endless money pits.” Regular Car Reviews offer the rhapsodic musings of a former English teacher. John Cadogan plays up the “angry Aussie” role. Many of the videos are British, which I notice when they get in the car and the steering wheel is on the wrong side. I’ve also discovered that I’m better at spotting Canadian accents than I had suspected, which is probably a side effect of growing up near Rochester.

But there are consistent patterns. The overwhelming majority of review videos are made by white men, usually alone. They study the car as an isolated object, then compare it to what they consider similar cars. There’s usually mention of the number of pound-feet of torque, cubic inches of cargo space and the like. (As a tallish person, and the father of a very tall person, I have to register a complaint that they rarely discuss headroom. If the roof is too short, I don’t care about the engine. Mazda, I’m looking at youuu…) Frequently there’s an element of trash talking, aimed either at specific companies or at other reviewers. Anyone familiar with sports talk radio, or contemporary politics, will recognize the style immediately.

This weekend, though, I saw one by Laura Goellner about her Nissan Leaf. The Leaf is an electric hatchback, and at the time she made the video, she had owned hers for two years.

It was unusual in several ways. First, it was done by a woman. Second, she actually owned the car she was reviewing and had owned it and driven it for years. Third, she discussed the actual use of the car in real-world conditions.

But the real breakthrough was that she positioned the car within the ecosystem of a household. She noted that the Leaf has about a 100-mile range on a charge. As she put it, one electric car can make sense in a two-car family because you still have the other car for long trips. So she commutes with her Leaf, but when she needs to go some serious distance, she switches cars with her husband for the day and drives his gasoline-powered car. That way she can fill up when she needs to and not be trapped by the Leaf’s range. Given how long it takes to recharge an electric car, and the paucity of rapid charging stations, that’s a real issue.

The guys rarely make points like that. But points like that matter. They’re about the car, but they’re also about the context in which the car gets used. How does it fit the context? A car that might make perfect sense in a two-car household might not make sense in a one-car household. (Or, cars that make sense if you have access to electric outlets might not make sense if you park outside in a parking lot or on the street.) Lists of “10 best cars” can’t capture that, because they’re abstracted from the different contexts in which cars are used.

Obviously, Goellner’s point isn’t unique to cars. This is where discussions of colleges often fall flat. We love to rank colleges and to use the same data across the board to compare them. And some of that data have value. But in public discussion, we don’t look closely enough at where college fits into people’s lives. We tend to assume “the college experience” for upper-middle-class 18-year-olds, and job training for everyone else. Those both exist, but they’re far from the entire picture. College can be an escape from a difficult home, or even from homelessness. It can be episodic, rather than continuous. (When you understand that, you start to look at “attrition” rates more skeptically.) It can be a chance to surround yourself with a different culture than where you grew up, or to escape a culture in which you grew up. It can be where you become what you want to be when you grow up, or where you try to discover what you want to be when you grow up. It can be a place for grown-ups to hit the reset button on careers and even personal lives. In other words, it’s about people’s lives.

That’s why the #RealCollege movement is so crucial, and why we, as educators, need to push back on narratives that reduce college to any one thing.

Not every driver has the same needs. Neither does every student. It’s a point so obvious that we often forget to make it. We shouldn’t.

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