Last week, Nicholas Kristof revived the old canard that academics have removed themselves from the public sphere through obscure prose and interests. Among the problems we might identify in Kristof’s essay -- thereare, obviously, many -- is the irony of a writer with the resources of The New York Times supporting him chiding the rest of us for not writing in outlets such as The New York Times.
But who gets to write in The New York Times -- and to whom is The New York Times accessible? If we’re talking about accessibility and insularity, it’s worth looking at The New York Times’s own content generation cycle and the relationship between press junkets and patronage.
So, instead of confusing intellectual meritocracy with access to outlets, let’s look at how The New York Times itself generates content about something that matters greatly to professors: higher education.
What I learned there -- besides how weird corporate-sponsored conferences are, right down to commercials they looped on screens between talks -- is that there is a system of content generation that feeds thinkpieces and thinkfluencers with greater speed and sound bite concision than most professors can offer.
It’s important to note that the only professors on stage at this conference on the future of higher education had left teaching and research as faculty for academic upper administration or to launch their own MOOC companies. While Kristof might see this lack of platform as more evidence of academic self-cloistering, I see it for the closed system that it is: “influence” comes mainly from those who might be in the position to take out full-page ads in the Times.
I saw the Schools for Tomorrow conference advertised in the Times’ Sunday Magazine, and looked into registration online. It cost $795 for a one-day event. For reference, I just registered for a four-day conference in my humanities field for $150.
I wrote to the Schools for Tomorrow registration office and asked if they could lower the cost for actual professors, bringing it in line with typical registration fees between $75 and $200. They said they could bring it down to $495. I found some institutional money for online teaching development and paid the “reduced” fee.
The $495 did not, however, guarantee me a seat when I got to the conference. The mid-three figures is a lot for humanities faculty and their limited (if existent) travel support, but in this world it just got me through the first door. It turned out that the plenary talk by Sal Khan (of Khan Academy) on globalizing access to education was overbooked, so while corporate sponsors like Bank of America and Blackberry enjoyed reserved seats in the auditorium, a lot of self- or university-sponsored folks like myself ended up watching on screens in the basement.
This was the first lesson in sponsored access to influence and content creation. Since Khan’s talk led into the panel discussion “Has the University as an Institution Had Its Day?” a lot of professors sat out the Q&A in the cheap seats. Not even, really. We were in a different arena altogether.
These weren’t conversations; these weren’t arguments. Mainly, these were rehearsed pitches for products, policies, and industries in which presenters had considerable financial or political stake. Some featured speakers, like former Senator Bob Kerrey, had a foot in several categories: he was in the Senate, he had been president of the New School, and he is now starting a for-profit university.
At various points it became clear that the speakers were used to talking to one another “on the circuit” as one said to another, suggesting that they’d been on the online education junket a lot together that year. And some cycle back through the Times meetings. Having missed Sal Khan at the education conference, I could have caught him the next month at the DealBook business conference.
The third lesson of the conference, however, came when I picked up my New York Times at home. The November 1 "Education Life" section titled “The Disrupters” is almost entirely drawn from or inspired by the conference. One conference reviewer quipped that “so many Times newsroom staff members are participating in the conference, they might not be able to put out the paper on Wednesday.”
To the contrary, such events seem to be built into their content generation strategy. “The Disrupters’ ” lead article, "Innovation Imperative: Change Everything, Online Education as an Agent of Transformation" was written by Michael Horn and Clayton M. Christensen. Both hail from the non-university-affiliated Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. The latter is a business professor at Harvard and the former was a panelist at the conference. Here's Horn’s bio from the conference webpage. He did a 25-minute one-on-one with David Leonhardt, the Times'sWashington bureau chief, advocating “The Disruption of Higher Education.”
According to his bio, Horn studied for an M.B.A. at Harvard (presumably with his co-author Christensen), then gained a platform as an educational innovation consultant at Arizona State, the editorship of a “journal of opinion and research about education policy,” and invitations to testify on issues relating to education. He does so not from a university, but from an institute that operates in the world between academia and lobbying. He does not balance his time between teaching, service, and peer-reviewed research and publishing. Yet he is a recognized authority on higher education according to the Times’s invitation. And then his work is immediately funneled into and amplified by featured space in the Sunday Times.
Even if the Times itself might be forgiven for seeking out breathless think tankers over professors who lack their own Center for Thinkfluencer Excellence, we might be more critical of the blurry line between content and advertisement.
Elsewhere in the issue you’ll find Bob Kerrey’s Minerva University, a for-profit liberal arts venture, featured prominently. It is mentioned in the Horn article, and is the focus of this article on “affordable elitism.” And then there’s major conference sponsor, Capella University. Their “credit for competencies, not credit hours” model is the subject of this article. It was also a major topic of conversation at the conference, discussed at length by Capella University's president, Scott Kinney. Days before the conference, every registrant received an email promoting Capella and bearing their logo.
How much money did Capella pay for this multiplatform marketing strategy? And where did their marketing end and the ideas at the conference begin? They were in the email of all registrants. Their logo was all over the conference and in full color on the back page of the Times Sunday Magazine. Policy changes crucial to their success were discussed favorably at a conference with Education Secretary Arne Duncan in attendance, and they got an article focusing on them in the Times just below an editorial praising their sort of educational “disruption.”
When Kristof's article began raising questions about professors’ ideas and public influence, I was reminded of the way influence moved from the $795/$495 per person corporate-sponsored conference to the pages of the newspaper of record.
Professors, we need you! Who, then, is the “we”? As lots of people have pointed out, if the “we” is the American public, then you’ve already got us as teachers, popular and specialist writers, activists and more.
If the “we” is pageview ad-metric revenue-hungry online content providers and writers, then that’s another question. Do you really want us? And if we come to you, how much will it cost to get in?
Jonathan Senchyne is an assistant professor of library and information studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A version of this essay originally appeared on Avidly.
As epiphanies go, it was hallucinatory and a little disconcerting… I had been reading about human evolution for a couple of weeks, off and on, trying to wrap my mind around the sheer span of the time involved -- the hundreds of thousands of generations, running back (the current estimate goes) some four million years.
Arguably the story begins a million or two years earlier still, when some kind of proto-hominid emerged from the line that led to the chimpanzees and the bonobos. Humans share more than 99 percent of our DNA with them. We’ve done a lot with the upright posture and those opposable thumbs. The past two million years – the period between Australopithecus and Homo sapiens digitalis – looks positively frenzied by contrast with the usual pace of evolution. And yet we are still distant cousins of the chimps, despite our gift for exalting humankind as existing above nature, or outside it.
One day, while reading these facts and thinking these thoughts, I looked up to see that a very strange thing had happened to everyone around me. They were, all of them, tangibly and unmistakably primates. (Or rather, we were, since my own hand suddenly looked like a well-articulated variety of paw.)
It is one thing to understand evolution at a conceptual level; a fairly difficult thing. Experiencing the continuity between human beings and other species is something else altogether; something like a waking dream. And perhaps especially when seated in a bakery frequented by lawyers, lobbyists, and media people from nearby offices – wearing clothes and mostly fur-less, but still recognizable as mammals distantly akin to monkeys or apes, despite obvious differences in carriage and demeanor.
They (we, rather) were eating scones for breakfast, not chunks of raw antelope. But for a few dizzying moments there, this did not seem as large a difference as it ordinarily might.
Fair warning, then: Reading Travis Rayne Pickering’s Rough and Tumble: Aggression, Hunting, and Human Evolution (University of California Press) may well leave the bright line between nature and culture looking thinner and blurrier than usual. (Pickering is professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.) I should also warn vegans against reading the book, unless they are in a particularly argumentative mood.
More on that in due course. First, a look at the perennial dispute that Pickering has joined about the source of mankind’s history of violence. One familiar bull-session or editorial-page option is to understand the penchant for violence as an intrinsic and inescapable human disposition, something for which we are genetically programmed, even. In support of this idea, one can cite Jane Goodall’s discovery about the chimps she observed in the wild. While sociable amongst themselves, members of one band were capable not just of killing outsiders but of teaming up to wipe out the young males in another group.
And remember, we share 99 percent of our DNA with the chimps. Case closed! Well, perhaps not, since we have the same margin of genetic overlap with the bonobos. “In general,” Pickering writes, “bonobos engage in sexual contact frequently and casually, in many cases to seemingly allay what could otherwise turn into aggressive interaction.” Besides making love, not war, bonobos in the wild “hunt less frequently than do wild chimpanzees.”
Bunch of hippies. Anyway, the old Hobbes vs. Rousseau dichotomy cannot be decided by consulting the genome -- and the fossil record suggests a more blended perspective on what human beings are and how we got here.
Pickering moves through the evidence and hypotheses about our prehistory with an eye on the disputes they have inspired among paleoarcheologists. Some of them sound quite nasty. (The disputes, that is, though a couple of the researchers also come across as petty and vicious.) I’ll sketch the author’s own conclusions here briefly, but what makes the book especially interesting is its tour of the disciplinary battlefield.
The brains and teeth of our distant ancestors give reason to think they were hunters: regular, successful hunters, at that. The brain consumes a lot of energy. Once proto-humans left the jungles to roam the savanna, their brains grew considerably and at a relatively rapid pace – something a steady diet of meat could only have helped. (And vice versa, since “acquiring meat presumably requires a smarter brain than does picking stationary nuts or grubbing for fixed roots.”)
Besides being available “in the form of large herds of grazing ungulates,” meat “is also soft and does not require that its consumers have a massive dental battery to break it down in the mouth.” Furthermore, the teeth in hominid fossils do not show the kinds and quantity of abrasion found in mammals that normally consume seeds and nuts (also sources of protein) in quantity.
Meat “adheres to bones, comes in large packages, and is stubbornly encased in hairy, elastic hides, so a cutting technology would have been most useful for a blunt-toothed [primate] that had begun to exploit this resource.” Pickering considers the fossil evidence not just of tools and weapons but of animal bones scored with knife-marks left by prehistoric butchers.
But our ancestors’ diet is only part of the story, since the author is less interested in what they ate than in how they developed the capacity to do so regularly. Hunting big game required more than spears and courage. In addition, Pickering stresses the need for emotional control: coolness, grace under pressure, the proper combination of strategy and stealth. He also suggests that the capacity to organize and manage aggression played a role within pre-human society, by obliging members to keep the group’s well-being in mind. An excessively greedy or violent leader might not last for long: the skills required to sneak up on and kill a buffalo could be turned to political uses.
Given how contentious the field seems to be (the title Rough and Tumble clearly refers to paleontologists as much as to prehistoric society) it will be interesting to see how Pickering’s colleagues respond to the book. As a layman, I can only say that it was fascinating and thought-provoking. And that, all things considered, I’d rather be a bonobo.
Over the past five or six years, as I walked the halls or stepped into the faculty mailroom, copy room, and faculty/staff lounge at the community college where I teach, I have been struck by the noticeable absence of faculty. And I don’t mean part-time faculty, who -- despite making up nearly 70 percent of all community college faculty -- have always been nearly invisible on campus.
I mean full-time faculty. Simply stated, they’re just not around as much anymore.
What’s changed? The growing number of full-time faculty teaching courses offered entirely online.
At my college, several faculty teach entirely online and, other than professional development days, are rarely on campus. More typical is the full-time faculty member who now teaches one, two or three courses of his or her five-course teaching load online. (I myself don’t teach online, for reasons I’ll explain later.) While not completely absent from campus, these faculty aren’t nearly as present as they were when I began teaching 28 years ago.
The connection between teaching online and being off-campus hit home when I asked a friend who teaches full time and entirely online at a community college in Illinois about a department colleague. He replied he hadn’t seen his colleague in a year and thought perhaps he was on medical leave. It turned out that the colleague wasn’t on medical leave, but rather was teaching entirely online. The two never saw each other and were now more like independent contractors than department colleagues.
Whether community college faculty is teaching online effectively and students are learning remains open to debate. In its “Research Overview: What We Know About Online Course Outcomes,” the Community College Research Center reports that ”online course taking was... negatively associated with course persistence and completion”; and that “lower performing students” — the very type of students enrolling in community colleges — fared worse in online courses as compared to face-to-face courses. Faculty who teach online at my college report similar findings.
But it’s not higher attrition rates that worry me about teaching online. What worries me, and what’s not open to debate, is the dwindling presence of faculty on campus, which is particularly troubling for community college students, who now have even fewer opportunities to interact with faculty and students inside and outside the classroom.
Why does faculty presence on campus matter?
Community colleges are typically commuter schools. Students arrive on campus, attend classes (often scheduled two days a week), and leave. Yet research on community college students finds that student engagement with faculty and fellow students inside and outside the classroom is crucial to student retention and academic success. The 2008 Community College Survey of Student Engagement found that “[d]ata consistently show that students are more engaged in the classroom than anywhere else” (my emphasis).
According to Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, “[r]esearch shows that the more actively engaged students are — with college faculty and staff, with other students, and with the subject matter they study — the more likely they are to learn, to stick with their studies, and to attain their academic goals.” The Pearson Foundation’s 2010 Community College Survey found that “[t]wo-thirds of students believe that in order to succeed in community college, it is extremely or very important to have access to academic advisors and to establish relationships with professors.”
It’s not surprising, then, to learn that community colleges that rely heavily on part-time faculty have higher attrition rates and lower graduation rates — part-time faculty have (even) fewer opportunities to engage with students. In short, student engagement with other students and faculty on a community college campus promotes retention and academic success.
One of my students described the importance of classroom-based interaction in a course evaluation. “My mindset was that it was just going to be another English class, and I was not going to try my hardest or get much out of it. I was taking it as a class that I needed to get out of the way for my program of interest. As time went on I realized how into teaching you were and that the people in the classroom really wanted to learn and to get something out of the class. I then decided that maybe I should apply myself and that was the best choice I made the whole semester.”
It’s highly unlikely this student would have had a similar realization in an online course that offered no face-to-face interaction.
When I reflect on my undergraduate education, face-to-face interaction with faculty had profound effects. I can’t imagine James Woodress, my American literature professor, having such a powerful and positive influence on my life, if, as a student at the University of California at Davis, I hadn’t taken his English courses in a classroom, and if I hadn’t gotten to know him inside and outside the classroom. I have watched the poet Gary Snyder on YouTube, and as good and as interesting as that is, it doesn’t compare to the experience of being in a classroom with him.
Community college students often state they take courses online for the sake of convenience and/or because of a harried life -- two reasons accepted without debate -- in order to get done with school as quickly as possible. The course becomes merely an obstacle on the path to accumulating credits.
And community colleges -- driven by convenience, economics, and, ironically enough, the completion agenda -- are quick to respond to “customer demand” by offering more and more online courses.
But instead of promoting an online model of education, community colleges should be doing more to keep faculty and students on campus and to foster a classroom and campus-based culture built upon a sense of academic engagement and community. That may sound outdated and unfashionable, but it’s a model of education that, as research supports, actually increases community college students’ chances of being academically successful.
I will never teach online. As Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “I have no wish to learn distanced methods of teaching simply to satisfy students who do not want to relate to me: teaching from afar would violate my own identity and integrity and only worsen the situation.”
I want to be part of an academic community and to teach in a classroom with students whom I get to know so that (as has happened in the past month) when I walk into my local pet store I know the cashier, a current student; or into the pharmacy and I know the tech, a former student; or attend a local concert and I know the musicians, most of whom are former students. I smile every time my wife tells me “we can’t go anywhere without bumping into one of your students.”
To engender that sense of community requires being present on campus and interacting face to face with my students. That’s not possible with the invisible lives of the online world.
Keith Kroll is an instructor in the English department at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.