Brick and Mortarboards

In Stephen King’s novel, The Stand, a devastating super-flu wipes out 99.4% of the human population. Those survivors of the plague band together in one of two camps: the good guys all make their way to Boulder and attempt and set up a democratic society, the bad guys quickly establish a dictatorship in Las Vegas. The action builds to a final confrontation between the forces good and evil, but the ending, whether humankind can survive, is ambiguous.

I’ve been thinking about The Stand as I wade through the gush of coverage over the ouster of UVA President Teresa Sullivan. While I think the event is both fascinating as a spectacle and important in terms of its potential consequences for public higher ed, it’s difficult, to say the least, to keep up with the pace of the news and blog posts.

My take on it is that the outrage and fear of the faculty is two pronged. There’s concern over the political process by which the individuals on the BOV got their posts and how they went about giving Sullivan the ax. Then there’s anger over the plot to cut entire departments (German and Classics, by what I’ve read) combined with a proposed pivot towards online education.

I’m thinking of The Stand because, rhetorically a lot of academics are pitching this as a battle of good faculty versus evil neoliberals. What would this tale look like played out on a post-apocalyptic wasteland? And when are the lines ever drawn so clearly in real life?

Its the science-fictiony sounding year of 2021 and the neoliberals were right. The marketization and privatization of higher ed and anthropology is, for all intents and purposes, complete. The majority of anthro departments were wiped out by this plague — as public resources dried up and the middle class shrank, fewer customers could afford the traditional campuses.

When a high-quality, low-cost online anthropology product hit the educational marketplace departments closed left and right.

The online education of the future is an elaborate MMORPG, an insanely profitable multi-player video game that allows students to study at their own pace and save their game at any time. You can create a college avatar on your home game console for free. Most students pay for each lesson ala carte like downloading singles from iTunes, rather than paying a semester’s tuition in one lump sum. The object of the game is to complete various missions that correspond to class lessons until you unlock the ultimate prize, a bachelor’s degree.

Lectures are better in the game than in person because you can stop, start, and rewind them. The visual examples are tremendous and the student can opt to print 3D models if necessary. You can text a Ph.D. 24-7 with your questions. Group discussion and collaboration is the hallmark of the game. The assignments have changed from the old days: reading and writing comes in bite sizes but most students like tweeting their essays now.

Much as Amazon and B&N sucked up the market once served by independent bookstores, most brick and mortar colleges have long since closed up shop. College towns turned into ghost towns like Flint, Michigan, when GM left. A few were able to survive by shifting their market strategy to offer services in niches where online outlet stores and video game providers are less competitive. The trick was to anticipate where those gaps in online service would be.

At first it seemed that universities would be able to lay exclusive claim to the production of research and training grad students, but the online schools quickly grew to fill this market as well. Once the special collections were all digitized and holograms of museum quality objects produced, the online schools out produced the brick and mortar campuses in social science and humanities publications. For-profit laboratory franchises started popping up in major urban centers that proved to be much more cost effective than anything run by a traditional campus, and the online schools began to make a substantial dent in natural science publications as well.

Eventually the remaining traditional campuses realized they were in possession of an asset the online schools lacked — place. In terms of student life, the brick and mortars were in a position to offer a privileged lifestyle of football games and keg parties to those who could afford it and they redoubled their efforts to transform their campuses into mini-resorts for the children of the upper class.

A few low-cost traditional colleges, including the community colleges, survived too. They began to focus on personalized, high-touch services in the classroom. Faculty moved service learning objectives into the center of their course work as schools became more integrated into their local communities and stressed the enduring civic value of students educated on intentionally diverse campuses. One-on-one tutoring, ESL education, and counceling services also became hallmarks of the brick and mortars.

While I sympathize with the desire to fight for our principles as educators embodied in the call to arms surrounding the UVA fiasco, to a certain extent the marketization and privatization of higher ed, like global climate change, is coming whether we like it or not. Simply resisting neoliberalism will be insufficient. We will also need to adapt to it in order to survive. The Dutch aren’t waiting until the sea level starts to rise before they start to work on that problem. How can we prepare ourselves now so that we too will not sink with the tides? What is the value of a college education at a brick and mortar school if, in the future, online education is better and cheaper? And who wants to make that high-quality, low-cost educational MMORPG?

Matt Thompson is adjunct assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University and a student in the School of Information Science at the University of Tennessee. He was once cast as a soldier in Andrew Jackson's army in a theatrical production on an Indian reservation.

17 thoughts on “Brick and Mortarboards

  1. Just as a point of reference, here’s how Holland, Nonini, Lutz, et al (2007:86), describe neoliberalism in K12 education:

    Over the last quarter of the twentieth century, this collectivist orientation and commitment to using schools to promote equity was gradually eclipsed by approaches to schooling that emphasized competition, consumption, and prioritizing the use of schools for economic development. This shift was facilitated by the application of neoliberal principles to schooling.

    Marketization applies principles taken from the realm of the free market economics to other institutions, like schools. These principles entail the following assumptions, which have been extensively challenged:

    1. The state is an inefficient provider of goods and services (such as education) compared to the market.
    2. Competition between public and private schools and among public institutions will force all schools to become more efficacious providers of service.
    3. Deregulation of schools will improve their performance.
    4. Citizen-consumers, who make rational choices, will select the best educational service, forcing schools to compete and bringing about the extinction of inefficient schools.
    5. Standardized tests measure student learning and provide an optimal basis upon which stakeholders (including parents, the business community, and the state) can evaluate the performance of schools, and therefore make informed choices and hold schools accountable.

  2. Very interesting essay. Thank you! As you know, there’s lots of interesting conversations regarding changes in higher education and how we as educators can think about appropriate responses. One “thread” I’ve been following in this regard is on Twitter (@HybridPed), which has some great resources. Anyway, there are many other great sites/blogs/Twitter handles, etc. I just wanted to thank you for a very creative essay that addresses a host of serious issues.

  3. The UVA situation doesn’t seem all that different to me from, say, the struggles in Wisconsin which take collective bargaining rights as a point of departure. In the latter case I think it is fair to point out to public-sector unions that continuing to make the sorts of promises to them to which they have become accustomed to over the recent decades would impose a disproportionate burden upon the majority of Wisconisn’s taxpayers. Some change seems wholly and completely reasonable to me, and there are multiple options for that change. But the debate has been and continues to be status quo vs. Chicago School. Those are incredibly sterile and unimaginative terms of debate for such an important issue, and it would be unfortunate to see them define the limits of acceptable discourse regarding the UVA situation.

    Amazon and B&N sucked up the market once served by independent bookstores, most brick and mortar colleges have long since closed up shop. College towns turned into ghost towns like Flint, Michigan, when GM left. A few were able to survive by shifting their market strategy to offer services in niches where online outlet stores and video game providers are less competitive. The trick was to anticipate where those gaps in online service would be.

    I am going to strongly disagree with the suggestion that the UVA situation and others like it are at heart about disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovations do not disrupt because they replace one format with another, they disrupt because they cut off revenue streams for comparable goods and services. Steam ships replaced sailing ships not because humans stopped crossing the oceans but rather because they choked off the sailing ships’ revenues by doing what they did faster and better. I maintain that there are some things that in–the–same–room instruction can do that cannot be done online, no matter what we tell ourselves. I’m not saying that online courses don’t have a place, but insisting that the bulk of instruction continue to take place in classrooms and auditoriums is not like traveling by sail in the age of steam engines. It’s more like being realistic about how many tomatoes Comrade Lysenko is going to be able to grow in Siberia.

  4. Let’s make a list of the things in-the-same room can do better than online, my guess is they’re going to be “high touch” sorts of interactions. And then let’s question whether that will still be true in 10 years or so.

    I’ll go first:
    1. Seminar
    2. Lab and field instruction

  5. I’ll go first:
    1. Seminar
    2. Lab and field instruction

    You need go no further, as far as I am concerned. In my opinion colleges and universities should be taking resources away from lecture-based courses and moving them to those two. Lectures are a passive form of learning and student passivity is a problem even in seminars and lab/field courses. Why encourage it be taking the passive logic to the next level via online coursing everything?

    If lectures were eliminated would institutions be able to graduate as many students? No, not without a huge resource boost. That’s not a problem in my eyes, and I see anything that might help undermine undergraduate education as a credentialization service to be a positive. (Which is to say that I believe far too many people are going to college in the United States.)

  6. Experience with the seminar environment and designing and executing my own research, more than anything else out of undergrad, helped me through grad school. That was a major asset.

    I’ve never heard of anyone doing an undergraduate field lab course in cultural anthropology, but that would be really cool. I would love to teach a class like that!

  7. One UVa prof has written this great satirical piece detailing a list of ways in which UVa is already adapting and innovating for the digital era, which Dragas and her ilk apparently overlooked: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/u-va-prof-why-governing-board-gets-an-f-for-sullivan-project/2012/06/21/gJQAX9tksV_blog.html.

    I’ve been following the whole kerfuffle at UVa with great interest. I hope it doesn’t become merely a personnel swap (Sullivan gets reinstated, Dragas gets fired); I think that would satisfy a lot of people in the short term, but it would represent a missed opportunity for UVa to thoroughly examine its own structure of governance. Personally, I’d like to see UVa (and all public universities) governed by boards that include not only political appointees from outside the realm of academia, but also a healthy contingent of profs, staff, and at least a couple of students. Yes, the business people and the academics will probably have some trouble understanding each others’ perspectives and forming a coherent plan for the university. Lots of difficult conversations will undoubtedly be necessary. But I think that those sorts of conversations and collaborations are vitally important as we all brace ourselves for the marketization of university education.

  8. Seminar courses are often very poorly taught and professors routinely overrate the value of their sessions for students. The ideal is that talking through problems will allow students to learn from each other and compare different perspectives. But the reality is that a few students tend to dominate conversations and attention from the professor, many students tire of hearing the same blowhards talking, and a large fraction may slide by without doing any substantial amount of reading except for the few sessions where they are “responsible” for presenting content.

    I don’t mean to stereotype the entire format, merely to point out that the “great seminar experiences” that many professors remember from their training may have been miserable for most of the other students. It takes great skill to do a seminar fairly, which means being perceptive of inequities in the classroom and actively promoting the engagement of all students with the material.

    In the ideal, a seminar may not be replicable online. But I’ll be provocative and claim that online sessions can easily beat the *average* seminar for *most* students.

  9. In the ideal, a seminar may not be replicable online. But I’ll be provocative and claim that online sessions can easily beat the average seminar for most students.

    My counterclaim: match the horse to the course and put the reins in the hands of a good enough jockey.

  10. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. And good jockeys are, it appears, in short supply. I have to agree its John Hawks. In retrospect what I mostly learned in seminars was the skill I now label lurking and stabbing, which is now, I observe, the most pervasive modus operandi on the Internet as well. One keeps one’s mouth shut until the opportunity arises to join a mob in putting the knife into what someone else has said. It was not until I began working in advertising that I discovered a world in which people argue fiercely but are bound together by shared projects with deadlines and significant outcomes at stake, and debates continue until everyone involved is ready to work together to improve the ideas on the table.

  11. I dream not of a world in which bad seminars have been supplanted by Internet courses but rather of a world in which bad seminars have been supplanted by good seminars. But perhaps I dream alone.

    Do allow me correct you, however: if wishes were horses we’d all be eating steak.

  12. When I wrote that undergrad seminars prepared me for grad school I meant what John said: throwing elbows. I was really good at that once upon a time, but I suspect now I’m out of practice.

    I have had students tell me that online classes are actually harder than campus classes because it isn’t as easy to fake it. You can’t sit quietly in the back of the classroom and hope the professor doesn’t call on you.

    I’ve never had the privilege to lead a seminar myself, I don’t think everyone gets to do it. I teach lectures because the classes are big.

  13. MTBradley writes,

    I dream not of a world in which bad seminars have been supplanted by Internet courses but rather of a world in which bad seminars have been supplanted by good seminars.

    John Hawks wrote,

    Seminar courses are often very poorly taught and professors routinely overrate the value of their sessions for students.

    McCreery observes that “often” and “routinely” imply quantitative claims that are not addressed by dreams that ignore social and material realities. Neither do they address the question of how seminars might be improved. One possibility to create assignments in which “critique” unaccompanied by suggested improvements or a viable alternative are given zero credit.

  14. Many thanks for reactions to my provocation. I have seen seminars done remarkably well by skilled educators (who see themselves first as “educators”). I have tried to learn from them, but some methods are very difficult to apply across contexts and with varying student motivation.

    Key elements — taking instructor ego completely out of it. Moments of “mini-lectures” can completely destroy the dynamic. Stopping what seem to be “promising” threads to give other voices a chance to be heard. Making students realize that others in the room have the same ideas. Frequent in-class 2-5 minute mini-writing assignments to make students commit to an opinion before discussing a concept.

    It’s a lot easier for me to lecture than to do a seminar well. It’s a lot easier to do a seminar poorly than to lecture.

  15. Re: Matt Thompson

    “I’ve never heard of anyone doing an undergraduate field lab course in cultural anthropology, but that would be really cool. I would love to teach a class like that!”

    Look up Mark Moritz of the Ohio State University. He teaches a combined graduate/undergraduate seminar that functions as a field lab course in cultural anthro at OSU every fall. I took it the year before last, and I have to say, talking to other anthros, it does seem that no one else has had a similar experience. Its an understatement to say that this class was the best and most important one that I’ve ever enrolled in.

  16. As an undergraduate I took a methods course in which our final project was a small ethnographic write-up with steps along the way: a short annotated bibliography, some transcription, &tc. My (much) better half centered the undergraduate life histories course she taught last semester around the production of a (necessarily truncated) life history by each member of the class.

  17. While I agree with much of what John Hawks writes about the bad seminar, here’s a slightly different take. I hated and dreaded many of my upper-level seminars: they were full of bad teaching, posturing, mini-lectures, and dominant voices. At the same time there were moments of impromptu brilliance and insight that have guided me ever since. I’m not sure those moments would have ever emerged from a lecture.

    A seminar may be like a jam band: mostly dissonant, with solo hogs and long dull stretches, but the occasional inspired moment that wouldn’t be possible in more polished performances. This may not be a good format for most courses, but I wouldn’t want to see it disappear either.

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