Re-Visioning Emory?

Tressie McMillan Cottom Emory University April 8, 2013 I wanted to talk about how we got HERE but I realized that I should not take for granted that we have some shared sense of where HERE is. I wish these things were like those maps at the mall, you know? You are HERE? Higher education could use such a map. Emory could use one that has been color coded with a speak-and-spell string. Where is here? That is debatable but I will tell you where I think we are and how my research shapes my perspective. I’m embedded in Emory but I am not “of” Emory. I have attended or worked in almost every sector of higher education. I came from a public HBCU, I took a few online classes to feed my need for information, I did a research program at a flagship state Uni, and learned methods at a private elite national brand, I worked in a beauty school and finally I worked in and now study for-profit colleges like Strayer and the University of Phoenix. I ask questions like how have for-profit colleges become the fastest growing segment of higher education? Why are they number one producer of black bachelor’s degree holders? Why are single mothers and poor women paying so much for such a contested credential? And why do we still only talk about places like Emory when there is this whole world of higher education going on around us? So where I think we are is a function of that very broad and deep perspective of higher ed. Where we are is in a very diverse, and very stratified system of higher education that is often conflated with its largest, wealthiest, most visible members: the Ivy League. As the Ivy League has remained the face of higher education, the faces IN higher ed have changed dramatically. The social construction of “college” as co-eds, residential, college EXPERIENCE is stark contrast with reality: the average college student today did not come straight from high school, works, has worked, has a family, and is independent ie they are “non-traditional”. Yet, the debate about the changing higher education landscape is overwhelmingly focused on leveraging prestige and technocracy that is tightly bound to how college operates in the social imagination. The effect denies reality, commodifies structural inequality and furthers the neo-liberalization transformation of learning into, instead, “knowledge production”. That is what much of the debate about corporate MOOCs and publicprivate ventures are about: it’s about the idea of knowledge as a mode and means of production. Where does that leave teachers and where does that leave learners? Well, history suggests that in a production

model someone’s labor has to be exploited, in the Marxian sense of isolating the worker from her work, and someone has to be a consumer. I want to add here that I am not anti-technology. I engage rather heavily in “new” media, technologies, and social media. However, the dominant models like Coursera, EDX and the like are not offering a democratized version of learning so much as they are providing elite schools the means to build a brand, which is, of course, itself an adoption of a market morality. How is a videotaped lecture somehow superior to an actual lecture? Either lecturing is inefficient or it is the mode of the new breed of online learning. It can only be both if you conceptualize education as a banking model where we build these repositories of “content” and it is poured into individuals is a way of Commodifying education, the process, to transform into education, an outcome. The managerial function of learning – this outcome metric maker – is actually not all that innovative. When they used to do it in schools that published on matchbooks we called it a diploma mill. This is where my research converges with the tensions unfolding at institutions like Emory. The extraction of profit from education-like commodities is not a novel idea, but rarely has traditional education so willingly embraced it as we see happening today. There may be much to be learned from the private sector, but as presented we are told that all the lessons are about the superiority of for-profit organizations. Yet, there is also a great deal that the private sector can teach us about failures and potential disasters. What is new is infusing this mode of knowledge production with both profit and prestige. I’m all for using technology to upend power dynamics in learning but as of yet I’m not sure that these models do much more than provide a revenue stream for venture capitalists that are adverse to the vicissitudes of other economic markets. Revolutionizing education for profit can seem much safer than launching a lot other types of ventures right now. Our senior, distinguished colleague alluded to her MOOC class extending Emory’s mission statement to places like a village in Nigeria. I am confused by this conceptualization of mission and outreach. How is beaming our English version of knowledge to Nigeria a qualitatively more valuable form of outreach than actually visiting West End Atlanta? Well, it could be argued that the former furthers the managerial demands of the corporate university, which requires a global brand that not only bolsters prestige but ideally recruits aspirational international students. There is nothing inherently wrong with recruiting but let us not confuse marketing for education, particularly when the technology underpinning the marketing could be used for more democratic modes of education. I would also question the suggestion that the valuable, elite exposure to Emory’s finest scholars is “free”. It may not cost the users anything

(for now?), but this work is not free. Indeed, a recent report says that the average MOOC course requires 100 hours of labor to assemble and consumes 8-12 hours a week to maintain. Like the senior colleague, corporate MOOCs leverage the prestige of tenured, “big name” professors as much as possible to market the course. The result is a type of within institution stratification that extends the market value of “rock star” scholars while hardening the divide between them and the workhorse teaching labor of the university. MOOCs are not free for everyone and I am not sure that we have accurately assessed the full price being paid by all parties and institutions involved. I suggest to you that the social and structural changes that have produced a non-traditional statistically average student that is not well-suited to the prestige driven hierarchy of residential elite education is simultaneously facilitating the construction of higher education as a market: shrinking students, heightened competition, and a bureaucratic marketized response are all results of the same function. So, that’s where I think we are. What does that look like? I think it is important to examine not just the structure we are in and the individuals who must navigate these structures but to also examine the primary means by which they interact with structures. Rarely do people walk up to privilege or class or race and ask politely for their needs to be met. Instead individuals engage structural processes like inequality and privilege and class and race through organizational processes. I don’t throw rocks at lady justice. I file a lawsuit in a state bureaucracy. I don’t kick racism in its teeth. I organize social and political pressure to exert normative pressure on companies to enact diversity policies. We engage our individual agency within structural constraints THROUGH our engagement with organizations. And that is what I would encourage us to examine. Not just the people who bring us where we are and not the structure that creates the terms of “here” but also to the organizational practices that so greatly influence the limits and possibility of individual agency. I believe that organizations are the key to understanding where we are, how we can get from here to there and if we are so inclined to push back against structural processes. There’s been no shortage of talk about 3/5ths compromises around here lately. I’m kinda black so I maybe noticed. But you know what quote bothered me far more than an ill-advised attempt at hip historical allusions? The NY Times story about poor students trying to

navigate the labyrinth of bureaucracy at traditional colleges. If you saw this maybe you saw the admission from a financial aid counselor that of course they inflated (or adjusted) the income of one student’s mother as a matter of normal business practice. If it was wrong, it said, then the parents should have caught it. It seems a simple statement but I would argue that it is a powerful elucidation of how ideologies become embedded in organizational processes that, in turn, define our ability to respond to structural changes. What’s in that statement? Class judgments about parents, status judgments about the student, and bureaucratic distance that makes such judgments seem rational and neutral when their effects are anything but. That’s how we can have multi million dollar funds committed to “income neutral” admissions but have so few actual poor students. That’s what I mean by bureaucracy and organization as a means of reproducing inequality. That extends to how we build distance between commitments to diversity, faculty governance, democratic process and how we actually govern ourselves and our core functions. Sorting people and opportunities, both students and faculty, stratifying opportunity, and signaling who belongs and who doesn’t are all part of similar processes. And it’s being enacted by every sector of higher education, both for-profit and the mighty not-for-profits traditional universities. That conversion of profit-taking and market ideologies from above and below does make this moment in higher education qualitatively different from earlier periods of higher education stratification. I argue that competition in higher ed, evidenced by the rapid stratification unfolding within and between institutions, will only exacerbate these types of organizational behaviors as colleges like Emory attempt to stake claim to its corner of the prestige map. Whether you think this kind of market ethos, managerial approach to education is good or bad, I think it is happening. What do we do? Well there’s a lot there to discuss. And I think discussing is exactly what we need to do. In so doing I would encourage us to situate our re-visioning of liberal arts and humanities and higher education not just in the rankings and peer institution allusions but in the larger social processes that are shaping who are students are – and who they are not – and what kind of bureaucratic decisions are made in the name of outcomes, prestige, technocracy, and “knowledge production”.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful