Higher Education

prestige education in the network age

Perhaps you have seen Steven Pinker’s response to William Deresiewicz’s “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” in which they variously decry and defend the Ivy League. I can’t really speak to the conditions of an Ivy League education, nor do they especially interest me. My daughter is a high school junior this year and an exceptional student, good enough to compete for an Ivy League admission. Her friends are similarly talented. I see in them many of the qualities that concern Deresiewicz and Pinker both. It’s not the kids’ fault at all. They are being driven to become caricatures of the ideal college applicant. What does it mean to be the kid with the high test scores, the AP classes, the high GPA, high school sports, science olympiad, club officer roles, conspicuous volunteerism and so on? I think it’s a reasonable question to ask. I think it’s obvious the students and parents pursue such institutions for the prestige associate with the name that does seem to translate into better job opportunities. Who knows, maybe the people with Ivy League degrees are better humans than the rest of us…. probably not though.

How far does that prestige effect extend beyond the Ivies? To the elite private liberal arts colleges, certainly. To a handful of other elite private and public universities (MIT, Stanford, Berkeley,  e.g.), no doubt. For example, consider this list of AAU universities. Do they all get to be “prestigious”? And if so, what does that mean? Does it mean that large numbers of students apply from around the country and the world to attend your university? Not necessarily. I’m not saying these aren’t good schools. They have very good reputations. They are obviously all “highly ranked” by some metrics, which is why they are AAU schools. My point is simply in terms of the marketplace of student admissions. What does prestige actually get you and who cares about it? I don’t think this is an idle question, particularly for the humanities, which are a prestige-driven, reputation economy. The typical humanities departmental strategy is to hire for, support, and promote faculty prestige/reputation, and the metrics are driven by this valuation to some extent as well. However, how many undergraduate students at large public research universities, for instance, are choosing majors based upon national department reputation? Put differently, what is the reputation of reputation?

I want to offer an odd juxtaposition to this. Also recently in the news is Apple’s latest iPhone. See, for example, Wired magazine’s speculation on the impact of the new iPhone on filmmaking. I don’t want to make this about Apple, but more generally about technological churn. We’ve already had widespread consumer filmmaking for at least as long as we’ve had YouTube, but as the phone technology improves the possibilities expand. Now perhaps I should use this juxtaposition as an opportunity to talk about digital literacy, but that’s not exactly my point. Instead, the point I want to make is that technological churn shifts the ways in which reputation is produced and maintained. While I can share in the general academic skepticism about Apple ads and their suggestion of how their technologies enable people to do cool things, at the same time, in a broader sense, human capacities are being altered through their interaction with technologies.

It’s completely obvious in a humanities department, where reputations are built on publishing monographs, that reputation is driven by technology. The principle is not foreign to us, even if we are generally blind to the ways in which our disciplines are tied to technologies. Just like the prestige of getting into an Ivy, reputation hinges on access. This creates a series of feedback loops. Elite humanities departments can support their faculty in monograph production, so they produce more books, so the departments remain elite. It used to be that filmmaking was expensive and technically complex, so only professionals could really make and distribute films. It’s still hard to make a good film, but the barriers are otherwise lower. So I suppose this could be an argument for digital scholarship and/or changing the ways in which we work as humanities scholars, but I just want to focus on reputation/prestige.

If reputation is about our participation in a technological network (of books, e.g.) and we are building an entire disciplinary and departmental infrastructure and strategy to facilitate that participation, then how is that really different from Deresiewicz’s zombie undergrads with their endless activities? Aren’t we both just building reputations within some arbitrary network? If we are spending hours upon years on dissertation research and monograph writing to get jobs and tenure and improve department reputation, so that we can “get into” or stay in categories like AAU, then we can point to the monetary rewards that accrue, just like those aspiring Harvard students. However, just like those students we are investing a lot of effort and money in those goals as well. IF you get into (and out of) your Ivy, then you can probably feel confident that your investment is going to work out. For those of us in the humanities, the future is less certain because the sustainability of the reputation-technology network we employ is more tenuous.

So what will our future reputation network look like? Obviously it won’t be iPhone filmmaking, but it obviously won’t be monographs either. If the 20th-century English department was born from Victorian literary culture, industrial printing, electrification, and the increased demand for a print literate workforce, then what analogous things might we say of the 21st-century version of the discipline? If 20th-century scholarly labor and reputation in turn hinged about our ability to study and engage with these technologies, then what would be the 21st-century analogy?

The problem that Pinker and Deresiewicz have is that the criteria upon which applicant reputations are built makes no sense, which in their view does harm in the end to both the students and the institution. We could say the same thing about the humanities, where the cause of the reputational disconnect seems fairly obvious. What is less obvious is how one goes about shifting those terms.

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