when students get their "money's worth" and other academic clickbait

Without laying this all at the feet of social media, in today’s fast-paced modern world (ahem), the competition in the attention economy appears to push more extreme positions. There’s nothing really new there, as the sensationalism of tabloids attest, but that seemed more avoidable in the past. The modern instantiation of clickbait is far more pervasive, and unlike spam, we pass it around willingly. Indeed we have reached a moment when it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate among actual news, genuine concerns, and clickbait, largely because effective clickbait draws on the other two. There’s a nice article in the Atlantic by Megan Garber called “The Argument Economy” which takes on some of this.

But my point is that this is not just social media. Perhaps you’ve seen (on Facebook, of course) news of the recent bill in Iowa whereby professors whose student evaluations fall below a certain level would be automatically fired. Even more amusing (or at least it would be amusing if it were fiction) is the suggestion that the five worst professors above the minimum line would face being voted off the campus by students in some reality game show fashion. The general sense is that this bill will not become law. As such it might be fair to call this clickbait legislation. And if NPR reports on the matter is that clickbait?

Similarly when the Chronicle, theTelegraph, and the National Review all want to report on American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s report of an apparent decline in the requirement of Shakespeare in English majors, do we call that news or clickbait? Is this clickbait curriculum? The promulgation of academic clickbait does not preclude the possibility of more serious conversations about teaching or curriculum. In fact, those conversations are certainly happening, but I imagine they have an effect on those conversations, especially when those participating in the conversation might get most of their information from such outlets.

I see these clickbait offerings as presenting two familiar commonplaces about college education, neither of which is especially helpful. As the NPR article reports, the emphasis on teacher evaluations is ostensibly about ensuring students get their “money’s worth.” This refers, of course, to our concerns about student debt and the cost of college but also to the economic valuation of college degrees as investments in human capital. On the flipside, the cultural conservatism of a group like ACTA and its plea for Shakespeare reflects a competing but equally unhelpful vision of education as the transmission of traditional cultural values.

To be clear, I don’t have any investment in conversations about how to structure a degree in literary studies. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with students viewing their college education in terms of how it might connect to their professional life after college. Indeed these are really both discussions about how to value a college education. Unfortunately the commonplaces of academic clickbait don’t appear to provide much affordance for trying to address this challenge. In their defense, though, that’s not their purpose, so I guess their ok as long as we understand we won’t get anything productive out of this kind of rhetoric.

In all fairness, there should be some standard of expectations to which faculty are held as teachers, even beyond tenure, with the possibility of losing one’s job as a kind of measure of last resort. However, to get there, we’d really have to create a culture of teaching that doesn’t exist. Graduate students in most disciplines receive little or no training as educators. At best, we tend to rely on mentoring. Furthermore, we know teaching is only part of the job, and research productivity is often the primary measure of tenure. We’d have to shift that (at least at some institutions). So, could you imagine your department offering a series of professional development workshops for faculty in the area of teaching and the faculty showing up on a regular basis? If they did, we’d probably have to have some serious conversations about what constitutes good teaching. That would be weird, if not horrifying. That’s how far we are from valuing teaching as a university culture.

If we did have such conversations in an English department, we would probably want to talk about what we teach and why we teach it. Maybe there would be faculty in such a department that would share ACTA’s view of Shakespeare. This commonplace seems to set up a battle among pragmatic pandering to student interests in pop culture to attract numbers, some version of the culture wars over the canon, and a commitment to the traditions of literary studies. Not surprisingly as a rhetorician in an English department, I think staging a conversation about an English major in terms of literary studies is missing the boat. What would it mean to establish a purpose for an English degree that didn’t mention literature at all? Then one might articulate how literary studies might serve that purpose. Of course, there’s likely a disciplinary issue there, as that would require establishing the study of literature as useful to some end other than its own, as designed to do something other than reproduce its own disciplinary paradigm.

As impossible/comical as it is to imagine sitting in a series of teaching workshops with faculty, it’s even more absurd to imagine English departments entertaining the possibility of an English major that was not at least 75% literary studies. Sure, there could be some separate majors or concentrations, but can anyone imagine an English department with a single major where only 50% of the courses addressed literature? It sounds absurd, even though 50% of the jobs in English every year are not in literary studies. They’re rhet/comp, technical writing, creative writing, and so on. It sounds absurd until one remembers that most of what most English departments do, in terms of raw numbers of students served, is teach writing through first-year composition. It’s like having a department that taught BIO 101, but then was otherwise a Chemistry department. Of course we now have biochemistry departments.

In any case, academic clickbait isn’t doing us any favors in terms of opening some productive dialogue about the values driving higher education. All it likely does is create reactionary positions by espousing extreme views.

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