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Speculative Diction

Linkbait and debate


A recent article on Slate‘s website came to my attention only because so many academics in my personal Twittersphere were reacting negatively to it. The article caused outrage with its discussion of EdX founder Anant Agarwal’s suggestion that professors who create and present material for (video-based) MOOCs could be replaced by Hollywood stars, who would lure more students to enrol in and complete the courses. This is presented as the logical solution to the problem of needing more camera-savvy and student-friendly presenters, since not all profs are up to the task. Further commentary from Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun is supportive of Agarwal’s approach. I won’t link to the Slate piece here, but you can Google “The new rock-star professor” (if you must).

The article captures our attention by positioning Agarwal’s and Thrun’s comments within a particular frame of speculation, i.e. that professors could be “replaced” by stars who appeal to the “masses” in a system that un-bundles the work of teaching into user interface design, content production, “delivery”, and assessment. It’s not a neutral framing, because it puts forth a vision of education that subjugates the expertise of faculty (and of educators in general) to the logic of markets and to the “big data” that are assumed to generate more important pedagogical insights than experienced professionals can. It also conflates learning with “content delivery”, espousing interaction and personalisation while in practice apparently relying on what Freire called the “banking model” of education.

But to turn back to Slate, they’re certainly not the only publication to realise that anger generates interest, that there are ways of making academics angry, and that this anger leads to pageviews (maybe we should call them “rage-views”). Slate’s a bit late in catching on to a game that’s been played successfully before by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, The Economist, Forbes, the New York Times, and others. Popular articles include those that take on the work-life balance and/or salary of the “average” professor, or that reek of unexamined privilege and spark strong feminist or anti-racist critiques, or of course those that pronounce on the future of higher education, which is conveniently subject to apocalyptic speculation that can continue ad nauseum (because the future is always…the future, right? Fair game!).

This time around the article was written by Jeff R. Young, who’s also the tech editor for the Chronicle. In fact part of the piece is a modified excerpt from his e-book, the title of which contains the words “MOOC”, “high-tech”, and “disruption”. Based on its description, the book looks more like a cram guide for busy senior administrators, to whom I’d recommend instead Audrey Watters’ blog Hack Education. In the meantime, academic rage at Young’s article has probably brought a good deal of attention to his book (I couldn’t tell you if it’s boosted sales).

Taking apart articles like the one Young published in Slate is practically a bore at this point. It so clearly sets out to prod at academic sore spots, taking consumerist logic to extremes while playing on a major theme from recent higher ed reporting (MOOCs can hardly be called “news” by now). Even better is that authors who write on this topic don’t need to make up their own extreme speculations, since the quotes they’re using are taken directly from ed-tech celebs like Agarwal and Thrun whose popularity in turn is strengthened by their edgy proclamations. The excerpt doesn’t address whether stars like Matt Damon would be willing to work for free in the name of a good (educational) cause. But the “logic” reflected both in his comments and in the way they’re framed by Young could be said to assume the insecurity of “Ivory Tower” academics facing impending obsolescence, while playing up the often-self-fulfilling predictions made by ed-tech upstarts – “Casting Damon in a MOOC is just an idea, for now” (emphasis added).

I was thinking of all this during the panel on higher education and the media that I attended last Friday afternoon. I thought the facilitator (Anne McNeilly) and the three journalists on the panel (Léo Charbonneau, Scott Jaschik, and Simone Chiose) did a great job of explaining the context in which coverage of education issues is produced, and how this connects to the kinds of critiques they hear about that coverage. Not only are universities (for example) complex institutions with many facets that aren’t entirely visible even to those who participate in them every day; journalists must also develop ways of “finding” the stories and making them relatable to a much larger audience than the those assumed by most individuals, and they must do this with resources that are limited and not necessarily predictable.

The economic logic of the media, particularly those sources that operate primarily in online territory, tends to be one of attention. Linkbait is linkbait, and even the most offensive article can bring attention and start a “debate” that draws people back to the site repeatedly either through comments, or through a subsequent series of “response” articles. The idea is to gain readers, whereas for some academics, it seems the general goal is the opposite: to shave one’s audience down to the narrowest slice of an expert readership. While academics engaging in this kind of practice could be (and have been) accused of a form of professional solipsism, on the other hand media priorities in some cases encourage particular forms of gleefully narcissistic provocation, which we see in various mainstream publications (here’s an example; and its antidote). These are all dynamics that must be taken into consideration by those working in either higher education or journalism (or both) if coverage of postsecondary issues is going to work for “both sides”, i.e. for both educational and media institutions, as well as for their publics.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Kent MacDonald / November 13, 2013 at 08:45

    Terrific comments – balanced and rational perspective that reminds us to stop falling into the sensational trap of “apocalyptic speculation”. I look forward to reading Ms Fullick’s dissertation one day….