This is the first in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system. In parts two, three, and four, I will focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do. This part serves as a preface and setup for the following posts (which will probably appear once a week).
A note on influences, citations, ideas
Instead of trying to tease out the who, where, and how I got some of the ideas in this piece, I will up-front acknowledge that this is a melange of thoughts from my reading and from around the web, influenced by the following (among others): Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, Marshall McLuhan, Lawrence Lessig, Donald Norman, Greg Ulmer, Katherine Hayles, Jeff Rice, Steve Krause, Alex Reid, Bradley Dilger, and BoingBoing. Apologies up-front to those I’ve borrowed from but not cited here.
Setting the stage
If you aren’t a regular reader of my blog (or you show up just for the monthly music round ups), you may want to peruse the following posts to set your personal stage for the coming discussion:
The Ghosts of Travel Agents Past
“I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”
“You were always a good friend to me. Thank’ee!”
“You will be haunted by Three Spirits.”
“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob? I — I think I’d rather not.”
“Without their visits, you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow night, when the bell tolls One. Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third, upon the next night, when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!”
It walked backward from him; and at every Step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that, when the apparition reached it, it was wide open.
Scrooge closed the window, and examined the door by which the Ghost had entered. It was double-locked, as he had locked it with his own hands, and the bolts were undisturbed. Scrooge tried to say, “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable. And being, from the emotion he had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or his glimpse of the invisible world, or the dull conversation of the Ghost, or the lateness of the hour, much in need of repose, he went straight to bed, without undressing, and fell asleep on the instant.
How will the rising age of Electracy affect the university? We inhabit a system built on models of learning and information exchange as practiced in the Literate era. While we like to imagine ourselves as exploring and building on the lessons of contemporary media, we come up very short, to my mind. As we develop more and more rigorous ways to digitize pieces of our former workload, universities must re-examine what it is we do and how we understand our relationship to the economies of knowledge and MONEY. Consider these spirits from the past:
- Travel agents – This used to be a profession built on booking plane tickets for people. The Internet destroyed it. The individuals who survived the Internet Tsunami did so as vacation planners, demonstrating their ability to sort from among vacation choices and providing value by doing that sorting work for people.
- Stock brokers – This used to be a profession built on registering trades for people. The Internet destroyed it. The individuals who survived the Internet Tsunami did so as financial planners, demonstrating their ability to sort from among investment choices and providing value by doing that sorting work for people.
- Real Estate Agents – This used to be a profession built on listing and finding homes for people. The Internet destroyed it. The individuals who survived the Internet Tsunami did so as “full service realtors,” demonstrating their ability to make homes saleable through staging, clever marketing, and aggressive foot leather, then doing that work for people.
How does this scenario translate for the university?
- University – This used to be a profession built on credentialing and providing information to people.* The Internet will destroy it. The institutions who survive the Internet Tsunami will do so as what? We need to demonstrate our ability to help people become effective economic participants in the 21st century economy, able to wield modern information systems skillfully and do that work for people.
Electracy demands a different kind of student, a different kind of educator, and a different institution to house them. Let’s hope we build find it before the water gets too high.