Pragmatic preoccupations

I wrote the blog post below, as a re-cap from the Worldviews Pre-Conference  event on April 16th at the University of Toronto. As my example when I spoke on this panel, I discussed the media rhetoric about MOOCs and how it reflects various aspects of the current context of postsecondary education and its “crisis”. You can find the original post, from April 19 2013, at this link: Pragmatic preoccupations.

This past Tuesday afternoon I participated in another panel (‘tis the season!) about higher education, this time at the University of Toronto. The panel was part of a pre-conference event for the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education, addressing how the “pragmatic agenda” is represented in media coverage of higher education. According to the event description, this agenda includes a focus on issues such as privatization of costs (and tuition fees), technological solutions to systemic problems, the “completion agenda” and job training, and emphasis on the value of STEM disciplines alongside critiques of the liberal arts. The other participants on the panel were Janice Gross Stein, Clifford Orwin, and Scott Jaschik, and the moderator was Rick Salutin. The keynote talk was given by journalist Tony Burman, formerly of Al Jazeera.

I’ve been looking forward to Worldviews because media coverage of higher education is an area in which I’ve had an interest for some time. I think this is at least in part because my undergraduate degree was in Communication Studies with a focus on mass media and linguistics. In my MA thesis I analysed university PR, and since I started my PhD I’ve done several projects involving media coverage of university-related issues such as the York University strike in 2008-2009, and the CERC announcements in 2010, and written a fewblog posts on the theme of media and academe. Aside from my interest in these issues, I also attended the last Worldviews conference and thought it was an unusually interesting mix of attendees (primarily from the media and from academe, and international in scope).

Before the event, we discussed the panel format and Mr. Salutin proposed a question in advance: “what are your frustrations and criticisms regarding media treatments of the pragmatic agenda in higher education?” The response I gave to this was that, probably because I research this area, I find oftentimes complex issues are simplified in media articles in ways that more clearly support one argument or another that is associated with some particular agenda. The way a problem is framed tends to point to a particular solution. Since so many problems seem to be framed primarily in economic terms, there is a certain reductionist logic that recurs in the discussions.

The example I raised was that of the media coverage on MOOCs. I’ve written a piece about this phenomenon already, and I’ve also been following the ongoing coverage from a variety of sources since it first exploded last year. During the panel discussion I found that while I wanted to use MOOCs as an example of media discourse, the debate drifted to the pros and cons of MOOCs and not to the way that they are talked about and positioned within existing political, economic, and institutional contexts and discourses. I think if we focus in on that positioning, there are clear connections to the most salient post-secondary “crises” of the day. This is part of why MOOCs in the abstract have become a kind of popular trope for educational change, if not in mainstream Canadian media, then certainly in the higher ed news and in a number of U.S. media sources. For example (pardon the scare quotes):

  • Emphasis on curing a problem of “scale” through technological intervention, which is presented (inaccurately) as a form of genuine accessibility;
  • Focus on “outcomes” rather than (educational) processes;
  • Metaphors of “delivery” and “production” that point to the objectification and commodification of knowledge and learning;
  • The assumption that what the university does can and should be “unbundled” for “efficiency” and “flexibility”;
  • “Value” is defined in a specific way, i.e. economically;
  • “Quality” is envisioned on market terms, e.g. “elite” professors (who efficiently deliver educational “content”  to tens of thousands of students);
  • Concomitant critiques of faculty mediocrity, particularly in terms of teaching, placed in relation to rising tuition fees;
  • Framing of higher education “crisis” and necessary radical, institutional change with metaphors of inevitability such as “avalanche”, “tsunami”, “storm” and “wave”, all of which invoke natural disasters over which people have no control, and to which they must “respond” quickly and appropriately.

Further to the MOOCs example, we can also look at the amount of “debate” driven by big name players in (ed-) tech and publishing right now, and how the agendas there can play in to the fragmentation and privatization of higher education. This rhetoric supports the strategy of commercializing and commodifying education for a larger, international “market”. In addition there have been a number of articles in the mainstream press by “thought leaders” such as Clay Shirky and Thomas Friedman, that demonstrate false analogies and hyperbolic assumptions that fit with much of what I’ve described above.

Thankfully, raising this example didn’t totally derail the rest of the discussion, though overall the panel did make me wish I had the time right now to do more research on media coverage, particularly the  “link bait” pieces that seem to be popping up with more regularity these days (such as the recent “don’t do a PhD” article in Slate, and last year’s Forbes article describing faculty work as relaxing). These provide us with another example of how important issues can be hijacked in the name of raising an angry response that generates pageviews – in other words, the changing political economy of the media interacts with the context of higher education and influences how it’s talked about and understood. I think that’s a good reason for us to pay attention to that relationship and to the kinds of talk it produces.

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