Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Déjà vu, déjà vu (or, The Jazz Singer Had Intertitles)

Like everyone else, I'm following the events at UVa with great interest and concern. The students running the UVa paper, the Cavalier Daily, deserve recognition for their serious journalism: they FOIAed the emails of the Board of Visitors pertaining to their removal of President Sullivan.* Talk about "strategic dynamism."

Not a real newspaper. (From Singin' in the Rain, 1952)
The emails are frankly shocking: they seem to indicate that the Board was acting not out of vision, but out of a fear: that MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), à la Stanford's Udacity (I know, worst name ever) and MIT's EdX (second worst) were revolutionizing the university, the way that The Jazz Singer made silent film obsolete...according to Singin' in the Rain (1952), although not according to actual film history. In the Board's view, MOOCs were about to make UVa obsolete, and Teresa Sullivan wasn't jumping on the bandwagon with sufficient "strategic dynamism." And where did they get this idea? From an article in the Wall Street Journal and a David Brooks column.

Allow that to sink in for a minute. They took a David Brooks column seriously.

This is a guy who has the temerity (Udacity?) to think he's alternately a sociologist and an evolutionary biologist, but is not qualified to be either one.** The Board of Visitors wanted to run UVa "like a business"—but, as David Karpf points out, in a fantasy world in which businesses actually took their cues from David Brooks columns. It's kind of like thinking Singin' in the Rain offers an actionable model of the history of technology, the key difference being that Gene Kelley and Debbie Reynolds, unlike Brooks, can dance.

The bitter irony is that UVa is actually packed to the gills with experts in online learning and media—smart people versed in the literature who have actually considered this as a complex pedagogical and research question, who see online learning as an intellectual opportunity and not just a cheesy get-rich-quick scheme. One of the Board's most outspoken critics, Siva Vaidhyanathan, is a media studies professor; UVa is also home to the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the Scholars Lab. I'm sure I haven't even scratched the surface with these few examples. But why ask experts, when you can pass around a David Brooks column?

There's a widespread stereotype that academics are anti-business, a stereotype usually framed in a notion of academics as head-in-the-clouds ivory-tower-dwellers and business as "real" ("economic realities," folks! also "excellence"!).*** But that's not really true. What academics almost by their very nature oppose is ignorance and anti-intellectualism.

Given what we know from the emails FOIAed by the Cavalier Daily, the recent actions of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia are driven by a profound, thoroughgoing anti-intellectualism, one that rejects expertise as such.

This is far from an isolated incident—just one whose consequences were sudden, drastic, and highly visible.

You may remember a minor uproar in early May when a blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Ed (of all places), Naomi Schaefer Riley, declared Black Studies a worthless discipline because she had read some dissertation titles did not understand them. I called this "anti-intellectualism, déjà vu," because we'd seen it all before. At the time, the world's most ineffectual PR flack, the Chronicle's Amy Lynn Alexander, suggested that readers redirect their outrage toward the defunding of the California State University system, which was happening concurrently.

Gautam Premnath rightly pointed out that anti-intellectualism like Riley's—the idea that a pundit could just dismiss whole disciplines out of hand based on a proud lack of knowledge—was precisely what made such attacks on public education possible.

Here we see it again: same song, different verse. Why consult experts at our own university on matters of substance in which they are expert, when we can listen to a pundit? Why, for that matter, study media history when you can just watch Singin' in the Rain? Why aim for true when plausible is right in front of you?

Why, indeed, go to university at all?

No wonder the Board of Visitors thought the University of Virginia was being made obsolete by TED Talks on the internet. Given what the Cavalier Daily has uncovered, that really is what passes for knowledge with them.

Cross-posted at Arcade.

* I kind of love "FOIA" as a verb.

**Enjoy the Mark Liberman classic "David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist." Liberman is one of the few people who still goes to the trouble of zinging pundits for not knowing what on earth they're talking about. Most of us just accept it as part of life.

***If I could figure out where I laid down my volume of Henry James essays, I would quote the early review of Nana in which James defends against the notion that things that are nasty have some kind of privileged reality-status. I can't seem to find it at the moment, and this is probably going to bother me until I do. Argh.

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