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Or, as its originator put it, There’s no there there.

How do you make a university disappear?

In the age of the simulacrum, there are many ways.

There’s the process this blog has long called Online Makeover. You phone it in. You put it all online. You go the University of Phoenix route. Plenty of respectable universities are well on their way to this form of disappearance. Their professors outsource their grading to a drudge in India. They outsource the actual running – call it teaching – of the course to for-profit vendors under contract to their university. Vendor-provided “facilitators” do everything, and professors do nothing; they merely clock in to their online course occasionally to satisfy their supervisor that they’re doing something … For, as the language of an AAUP draft report on online changes notes:

Online teaching platforms and learning management systems may permit faculty members to learn whether students in a class did their work and how long they spent on certain assignments. Conversely, however, a college or university administration could use these systems to determine whether faculty members were logging into the service “enough,” spending “adequate” time on certain activities, and the like.

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And speaking of professors as supervised clockers-in, reason number two for the disappearance of the postmodern American university can be understood by considering what’s going on lately at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill: mandated spot inspections of classes.

To prove the legitimacy of classes, administrators have fanned out to hundreds of classrooms to verify that students and professors are present. Some departments even discussed bringing in photographers to document classes, according to one professor, Lew Margolis, a faculty member in public health.

As the real university ceases to exist (in UNC’s case, under the weight of hundreds of no there there courses for athletes and assorted others), professors must do their bit to persuade accrediting agencies their university does actually exist…

We DO believe in UNC! We DO we DO we DO we DO!

See, here’s what they’re up against:

[One University of North Carolina student took a class] in the fall of 2005 on Southern Africa that never met. He was a Florida native and undergraduate student paying out-of-state tuition at the time. He wrote the university seeking a tuition credit to make up for the education he did not receive.

[Julius] Nyang’oro was the professor…

“I visited (Nyang’oro) once, when he approved my topic and told me we would not have any scheduled meetings or talks, only that I could contact him if I had a problem,” Ferguson wrote.

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Universities aren’t universities because they can show that they have coaches; they’re universities because they can show that they have professors. Thus professors, at the postmodern American university, become – symbolically – the most important group on campus, routinely wheeled out to show the world that their university exists. While contract facilitators gradually take over the teaching, it will be the postmodern professor’s job to pace the campus pensively, ideally wearing an academic gown, as the professors at the College on the Hill, the central location in Don DeLillo’s iconic postmodern American novel White Noise do.

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Even when the postmodern American classroom exists, it may not really be anywhere in any meaningful sense. I’m talking about professors who do meet their students, human being to human being, but then instantly turn out the classroom lights, fire up the PowerPoint, put their heads down, and read out loud, while their students gaze at sports and porn on their laptops, play on their smart phones, or take advantage of the setting to get much-needed sleep.

The sleep thing goes to a third significant way in which universities disappear: They go from party schools to party businesses.
A professor at simulacral University of West Virginia explains the shift:

[T]he party school is [now] a business, and alcohol is part of the business model. Schools lure students to attend their schools with the promise of sports, other leisure activities and overall fun. Part of this fun, whether schools like it or not, is drinking. Thus, even as university officials want to keep students safe, they also need to keep their consumers happy. This means letting the alcohol industry do what it does best – sell liquor.

There have always been party schools; the new thing, the thing that makes the party school go from partying to disappeared, is the university as party business, the recruitment and retention of students largely as a function of the provision of alcohol. Places like the University of Iowa, which are basically already distilleries, have had to weather a little dissent from students and faculty, but you can’t argue with the revenues, and UI is clearly recruiting students big-time on the basis of its alcoholic rep. So the synergy here is hung over students plus PowerPointing professors… At the distilleries, there’s really no reason to hold any non-virtual class. These schools will go, or are going, online. The one surviving form of human to human contact at these schools will take place in their stadiums.

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2 Responses to “Motto, Postmodern American University: SI NIHIL IBI”

  1. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    And of course one of the dangers of administrators’ supervision of/checking in on classes (which, sadly, is to some extent justified) will be stifling of experimentation/innovation in favor of “supervisable” forms of teaching. At the face to face level, this might mean discouraging field days, library days,computer classroom days, and/or conferencing (at least not without some sort of system of documentation, which could get cumbersome). Online, it could mean limiting instructors to forms of teaching, communication and/or feedback which are most easily supervisable (probably those built into a single university-approved LMS), rather than allowing instructors to pick among, and experiment with, a variety of methods.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Contingent Cassandra: All true, and there are other implications. The online for-profit facilitated model assumes that the professor has the course entirely worked out in advance. You give the facilitator your syllabus and your course objectives; the facilitator, with her specialized online techie skills for which the university is paying very dearly (and is locked into paying for for years, in order to make the deal profitable for the for-profit), dudes the thing up in terms of screen presentation, time management, student contact, cute intro films of the professor, etc., etc., and away we go.

    Of course many of us routinely construct tentative syllabi precisely because we want some wiggle room in terms of ongoing alterations, additions, etc., in our courses. These changes are based on our ongoing sense of the particular class – its dynamics, its personalities – or they may be based on a slightly shifting sense as we teach of the subject matter itself — or we may encounter something in our reading during that semester which we want to incorporate, etc., etc. (Especially if we’re teaching something rather of the moment, like postmodernism). Perhaps a global event occurs and a political science professor wants to shift things around in order to devote a class to it…. I’m not keen on giving outdoor classes, but a few years ago a small honors group convinced me on a gorgeous spring day that we could make it work… I went ahead and did it, but at a once-respectable school like North Carolina Chapel Hill I wouldn’t be able to do it because my supervisors might be making one of their spot quality checks.

    The American University: Where Quality is Job One.

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