Where the simulacrum ends.
UD thanks Barney.
Where the simulacrum ends.
UD thanks Barney.
Kevin Carey lifts discussion of jock school University of North Carolina Chapel Hill to the higher, existential level that was always implicit in nihilistic events there.
Like all universities, particularly those with prestige, [UNC] depends on the idea that it actually exists…
Yes. But this is postmodern America, and the school might be a simulacrum. Lots of universities – all the online ones – are simulacra.
The writing that follows Carey’s words about the non-existence of UNC is so strong that I would like to quote it in its entirety.
UNC Chapel Hill is not a coherent undergraduate institution. It’s a holding company that provides shared marketing, finance, and physical plant services for a group of autonomous departments, which are in turn holding companies for autonomous scholars who teach as they please. This is the only possible explanation for the years-long, wholly undetected operation of the African and Afro-American Studies Department credit fraud scam. Or, rather, it’s the only possible explanation other than a huge, organization-wide conspiracy in which the university administration, department, and football team colluded to hand out fake grades to hundreds of athletes.
The university, of course, vehemently denies that anything resembling the latter scenario is true. Despite damning emails between [Julius] Nyang’oro and the athletic department, UNC is desperately selling the story that the entire credit fraud operation was the work of just two people–Nyang’oro and an assistant–and involved no athletic department wrongdoing of any kind. That’s because while academic misconduct gets you nothing more than a wrist-slap from your accreditor and [a] year of sad/absurd “monitoring” in which the university administration randomly checks classes to make sure they actually exist, athletic misconduct can cost the university things it actually cares about, like money, bowl appearances, and athletic scholarships.
In other words, the only way for UNC administrators to avoid blame for gross academic misconduct is to admit that academic conduct was never their concern.
Meanwhile, the football team must be saved because the intense tribal loyalty generated by big-time sports is one of the chief mechanisms employed by universities to create the illusion that they exist. I’ve lived in Chapel Hill and experienced the closest thing to full-scale Dionysian revelry one is likely to find in modern America, on Franklin Street after the men’s basketball team won it all. It was thrilling. It felt like we were one people, all of us, conquerors. But it was also an illusion (I wasn’t a student at the time), a false consciousness manufactured by the university to conceal its non-existence as an academic institution.
The cynicism and dishonesty inherent to that seep into the cracks of university life, occasionally as outright criminality but far more often as mediocrity and simple indifference. If Julius Nyang’oro had simply bothered to show up in a room on campus from time to time, say something–anything–to some “student” athletes, and hand out a bunch of A-minuses, he never would have been caught. In the modern non-university, he wouldn’t even have been doing something wrong.
UD has a category on this blog called Where the Simulacrum Ends, and it chronicles the many ways in which high-tech postmodern American culture is making the nuisance of conducting an actual life – a life outside of one’s bedroom, kitchen, and tinted-window car – a thing of the past.
This category has things in common with another UD category – Online Makeover – because among the education-related de-actualizing she chronicles (here, “actual” means going to public buildings and being with other physical humans) is the transformation of the country’s universities to – well, the strongest current model is Southern New Hampshire University, but pretty much everyone else is bringing up the rear. Public life in general in the United States is disappearing, and universities are no exception.
And of course that most salient feature of our higher education institutions – their football games – is also undergoing obsolescence. It’s happening in the professional leagues; it’s happening in the university leagues.
Before long, players may be performing in front of empty stands, with those most interested in the game sitting or standing miles away.
Why should anyone care, though? Ticket sales are no longer the main source of revenue for sports leagues. That may be a fair economical point to be made, but is there nothing to say about the toll this may take on integrity of the games played? Does the game gain a feel of becoming more of a simulation that we score through fantasy points as opposed to real-live action taking place right in front of our eyes?
Integrity… integrity… That strange word seems the core of this statement, yet what does it mean? What does it mean to say that a university or a football game has integrity?
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.
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.
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.
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.
$350 an hour for copying a clutch of Wikipedia pages: While his students go into debt and fail to get jobs, a Georgetown law professor shows everyone exactly how postmodern simulacral culture works. He gets an expert witness for the prosecution gig and lifts much of his expert report from the web. Look Ma – No hands! And I’m getting $350 an hour at the same time! Are you proud of me?
But now he’s gone and fucked up the case.
“[James] Feinerman’s pervasive plagiarism from this unreliable and error-prone source, which has been rejected by federal courts all over the country, casts serious doubt on the reliability of his entire testimony,” … said [a defense lawyer] in a court filing.
Now you know what Feinerman’s gonna say when he’s finally forced to say something. You know because for years you’ve been reading this blog on the subject of the atelier crowd, right? Feinerman’s gonna blame it on the people he hired to write his expert report for him.
Really, really look Ma no hands.
Big-time athletics enriches the academic setting in so many ways. At North Carolina Chapel Hill
administrators are making surprise inspections in class to make sure courses are actually taking place
because… you know… Julius Nyang’oro and all…
UD‘s advice to UNC Chapel Hill professors: Spruce up and look your best! You only have one chance to make a good first impression.
UD thanks Christopher.
China is famous for its copy-cat architecture: you can find replicas of everything from the Eiffel Tower and the White House to an Austrian village across its vast land. But now they have gone one step further: recreating a building that hasn’t even been finished yet. A building designed by the Iraqi-British architect Dame Zaha Hadid for Beijing has been copied by a developer in Chongqing, south-west China, and now the two projects are racing to be completed first… [The plagiarized project] the other is being built at a much faster rate than [Hadid’s].
… that even UD, who prides herself on her grasp of our simulacral world, is having a little trouble.
It’s a diploma mill in Wyoming — nothing to see there; hundreds of thousands of diploma mills operate all over the world, and Wyoming is one of the most pro-diploma-mill states in America (God forbid the feds interfere with private enterprise). But even by Wyoming’s give-a-shit standards, the gloriously named Degree in a Day (the website provided in the Star Tribune story no longer functions) represents a problem. Dig:
The website tells visitors that purchasers can receive diplomas “in the traditional university manner printed on traditional paper with traditional fonts in the traditional format,” plus official transcripts, signed letters of verification to for use with an employer and letters of recommendation from the dean and president.
Under a tab called, “About Degree in a Day,” the website says it “offers verifiable and authentic life experience degrees from our own ‘Anonymous Universities.’” It continues, “We will never publish the name or allow it to be associated with this site to anyone other than alumni. We do this to ensure our alumni can feel confident there will not be any negative press online about their degree.”
The website “gives examples of legitimate-appearing university websites that it promises to construct in order to give purchasers ‘further proof their degree is in fact authentic,’” according to the complaint.
So… UD‘s been trying to figure this one out. Here’s what she’s come up with. If she’s right about the business model, it represents an authentic advance in the industry.
As soon as a diploma mill’s name becomes known, it becomes notorious. Coverage of the scam will invariably refer to “the notorious degree mill, LaSalle University,” or whatever. In order to avoid instantly stigmatizing the millions of people who’ve gotten bogus degrees from this or that outfit, Degree in a Day will tailor-make a pretend online university just for you. It will come up with a name (the model assumes one will never run out of plausible-sounding university names, and this seems to UD a reasonable assumption) that will be known only to you and to the few to non-existent employers who ever bother to check your credentials.
One particularly brilliant aspect of this model involves (I assume) the ability at a moment’s notice to change the university from which you graduated. Once you’ve been run out of town because of the exposure of your fake Cambridgetown Institute of Technology degree, you can go back to Degree in a Day and have them construct Oxfordshire Institute of Technology.
It was always about the superiority of sport to intellect – American universities were willing to spend millions of tax dollars and tuition dollars on coaches instead of academic programs because nothing sustained school spirit and generated alumni gifts like stadiums packed with excited students. And anyway all that sports money would eventually benefit the academic side of the university. A win-win situation.
Yet even the thickest heads in big-time university sports are beginning to notice that nothing in this model works. Even when schools give tickets away, fewer and fewer students attend games. Away games are often a total joke, with a few hundred tickets sold and even those simulacral — blocks of seats some corporation purchased for some reason, but no actual human being wants to use any of them, so a distinction is now drawn between live gate and… dead gate? Simulacral gate.
Officials at lower-tier bowls “don’t even believe the (attendance) numbers they give you,” a BCS bowl executive told the American-Statesman. “They’re counting the tickets schools contractually are forced to buy. If they had to sell tickets, we’d probably have 15 bowl games. But that’s not financial reality. You’ve got TV money and sponsorships propping them up.”
Propping them up is one way to put it. Running them would be a better way, since the schools – beyond springing for the coaches and all – have vanishingly little to do with the whole thing, so that university football in America right now is essentially a bunch of tv programs featuring motion on a field in front of vast numbers of empty seats.
Thick heads are being scratched in athletics offices around the nation as to why no one’s showing up (the numbers are drastically down pretty much everywhere). They’ve kind of gone through their traditional excuses (distance, weather, losing seasons, blahblah) and the numbers keep plummeting, and that’s forcing them to scratch their heads yet more.
Let’s see if we can get somewhere with this.
When your culture is simulacral – when everybody relates to the world via images (online universities, tv-mediated sports events) – the whole concept of physical presence falls away. Why be anywhere? Desperate universities talk about “enhancing the stadium experience,” but beyond making sure everyone’s sloshed they haven’t been able to come up with much. They spend millions on huge – yes – screens – the notorious Adzillatrons – and don’t consider the possibility that when you screen the event at the event (interspersed with screaming relentless advertisements) you take away any sense of immediacy and encourage people to reason their way to future non-attendance. (“Hm. I’m paying three hundred dollars to watch the game on an Adzillatron screen. I can watch it at home on my own screen.”)
And it’s a problem that just keeps feeding itself. Consider the loyal season ticket holder who thinks he’s really lucky because he gets guaranteed seats to every game. He gets to the game and no one else is there – except for a bunch of yahoos who stay long enough to get drunk and then leave halfway through. Eventually he’s going to stop attending. No one likes to feel like a chump.
The solution will come from advanced robotics. The networks running university football, seeing that viewership is also down, will figure part of it is the empty stadium. The empty stadium says to the viewer at home that maybe he’s a chump too — maybe fewer and fewer actual people share his enthusiasm for the game. To counteract this, the networks will purchase tens of thousands of humanoids programmed to remain in their seats and get excited.
The great thing about big-time university sports, we’re told, is how much excitement and esprit de corps it brings to campus…
Or, uh, to 750 miles from campus.
Once you get into the sort of sports debt the University of Southern Mississippi is in – they’re draining academics to deal with their majorly in the red program – you “need to think about solvency, rather than the fan base,” says the head of the faculty senate. Whatever the most lucrative venue for the game, you’ve got to go there, so forget about actual students and alumni attending.
Strange, ain’t it? UD doesn’t associate post-modernism with places like Hattiesburg, but the simulacrum’s alive and well in Dixie Land.
…says Woody Allen, is just showing up; but UD wonders if he’s ever read Baudrillard on the postmodern simulacrum. Not showing up, these days, is far more powerful. Having your name appear as an instructor in a course catalog, a faculty member in a new university’s promotional materials, or a co-author on a scientific article, is pretty much the whole deal these days for a lot of people. You go to Harvard because Professor Famous teaches there; her picture’s plastered all over the glossies Harvard sent your secondary school. But when you get to Cambridge it turns out PF plus many other luminaries are on rolling leaves without pay. A few other PFs are in residence, but they’re teaching vast lectures and manifest themselves to you as pinheads at the dark end of a cavern.
Paul Fain, in Inside Higher Education, has a good piece on Cambridge Graduate University which features an
ambitious list of faculty members, many of whom had never heard of the university… [CGU’s head] said the university created its website only a few months ago, and that the concept is still evolving.
Wherever the concept goes, it’s going to be cutting-edge.
Where the Simulacrum Ends is a University Diaries Category. It appears at the bottom of this post.
But the simulacrum never ends. The constant, ubiquitous appearance of artifacts that present themselves as the intellectual or creative work of one person, but are in fact the work of a hired ghost (like the ghost complaining in this post’s title), helps create the white-noisy, bogus, unreal feel of the postmodern world.
Our most thoughtful writers – unspectral ones, like Don DeLillo – evoke this very contemporary sense that everything is engineered, even nature. In Don DeLillo’s novel, The Names, a young man enters an airplane:
The crew is Japanese, the security Japanese… He hears Tamil, Hindi, and begins curiously to feel a sense of apartness, something in the smell of the place, the amplified voice in the distance. It doesn’t feel like earth. And then aboard, even softer seats. He will feel the systems running power through the aircraft, running light, running air. To the edge of the stratosphere, world hum, the sudden night. Even the night seems engineered, Japanese…
When even your evenings are engineered, the fact of ghostwritten cookbooks, scientific articles written by ghosts in the employ of the pharmaceutical companies promoting the drugs under discussion in the article, or, most recently, grades and comments on university students’ papers written by ghostwriters in India paid by American professors, ceases to excite comment… The occasional ghost-confessional will appear in the New York Times, telling us how demoralizing, disembodying, strange, it feels to be a career ghost (Yet who wrote/edited/exaggerated the ghost’s confession?)…
Alas, poor ghost! But pity as well the strange disembodiment of the ghosted, for they too must feel the erosion of their reality as their pantomimed self pops out at them everywhere.
And pity their dupes.
There’s nothing new or interesting about these two stories. A politician and a reporter plagiarize. As is true of all the plagiarists UD has covered on this blog over the years, the reporter is a serial plagiarist. As is true of most plagiarizing politicians she has covered on this blog, this latest one, Scott Brown, barely deigns to notice the event, calling it all “silly.” So what if his statement (on his website) of his personal values was actually Elizabeth Dole’s statement of her personal values?
Wendy Kaminer comments.
[G]hostwriting and plagiarism are not “nothing.” Speaking for yourself, you inevitably reveal yourself, intentionally or not; pretending to speak for yourself, while hiring others to speak for you, you remain in the shadows. Who are these people we send to Washington to run the country? Who knows?
Ghostwriters, guest writers, public relations people, lobbyists, interns, research assistants, lab assistants, graduate students – there’s an entire simulacrum industry now. It stands between us and the truth.
A hired online class-taker describes his job.
Here are a couple of entries from his article’s comment thread:
As our department has moved its … classes from live to online, objections about cheating (or even the basic identifiability of students) have been pointedly quashed. The reality is that courses are treated as cash cows and anything that interrupts the income stream is to be eliminated.
Why doesn’t anyone blame the administrators who don’t back the professors when the professor says “I’m pretty sure the guy getting the A in my online class is the husband of the woman who’s actually signed up for the class. When I called her up to discuss her midterm, she PUT HER HUSBAND ON THE PHONE.”
UD thanks Robert for the link.