Thursday, May 3, 2012

Impact and Commercial Education

There have been mummers around departments regarding "impact" and research.  The idea being that our research needs to reach a wider audience, and a good academic will have some way to quantify how their research has been impacting the general public.  As with any changes to policy, there has been some resistance.  After all, the impact academia has on the general public cannot be empirically measured.  How can you compare the values of two disparate fields?  Of course medicine will help humanity live longer, but without an English department to teach the doctors how to communicate, or a History department to teach the doctors about the past mistakes and successes, the field will be unable to advance.  There is no way to quantify one's ability to think, and those attempts that have been made to do such are shown to be either heavily biased towards one learning style (IQ tests) or heavily biased towards one sect of society (standardized tests).  Impact, it would seem, is just another attempt to funnel funding away from seemingly unnecessary humanities departments for the more easily quantifiable sciences and business departments (CEO X graduated from University Y's Business and Economics Department so clearly that makes more valuable contributions to the greater good of mankind).

I don't know that I buy the above argument.  Like with most things, there is certainly a note of truth to it, and especially in America, there has been a move by right wing politicians to de-emphasize the importance of college education while also making it difficult for all but the wealthy to go.  This could spiral quickly into discussions of class-warfare and arguments about the relative merits of the economy today, but that's not the central point I want to make.

The thing is: I understand why people are saying that the Humanities, particularly English, History, Art, and Culture Studies are unimportant.  There have been several opportunities for me to mix with research students from other departments over the course of my tenure at Aberystwyth, and every time I walk away feeling slightly inadequate.  I meet someone who is helping grow soy in sand and looking for practical ways to implement this new process in developing countries.   This weekend, a woman has spent her time in Aberystwyth studying sheep burps and farts, and the impact this release of gas has on the environment; it was suggested that her research might shed light on the how climate is changing and what people can do about it.  This is some seriously valuable research that will have an immediate effect on society.  

These are easy sells, though.  These are the durable, four door sedans on the car lot of academia.  Everyone knows where they are going, what they are going to do, how they will perform, and there is an inherent, immediate value to them.  Humanities are more like the cross-over, station wagon-looking hybrids.  They look and seem flimsy and untested.  There is a hypothetical value to them, and maybe over time with some more rigorous research and trial and error experiments, a more durable sedan will come of it.  But until then, people are hesitant to invest.  

A good academic, like a good car salesperson, needs to sell the value of their commodity to the consumer.  

There are going to be a lot of other academics that might take issue with my rhetoric here.  The commercial model of education is not the most popular one.  Even scientists with research directly applicable to the general public find the grant writing process a hurdle in the way of interesting research and get bristly when asked to validate their work.  The idea that people are buying education, or that the ability to think critically can be purchased in the same way that people buy shirts or hamburgers, is certainly uncomfortable from both ends.  After all, the consumer model suggests that there is a thing, a t-shirt or a hamburger for instance, that the consumer can walk away with.  It also suggests that there is a product I have to sell, something tangible that they can walk away with.  This is what has lead to a rise in students demanding that they deserve an A for paying the tuition (or parents demanding that their kid get an A because the tuition was paid).  After all, they put the money into the machine, a pretty sheet of paper with gold lettering should come out the other end.  This conception of the educational exchange is not quite accurate, and it needs some deeper consideration.  

Firstly, what I am selling is not the paper diploma, but an experience, like going to Disney World...but for the mind.  In this way, the consumer bears the responsibility of making the most of the experience.  If I go to Disney World, or rather Great America because I tend to dislike costumed monstrosities and overpriced souvenirs, I would never dream of complaining that I had a bad time because I spent my entire time sleeping in the arcade, and when I staggered out around closing time to try and get on one of the rides, the attendants were rude to me and wouldn't let me go.  That is my fault for not making the most of the opportunity I purchased, and the owners of Disney World would never apologize if I spent my whole vacation in the hotel eating the overpriced food and getting drunk on the overpriced booze.  The rides and attractions were there, just outside the doors, and it's up to me to get on those rides and enjoy myself.

Now, one could suggest that in this way people could find fault if the experience is not worth the price (and this is certainly a concern for the very costly American Universities).  This is a fair complaint.  After all, no one would go to Disney World if the experience did not seem worth the price.  Or, maybe more importantly, if the consumer was not convinced that the experience was worth the price.  Yet, Disney World is constantly packed, and some colleges are struggling to put students in the seats.  What Disney, Chevrolet, Hersey and other titans of industry do better than Academia is sell their product to the masses.  For years, Universities and Colleges have been stuffed to the brim because they were sold as stepping stones to the next stage of life.  Places to go until your life started for real.  Because of this, students went to college thinking that if they just made it through, a good job was waiting for them on the other side.

This is where the analogy with Disney World breaks down: unlike other commodified experiences, Disney World does not give out a certificate that details how well the Disney Corporation thinks you spent your time.  Imagine that: when checking out of a hotel, the clerk hands you a table that rates how well you used the minibar and if you were successful in navigating the halls to the pool.  You would then have to take this certificate to the next hotel and they would judge which type of room you could get.  It would make you think twice of clogging up the toilet or leaving the soaking towels on the bed.

But my point still holds: academics need to be better salespeople.  We cannot expect to sit in our Ivory Towers, or as is the case with Aberyswyth, our brutalist architecture and expect everyone to see the value in our work.  I work with intangible ideas and concepts.  No one can see the changes I make in society, but the work I do is valuable.  

But it's my job to show people that.  

Just like with Disney World or Great America, I need to line my experience with bright lights, loud noises and bold colors.  I need to show people that reading and understanding comics is not just interesting to comic readers, people interested in narrative theory or semioticians.  This has relevance to everyone's life.  I am not just talking about the interesting narratological aspects of juxtaposed framed image/text combinations, I am talking about how people conceptualize stories.  How people communicate and understand their own life.  True, it is theoretical, but it is my job to explain in the best way possible how these theories about reading literature apply to people.  The claim that academia is self-perpetuating and navel gazing is often leveled at researchers.  There is the assumption that we spend our time writing papers no one will read that will get published in journals read by a few students or other scholars.  Essentially, humanities departments make more humanities scholars that in turn cycle back into the University and make more scholars.    

There is good reason for that.  For a long time, there was a certain snobbishness about academia that refused to talk down or explain in simple terms what we were doing.  One of my favorite professors here, Prof Damian Walford Davies was talking about his favorite answer given at an academic conference.  At the conference, the speaker gave a densely analytic reading, and someone asked if he might restate it again in simpler terms (I'm paraphrasing here).  The answer was, "No. What I write about exists on the edges of human consciousness."  We all had a good laugh, but that idea is unironically prevalent in a lot of academics. I was reading the introduction to a book on functional grammars, and the author talked about how discussions about the oddities of language were not of interest to him (or, by extension, any academic linguist) and that this book was more to his liking.  He used some phrase like "academic tour guide" or something to explain how tiring he found it, relating his research to people that were only interested in grammar, and not experts in it.  

I was appalled.  That, I thought to myself, is exactly what I am meant to be doing.  That is not all that I am meant to be doing, but that certainly is a part of my job.  People are interested in oddities, and as an expert in the field, I should be happy and able to talk about these oddities to the curious masses. I also need to clearly express to them how the more theoretical aspects of my research are applicable to their lives.  If I don't, I can't expect them to think they need to pay for the opportunity to hear me talk.  

But, like people who go to Disney World, the consumer is left to make the most of this experience.  By agreeing to pay for this opportunity, I reserve the right to tell other people whether they made the most of it, or whether they wasted their time.

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