alma matters: publicity and moochy moocs
Music: War on Drugs: Slave Ambient (2011)
Those of us who teach harbor an understanding: what happens inside the space of the classroom is usually different from the perceptions of those on the outside. Sometimes the difference of perception is annoying, like when non-educators claim teachers are indoctrinating their students in left-leaning political beliefs (thereby forcing an entire state to “comply” with a mandate that allows for the general public to vet course syllabae and curriculum vitae—a mandate that a course I taught apparently inspired). Sometimes the difference is to “our” benefit, especially when positive publicity is concerned: popular perceptions are that we’re doing exciting, ground-breaking things in the classroom when, really, we’re just doing the hard work of making students understand why the difference between a colon and a dash is important, or why cutting-and-pasting material from wikipedia is not a good thing, however much it reflects “how I really think.”
For example, every other year I teach a course titled “Celebrity Culture.” Presumably the class is about Britney Spears or Lady Gaga and reality television—and it is. But these figures or genres are superficial examples of the deeper teaching of the class, which begins in public sphere theory (yes, they read Habermas) and ends in political communication theory. One of the big concepts of the class is “circulation,” which takes off from Michael Warner’s argument that “publics” and “counterpublics” are a consequence of the circulation of an object of value that brings them into being. We start with P.T. Barnum and the railroad and end with discussions of the InterTubes—circulatory infrastructures. Students who enroll in the course, by and large, do not “get” what they are expecting, but so far it seems they enjoy and appreciate the course in the end.
Part of the grade for this class is the result of a group project that investigates contemporary forms of publicity. The historical arc of the course begins with the nineteenth century and ends in the present, and over that span we trace how marketing logics give way almost completely to circulation logics (cue Baudrillard). Insofar as quality or content has given way to the buzz of momentary affect, publicity requires circulation on a massive scale. So, groups of five students are told to create a YouTube video or blog. Now, what they create is important, however, how they publicize this thing is the point of the project and the basis of their grade (to get an “A” on the project, the group must not only write a good report, but their object must get over 1,000 views, hits, likes, or so on).
Each time I teach the course one or two groups has a massive success (measured usually in hundreds of thousands of hits or views or what have you). This year, however, one group really hit it out of the park: over a half million views and counting.
Within days the video garnered thousands of hits and, within little over a week, invitations to appear on national news outlets (such as Anderson Cooper Live). Wanting to get ahead of the publicity, I spoke with the college’s PR Czar and suggested a flash story (clickable banners that appear at the top of the college webpage); working with her I sent a rather detailed series of answers to basic questions she had (what is the project for? what is the course about? what do you hope students get from the experience? and so on). She penned and published the story on the college website (“Lucky Dog”). Although the story isn’t as thorough on the academic point as I would have liked, it’s probably the best one can hope for in a publicity push.
Weeks later the video has broken the million mark and keeps climbing. Morning talk shows have featured it and the dog’s student owner; the project has been mentioned on NPR; local papers and newscast have featured the video. Google the video title, “Ruff Dog Day,” and you get dozens of features and stories. What’s instructive (to me and hopefully the students) is that the story reported is about how popular the video is, that is, the story is about publicity. Every story mentions Dudley, how the project came together, and the student dog owner, but they all underscore, repeatedly, how popular the video is on YouTube. Postmodern publicity is publicity for publicity’s sake, the motor the buzz of affect—the “aw he’s so cute.”
So far so good . . . except that in virtually every story about the video, from the local newscast last night to the bit in London’s Telegraph, the point of the project is rarely mentioned. Most of the stories don’t even feature the class title for which the project is completed (or erroneously describes the project as part of a “communications class”). For example, watch the local newscast from last night on the project. There is no mention of the educational point of the project.
While disappointing, the lack of discussing why the students made the video (and by extension and more importantly, what they’re learning from it) is not surprising. And, in some sense, this “publicity of publicity” is a perfect example to use in the classroom. Yes, it’s exciting that some students are getting mega-buzz about their project, however, when the flavor fades—like a piece of Wrigley’s gum—what are we left with? A perfect illustration of media logics: the object doesn’t matter as much—it’s circulation, circulation, circulation. While it may deflate the group’s excitement about the publicity of their video, at the same time, their experience is an excellent example of how celebrity works in our culture.
So I come to an end where I began: public perceptions of what goes on in a classroom and what is actually going on there are different. Many folks will regard these students’ successful project as an excellent and exciting example of what a “good education” can accomplish. That is sad, of course, because the actual lesson of the project concerns how misguided (and irrelevant, in the end) those perceptions are. And I stress the difference of inside and outside is crucial for the lesson of the project—that the students learn anything requires outside perceptions of the classroom experience be wrong (as I predict they will).
Which brings me, of course, to the horse I’ve been beating over the past year—the horse that refuses to die: Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs (see this post and this post for more details about what I term the “online imperative”). Originally pioneered for good reasons but quickly shunted into Massive Public Relations Campaigns (MPRCs), MOOCs are large (think thousands, or in some cases, hundreds of thousands) university courses that are taught online, expressly for the purpose of making education affordable or free. To the degree MOOCs take off, however, the not-secret plan is to figure out fee structures to charge for them. At present no one knows how these courses can be figured into university curricula, but the powers who be (folks like regents), of course, want this to happen.
This week my college has been pushing faculty to develop proposals for grants to develop a MOOC. My chair has been asking the college, repeatedly, what the compensation structure is for such a thing, but the answers are unclear. As it stands, one cannot get a course release for teaching a MOOC, but the college apparently will allow for “overload” compensation. One can sniff the coming disaster with that plan—that is, the coming exploitation. But my point with mentioning this detail is that moving toward MOOCs has the whiff of technological Stuartism: “Look what we can do!”
Still, the point is that the push for MOOCs is fundamentally publicity with the expectation of financial returns somehow, down the road. The problem with this push is aptly condensed with my students’ “Ruff Dog Day” video: that MOOCs are desired and popular are more important than actually developing curricula for them. The content is secondary. Which is to say MOOCs represent a collapse of perceptions about what happens in a classroom from the outside and what actually happens inside, a difference that I’m suggesting is actually part of the logic of education. Education opens doors—but it requires them too. My conclusion is that ultimately the vision for MOOCs is not one of education. We can only hope that the educators who are demanded to teach these things figure out how to educate in the massive, online medium despite the technological Stuartism MOOCs ultimately represent.
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- 11.09.12 / 2pm