Joshua Kim just published an article in Inside Higher Ed. Which isn’t newsworthy in itself, because that one-man writing machine writes *daily* Technology and Educations columns there, and has done so for years. Which is impressive!
This new one is unusual, and for two reasons. One reason is, well, about me, and another is about where academia and our thinking about education are headed.
“Enough about you – let’s talk about me!” Kim begins with an incredibly kind profile of my post-2013 work. It’s staggeringly generous, and I would name my next child “Joshua” if I were still reproducing. It’s uncannily like reading my obituary before dying. Seriously, thank you, Josh, for a very kind gift. I’m not going to quote it here; just read it. (If you’re new to my work, it’s a good introduction. And hello!)
What does it mean to do research in a time characterized by the web and a changing academia? How can not being connected to a single institution – full time – contribute to our collective understanding?
Josh Kim answers this in terms of independence of perspective:
Our higher education community has a self-serving interest in supporting independent scholars… The need for autonomous and independent thought leadership in edtech is particularly acute given the creeping corporatization of postsecondary educational technology.
I agree very much. Although I’m often skeptical of the corporatization of academia argument (it’s often diffuse, ahistorical, and reflects a resistance to looking seriously at finances), he’s spot on here. The American technology press is usually frantically pro-business. Educators all too often adopt business language and approaches, instead of thinking in nonprofit terms. Our neoliberalism times are subsuming too much to the market, as we lose sight of the public good and nonmarket, nonmonetized benefits to individuals and groups.
There’s even more to the independent perspective angle. You see, in American higher education it is very difficult to look at the full range of postsecondary education, since we have many, many incentives to narrow our view.
Consider: working in a single institution full time forces a localization of perspective. I used to teach as a liberal arts college, and that small campus filled my awareness. Course catalogs, the status of buildings and grounds, the nature of the current student body, details of senior administrators’ statements, my budding understanding of the institution’s history, relationships with colleagues: all of this took up many brain cycles.
The institution’s identity as a liberal arts college further biased my viewpoint to that sector. I spent more time thinking about (say) Sewanee, Southwestern, and Davidson than I did about (for example) the University of Virginia or UT Austin. This made all kinds of sense politically and practically.
I was also encouraged to look to the state (Louisiana) and region (the Ark-La-Tex and the American South(east)). Naturally! That was where I lived, where the systems I relied on (economic, political, cultural) were grounded.
Yes, there are certainly countervailing forces and opportunities. Professional identity counts for a lot (there’s nothing regional about the PMLA). Associations – when they’re national and international – cross boundaries. And the web can mean a great deal. But the aforementioned incentives remain very powerful and determine a lot of behavior.
Now, after three years as BAC, my viewpoint is very different. My clients include a wide range of institutions: community colleges, Catholic universities, state colleges, research universities, state systems, online schools, libraries, museums, and, yes, liberal arts colleges. To support these clients I conduct research in a way that reaches the full ambit of American higher education; I must follow each sector and subsector, or else I cannot deliver value. So I track Yale and Harvard, yes, but also read George Lorenzo’s super community college newsletter The Source, follow California’s complex politics of funding its state universities, and so on.
My geographical understanding is also broader, since my work involves a great deal of travel. Although I live in the very small state of Vermont and have several excellent clients here, I also travel pretty extensively. Over the past twelve months I’ve journeyed to Finland, Australia, Malta, and Canada, not to mention Florida, Rhode Island, California, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Colorado, Indiana, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. I have no choice but to think nationally and internationally. This has benefits for my research, especially as Americans tend not to notice other nations’ education systems. I think it benefits my clients, too.
There are costs to this approach, of course. At worst I have gained breadth at the expense of depth. I do not, cannot, know an institution as well as one who works there full time. I have to learn as much as I can about each, and try to shed light on them by comparison to other campuses.
Perhaps more urgently, this approach has the serious risk of fragility. So far we’ve been able to do this, as Josh Kim suggests:”diligently put away some dollars in when business is robust, and keep his overall costs down”. Yet one or two catastrophic accidents can blow that away. Being offline for a month due to a heart attack (to pick one statistically not improbably event for a man my age) could devastate the business, both financially (depending on how insurances play out) and in terms of time (lost contacts, lost connections to clients, lost business). Environmental factors, such as a financial crisis, carry equal risks. Institutions can buffer one against these; not in my situation.
So I operate without a net and win certain advantages thereby. I hope to keep working those benefits and sharing the results for a long time to come.
Thank you, Josh, for the fine article and prompt.
PS: I’m very pleased by Rodney Hargis’ #FTTE shout out: