A Mixed Bag: Academic Capitalism, Social Media and the Public Intellectual

Published in 2016, “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning” begins by noting the shifting role of higher education in the United States and globally. The trends noticed by numerous researchers of higher education have lead to disagreements concerning the role of professors within the changing environment of the university conditioned by external demands and expectations of policy makers and society writ large. The shift in higher education suppressed the old understanding of the pursuit of knowledge as its own good and lauded ideas of higher education as the key to career and monetary gain. Reimagining higher education as a content delivery platform that imbues students with practical skills immediately applicable to the workplace necessitates new relationships between: university and faculty; university and student; and faculty and student. In short, expectations external to the university conditioned the relationships within to meet market demands.

The above shift is part of a larger process termed by some as the neoliberalization, or the corporatization of the university. Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades in Academic Capitalism and the New Economy identify the changes in higher education as enabled by the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 which extended intellectual property rights to inventions made with federal money including research conducted at public universities. Bayh-Dole anticipated the advent of an information-age economy in which intellectual property would replace industrial products as primary economic drivers. Universities scrambled to get a piece of the action and massive expansions of intellectual property offices, government relations staff, and research centers followed from an internal envisioning of turning places of higher learning into places of higher profit. Facing state funding cuts and the expansion of federal grants programs, faculty at state universities were transformed into entrepreneurs seeking external revenue for both research and university. Administrators became more concerned with the proper management of monetary streams deemed essential to university expansion rather than the university as a public or community service. The role of faculty as intellectual was dispensed with and replaced by faculty-as-entrepreneur.

Tim Hichcock, like many others, discusses the “crisis of the humanities” as resulting from the insular conversations had by academics. He recognizes both governmental bench-marking of British academics and the demands of big publishing as conditioning an environment hostile to academics concerned with their modular specializations understandable only to those who specialized for the sake of academic pursuit. Those in the humanities must not only recognize their disciplines as threatened by larger developments within the university – notably, the marketability of those disciplines – but also by an insularity endemic to academics of different stripes. Recognizing the passion one must posses to devote ones life to something that few people care about, he turns to social media as a possible solution for breaking the non-publicity in the life of the intellectual. Blogging, for Hichcock, not only forces the intellectual into a public space – the World Wide Web – but also links together other interested parties outside the academic world. His writing reflects sentiments felt across communities concerning the transformative potential of the internet within the information age economy. This attitude, however, perpetuates the idea of the academic as entrepreneur or, as Tom Peters commented concerning blogging “It’s the best damn marketing tool by an order of magnitude that I’ve ever had.” Is this an appropriate response to the call for an entrepreneurial faculty? Will the publicity of the internet allow for a new age in public intellectualism? I won’t answer these questions here but if blogging is a new medium for the public intellectual, then they must understand the needs of their audiences.

Michael Wesch believes that the maturation of the internet and the ascendance of the generation who grew up with it means that education and pedagogical praxis have the potential to change. Praxis, for Wesch, must change from the professor-centric model of lecturing to newer inclusive and interactive models of classroom design to foster student engagement. The internet now holds a treasure-trove of information accessible by fingertips at speeds unmatched by previous information networks such as your local library.  Media have the potential to change human relationships and Wesch recognizes that social media and the information they carry, are distinct from the one-sided conversations had between television and viewer. They are more interactive, more networked, and more public. The powers of the spectator have changed from influencing broad general opinion polls, or viewer ratings, to commenting on real-time debates or feeling a closer connection to disembodied personae of individuals or AI.  Persons and their identities have been augmented by the internet to now include digital identities that manufacture digital artifacts subject to intellectual property rights regimes. The Internet itself offers nearly limitless potential for linking individuals together through the use of social media. The classroom, for Wesch, is not insulated from the broader social environment of the internet. Pedagogical practice should incorporate the collaborative potential of the internet and allow for a more participatory classroom.

Our learning potential from social media, however, is overstated by Wesch, Cambell, and Hichcock. They are grandly optimistic that our new social network will spread diverse viewpoints by a natural curiosity on the part of users and the nearly limitless amount of information thrown at them through the internet. Barack Obama – one of the first presidents to understand the power of internet social media – warned of the growing insularity in online communities during his farewell address. His sentiment concerning our digital selves is echoed in Adam Curtis’s “Hypernormalization” that points out that complex algorithms determine the advertisements, websites and products shown to us through the new medium. Our growing isolation from “real” interactions and the historical determinism of digital identities may keep us in an informational stasis because of larger market forces. We may continue to have the same insular conversations in pockets of the internet isolated from the larger public stage merely based on the interest of others. The transformative effects of the internet should not be mistaken for a technodeterministic view of enlightenment. It is hard, after all, for any liberal democracy to call white nationalists, such as the alt-right, enlightened but their insular conversations and global reach have allowed them to become a political phenomenon efficacious inside and out of the Web. As we come to understand the blurred division of virtual and real formed by the fusion of the digital and, I’ll call it, analogue environments we must pay attention to the structural forces that drive it. Utopian visions need not apply.

3 Replies to “A Mixed Bag: Academic Capitalism, Social Media and the Public Intellectual”

  1. Great post, especially the citations. As implied by your title, it is not possible to talk about any of these issues in isolation since everything is interconnected. The decentralization of news, and even what ought to be “news”, including our ability to distinguish what is real and what not, is something of great interest. I wonder how education can contribute on this issue.

  2. I like your comprehensive summary of the opinions that Wesch, Cambell, and Hichcock expressed through internet. I admit that the social networking, especially online networking, has spent too much of our time, such that the rest is too limited to give “real and sincere” connection with people around us. We all understand the big power of online source and networking, but we do ignore the crowding-out effects of these vast amount of information on our life. However, the really problem isn’t about optimistic, or pessimistic. It’s about how to understand the working mechanism of the new social networking, understand its power, its effect, and its drawback. We may be optimistic because we think we can use it wisely and critically to make the society better. We may also be pessimistic because we are afraid of others to abuse it viciously to make themselves better at the cost of the general society. I think, higher education is such a tool that help us distinguish proper utilizing from terrible abusing of the new social networking. All in all, I’m a kind of optimistic person that I think our higher education will lead us to a higher and better place, though we may need to struggle for a while.

  3. Yes. While Wesch, Cambell, and Hitchcock emphasize the potential for individual learning through digital networks and collaborations, they are silent on the how this relates to broader social contexts, leaving unchallenged the emergence and empowerment movements such as the alt-right movement. They are still stuck in a notion of education in the service of hyper-individualism… hyper-liberalism… neoliberalism, despite their rhetoric of learning “in deeply relational contexts.” Deeply relational with whom? As you suggest, this easily lends itself to collaborative or network learning with “the same insular conversations in pockets of the internet isolated from the larger public stage merely based on the interest of others.”

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