some of us are brave

What I Know For Sure


Sorry for the bad title but I just read three issues of Oprah magazine on a long cross-country trip. It seemed right.

2013 was a busy year for highered, research, and yours truly. A few round-ups and random thoughts about 2014:

At UVA’s Carter G Woodson Institute I had the privilege of connecting the trends in current higher ed debates to what I argue are the larger structural issues at play in those debates:

Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Emory University and research fellow at the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California-Davis, said institutions play a tremendous role in developing and perpetuating social trends.

“So much of our life is governed by bureaucratic arrangements, and yet, we tend not to look at organizations as mechanisms for reproducing inequality,” she said. “So essentially if we think about college admissions as an organizational arrangement, an organizational mechanism, and a very important one critical to higher education, I say we’ve got to look at some of the social processes that deliver people differently to different types of institutions — an unequal childhood, for instance.”

We are obsessed with higher education right now because it is the institutional mechanism that ostensibly produces the mobility and economic security we intuitively recognize is eroding. Our angst over college is about our angst over declining work stability, social cohesion, and identity. I told the packed, engaged awesome audience at UVA that this context explains the expansion of for-profit higher education, the contraction of opportunity in traditional higher education, and the contentiousness of the debates around both. You can hear that talk on iTunes now. I start somewhere around minute 51:00 and I sound much better in my head. Please remember that should you listen.

The California Faculty Association and Philosophy Department at San Jose State University sponsored a couple of talks on MOOCs and inequality this year. I gave two lectures. One focused on a broader dialogue about MOOCs and public higher education. A second lecture specifically talked about ethical dilemmas in public-private publics, institutions, and the social good as they relate to the privatization of knowledge production and credentialism.

This audience was amazing. I was not kidding when I told them that I have never been so thoroughly intellectually worked out in a Q&A. I was enchanted.

I also had an opportunity to do something I’ve long wanted to do. I thanked the faculty and students at SJSU for leading on a counter-narrative to the prevailing “failing higher education” narrative coming out of ed tech, industry, and policy. There are institutions about which I carry deeply — particularly HBCUs and MSIs — for whom these debates will be salient in ways I fear. Yet, for many reasons, these institutions are more vulnerable to the consequences of speaking out and agitating. It takes institutions that can to lead in ways others cannot to do so, to the benefit of us all. SJSU, particularly the Philosophy Department, showed us how that can be done and they changed the national debate about MOOCs and public education. That is the power of a narrative when wedded to conviction and academic freedom. I thank them, again.

You can see an out-take from that talk courtesy of CFA president’s cell phone woman-on-the-street video. She asks a question about student of color and online education and corporate education that I wish I were asked more often.

I thought that was a fabulous idea, by the way. Just note that in my mind I am much taller.

I also started a column at Slate this year to broaden the public discussion about higher education. Many of you have made my essays there some of Slate’s most read and most shared. Thank you.

A little essay I was convinced was too narrow to be of general interest became one of my most widely read and shared stories of the year. I continue to hear from readers about the Logic of Stupid Poor People. Academics immediately pick up that the essay is essentially an autoethnographic reflection on cultural capital, Weberian status cultures, and mobility. General readers, I think, connect with structure embedded in the analysis.

Actually, I thought the same about my essay on Miley Cyrus: no one will get this niche navel-gazing take on a pop culture moment. I was really wrong. According to my inbox, that essay has been taught at Princeton, Yale, UGA, and Emory in courses ranging from literature to game theory. I do not know how to say what that means to me without it reading as hyperbole so I will not try.

I can get all C. Wright Mills about this but I am passionate about the benefit of sociology in such sociological times as these. I am grateful for any small contribution I can make to that. I hope to encourage my students to do the same.

The insecurity of 2013 produced our college obsession. I do not imagine that changing in 2014. When I want clear, articulate, expert guidance on the subject I turn to people like Matt Reed, Sherman Dorn, Jonathon Rees, and Audrey Watters just to name a few. It is an exciting time to model what scholarship can bring to public debates. I am honored to be in community with great people that are doing just that.


One comment on “What I Know For Sure

  1. Collie Fulford
    December 31, 2013

    “Our angst over college is about our angst over declining work stability, social cohesion, and identity.” Oh yes. So glad we’ll get a chance to hear you in person.

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This entry was posted on December 20, 2013 by in Uncategorized and tagged , .
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