When Professors Strip for the Camera

If TED took a turn to left­ist (or any) cri­tique, Žižek, the pro­fes­sor of “toi­lets and ide­ol­ogy,” would be the keynote speaker. The irony of the ani­mated lec­ture, “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce,” is that a dia­tribe on “global cap­i­tal­ism with a human face” would get over 900,000 views on YouTube. “It’s not just what you’re buy­ing, but what you’re buy­ing into” seems to apply not only to Star­bucks’ “cof­fee ethics” and TOMS Shoes’ 1-for-1 African phil­an­thropy, but also to the avail­abil­ity of 10-min­ute Laca­nian Marx­ist “soft apoc­a­lyp­tism” at a Google sub­sidiary with per­son­al­ized ads.

With YouTube’s help, the acad­emy where Žižek’s per­sona was born is an increas­ingly vis­i­ble ter­rain of so-called “cul­tural cap­i­tal­ism.” The last decade has wit­nessed a rev­o­lu­tion in open course­ware, a source of short-cir­cuit con­sump­tion in which any­one with a com­puter can drink elite uni­ver­sity Kool-Aid with­out earn­ing credit. The move­ment has been so explo­sive – the Hewlett Foun­da­tion, which pro­vides the mother lode of fund­ing for uni­ver­sity ini­tia­tives, sup­ported a whole book on it, Tay­lor Walsh’s 2011 Unlock­ing the Gates – that one won­ders how long the polit­i­cal econ­omy of edu­ca­tion that it anchors, con­tra Žižek’s hip­ster-friendly fan­tasies of con­sumerist dystopia, will last.

To date, the most suc­cess­ful, or at least most promi­nent, ini­tia­tive is MIT’s Open­Course­Ware. In 2001, MIT unveiled a plan to offer most of its courses online for free – read­ing lists, lec­ture notes, exams, and all. In its first five weeks of exis­tence, the OCW site got 361,000 unique vis­i­tors from 177 coun­tries and all 7 con­ti­nents. In response to OCW, UNESCO held a “Forum on the Impact of Open Course­ware for Higher Edu­ca­tion in Devel­op­ing Coun­tries.” MIT was the new Bill Gates. As uni­ver­sity pres­i­dent Charles Vest wrote in the Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion in 2004:

a fac­ulty mem­ber at a new engi­neer­ing uni­ver­sity in Ghana, a pre­co­cious high-school biol­ogy stu­dent in sub­ur­ban Chicago, a polit­i­cal sci­en­tist in Poland, a lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor in upstate New York, or an exec­u­tive in a man­age­ment sem­i­nar down the hall at MIT will be able to use the mate­ri­als our pro­fes­sors rely on in teach­ing our full-time stu­dents.

Open Yale Courses, which drafted off MIT’s suc­cess, is now a com­peti­tor in the techno hype-space, only with dif­fer­ent oper­at­ing para­me­ters. The OYC site hosts 42 courses, most of which are intro­duc­tory lec­tures in the human­i­ties and social sci­ences. Yale gives OYC pro­fes­sors a small hon­o­rar­ium in exchange for let­ting video­g­ra­phers sit in the back of the room and record every lec­ture.

Occa­sion­ally, there will be an awk­ward moment when the pro­fes­sor asks stu­dents not to walk in front of the class lest they get on cam­era, or apol­o­gizes for hav­ing to fix their mic. It’s the self-assur­ance of Yale’s hand-picked all-stars which makes OYC dif­fer­en­tiable from TED talks, in which some speak­ers, per­haps get­ting to con­dense their wis­dom into 20-min­ute nuggets of opti­mism for the first time, repeat phrases or give clumsy post­scripts. Oth­er­wise, Yale qual­i­fies, in the words of Evgeny Moro­zov, as a TED-esque “inter­na­tional meme laun­derer.” Open Yale Courses are the ivory tower of uni­ver­sity TED­i­fi­ca­tion. At the same time that Yale con­tin­ues its 20-year stomp on grad stu­dent union­ism and ’juncts its aca­d­e­mic work­force, it parades pop­u­lar tenured pro­fes­sors – “I keep my eyes open for peo­ple in the news,” direc­tor and OYC par­tic­i­pant Diane Kleiner has said – with few offer­ings in crit­i­cal or polit­i­cally charged dis­ci­plines that pro­duce less mar­ketable research.

Yale isn’t the only uni­ver­sity that picks the best and bright­est for the world screen. Fathom, a failed for-profit ini­tia­tive at Columbia that pre-dated OCW at MIT, mar­keted over 600 courses but focused on star fac­ulty. Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learn­ing Ini­tia­tive, which offers 15 courses in its core com­pe­ten­cies of sci­ence, math, and for­eign lan­guage, demands sig­nif­i­cant time for course devel­op­ment and thus draws mostly from tenured fac­ulty. The whole open course­ware enter­prise was born of rela­tion­ships among big-name uni­ver­sity lead­ers. Yale pres­i­dent Richard Levin had been on the board of the Hewlett Foun­da­tion since 1998. All­Learn, another failed for-profit ven­ture from the dot-com era, was a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Levin and his friends at Oxford, Prince­ton, and Stan­ford. After All­Learn, Yale’s liaison went on to be pres­i­dent of TIAA-CREF.

The elite ori­gins of open course­ware, put together with the aca­d­e­mic hyper­re­al­ity of its all-star offer­ings, are noth­ing com­pared to the back­room power play that is 2011’s “Great Big Ideas,” a course offered to stu­dents at Yale, Har­vard, and Bard Col­lege and any­one else will­ing to shell out $199 to watch twelve hour-long lec­tures online. The course, “an intro­duc­tion to the world’s most impor­tant ideas and dis­ci­plines,” is the pilot offer­ing of the for-profit Float­ing Uni­ver­sity, a joint ven­ture between Yale-bred busi­ness­man Adam Glick and online forum Big Think. Though it isn’t free like OYC, the con­ceits of open course­ware lie within FU’s glossy syl­labus: Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom (Nor­ton authors); Larry Sum­mers; William Ackman’s “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” which explains “the logis­tics of the mod­ern port­fo­lio the­ory of invest­ment, hand­ing stu­dents the tools to become the savvy investors of tomor­row”; and a TED-friendly smor­gas­bord of hard sci­ence, eco­nom­ics, and dis­course on human nature—to be sure, the world’s most impor­tant ideas and dis­ci­plines.*

In Shake­speare, Ein­stein, and the Bot­tom Line, Stephen Kirp writes that open course­ware gives elite uni­ver­si­ties the sym­bolic cap­i­tal “to keep their exclu­siv­ity intact.” For schools like Yale that can only drop within exist­ing hier­ar­chies of exchange value – U.S. News & World Report rank­ings, for one – the open course­ware rev­o­lu­tion rep­re­sents a new lat­tice of use value that for­ti­fies the gates against dis­rup­tive inno­va­tion from other high-tech knowl­edge ven­tures as well as com­peti­tors from below. (“I don’t want to wake up one morn­ing and find out that Har­vard and Microsoft have put $5 mil­lion on the table,” piped Columbia trustee and NBA com­mis­sioner David Stern at the advent of Fathom.) Under this new regime, uni­ver­si­ties accrue a sort of sec­ondary rent on what they already own.

Like the Uni­ver­sity of Phoenix, elite uni­ver­si­ties have heeded Bank of Amer­ica ana­lyst Howard Block’s admo­ni­tion to embrace their role as con­tent providers – or, as David Brooks noted opti­misti­cally in a May column, to bank on the trans­for­ma­tion of “knowl­edge into a com­mod­ity that is cheap and glob­ally avail­able.” Famous Berke­ley chan­cel­lor Clark Kerr’s pre­ferred use of the uni­ver­sity is upon us: “Knowl­edge is durable. It is also trans­fer­able. It only pays to pro­duce knowl­edge if through pro­duc­tion it can be put into use bet­ter and faster.” Or, if we take Carnegie Mellon’s fine-tuned, web-speci­fic courses as the model – as Pres­i­dent Obama has, in hail­ing a future for com­mu­nity col­lege expan­sion that doesn’t require more class­rooms – BF Skinner’s “teach­ing machine,” which rewarded stu­dents for cor­rect answers fol­low­ing pre-pro­grammed instruc­tion, is the new motor of the dig­i­tal super­high­way.

Open course­ware is a way for uni­ver­si­ties to get by as busi­nesses and as uni­ver­si­ties, with all the atten­dant con­tra­dic­tions. On the one hand, as Walsh recounts in Unlock­ing the Gates, Yale’s direc­tor of mar­ket­ing and trade­mark licens­ing claims that OYC “was dri­ven from a mar­ket­ing per­spec­tive, because every time some­one views some­thing we made, they’re con­sum­ing Yale, and the qual­ity of their expe­ri­ence reflects how they think of us and the brand.” Indeed, the OYC site is laced with Yale’s name, logo, and col­ors, and every YouTube video has a Yale imprint. On the other hand, as Kleiner has it, “This isn’t a num­bers game, since we’re not mak­ing money off this; this is a gift we’re giv­ing to the world, so we want to see if we can bring that to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble.” In a 2000 lec­ture at Oxford, Mel­lon Foun­da­tion pres­i­dent William Bowen waxed that uni­ver­si­ties shouldn’t sell open course­ware for fear of sac­ri­ficing their pro-bono pur­pose. The pro­pri­etors of webcast.berkeley con­sider online lec­tures sig­nals to state leg­is­la­tors that the pur­vey­ors of tech trans­fer and pri­vately sup­ported research also teach – for the pub­lic good.

At Yale and else­where, the old boys club has become a gen­der­less, fric­tion­less, sur­fa­ble ocean of phil­an­thropy; and yet these same uni­ver­si­ties remain cor­po­rately man­aged aus­ter­ity-mon­gers. Stan­dard cri­tiques of cyber­netic utopi­anism apply. In Data Trash: The The­ory of the Vir­tual Class, Arthur Kro­ker and Michael Wein­stein define the “will to vir­tu­al­ity” as the “dream of being the god of cyber­space – pub­lic ide­ol­ogy as the fan­tasy drive of pre-pubes­cent males.” In the glob­al­ized acad­emy, a new pan­theon rises.

TED and Twit­ter have two things in com­mon: they pack­age knowl­edge into per­sonal brands; and they dis­sem­i­nate it faster and more widely than the aver­age aca­d­e­mic jour­nal. Any­one can watch a TED talk; hard­ware-will­ing, any­one can tweet. Twitter’s mass appeal has as its elite coun­ter­part the slushy mar­ket­ing pitch of the TED talker.

Today’s par­a­dig­matic intel­lec­tual com­modi­ties, like intel­lec­tual prop­erty rights granted to authors but absorbed into the cap­i­tal cir­cuitry of the pub­lish­ing world of 18th cen­tury West­ern Europe, come with new forms of exploita­tion. The labor-power embed­ded in these com­modi­ties is lost not only in the buyer’s fetish but in mega-net­works that rede­fine cog­ni­tive labor and reroute it to prof­itable ends. In the Twit­ter-sphere, The New Inquiry’s Rob Horn­ing put it in a 2011 essay, “we can be aware of our­selves only inso­far as we see our­selves as prof­it­ing or not… We sell out sim­ply by choos­ing to have sub­jec­tiv­ity on social media’s terms.” This alien­ation, one of the “quin­tes­sen­tial aspects of the con­tem­po­rary expe­ri­ence of pre­car­ity,” rep­re­sents “the total break­down of the pos­si­bil­ity of col­lec­tive iden­tity… the trans­for­ma­tional poten­tial of the enhanced social coop­er­a­tion on which the econ­omy depends is neu­tral­ized, frit­tered away in osten­ta­tious nar­cis­sism.”

In “The Ide­ol­ogy of Free Cul­ture and the Gram­mar of Sab­o­tage,” Mat­teo Pasquinelli describes this set-up as a regime of exploita­tion, while also point­ing to a cer­tain kind of resis­tance to it. Respond­ing to high-utopian “dig­i­tal­ism” and selec­tively per­me­able net­works like the Cre­ative Com­mons, he writes, “There is noth­ing dig­i­tal in any dig­i­tal dream. Merged with a global econ­omy, each bit of ‘free’ infor­ma­tion car­ries its microslave like a for­got­ten twin.” Akin to cre­ative pro­duc­tion sub­sumed by urban growth machi­nes or media monop­o­lies, “open cul­ture” becomes a kind of mul­ti­tude-for-rent. For Pasquinelli, sub­ver­sion lies with the likes of Dmytri Kleiner’s copy­far­left, in which the com­mons are open to com­mer­cial use by sin­gle work­ers or worker coop­er­a­tives that till them, but not agents that exist out­side. Over and against the flat world of open cul­tur­ists, Pasquinelli posits a com­mons that runs on both coop­er­a­tion and uncoop­er­a­tion, in which the mul­ti­tude strug­gles within itself.

Sab­o­tage of the copy­far­left sort is an impor­tant plank of resis­tance, but a kind of van­guardist one; cul­ture jam­mers and con­spir­a­to­rial dig­i­tal cabals draw on highly politi­cized sub­jec­tiv­i­ties lodged in a world that relies on the acad­emy no mat­ter how much it may dis­avow its ori­gins. By com­par­ison, strong asser­tions about the impos­si­bil­ity of col­lec­tive iden­tity aban­don all attempts to unravel the con­tra­dic­tions and chang­ing class com­po­si­tion of the so-called knowl­edge econ­omy. While it’s pre­dictable for the pro­fes­sional intel­lec­tual to decry the crass­ness of the newest brave new world, tweets and free lec­tures rep­re­sent a redis­tri­b­u­tion of knowl­edge whose latent promise must be taken as seri­ously as its run­away promises. To be sure, it’s easy to crit­i­cize techno-bab­blers like Wired – which in 2003 wrote of MIT’s OCW, “no insti­tu­tion of higher learn­ing had ever pro­posed any­thing as rev­o­lu­tion­ary” – or, for that mat­ter, MIT’s mar­ket­ing team. The oper­a­tive ques­tion here is whether the tweet­ers or open course­ware con­sumers who aren’tprofessional intel­lec­tu­als can speak. Just as Wired’s take on Occupy Wall Street, a Decem­ber arti­cle enti­tled “#Riot: Self-Orga­nized, Hyper-Net­worked Revolts,” treats pro­test­ers as mind­less iron fil­ings, Andy Merrifield’s “Crowd Pol­i­tics” in the September/October 2011 New Left Review fore­grounds the “inten­sity of the encoun­ter” while ignor­ing the vari­able sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and lived expe­ri­ences that pro­test­ers carry with them to protest. Who is Horning’s “we”?

For those who never went to a top school or, finan­cial aid notwith­stand­ing, couldn’t take on the debt, open edu­ca­tion rep­re­sents a utopia cap­tured by uni­ver­sity growth machi­nes. Bas­tard sim­u­lacrum of acad­e­mia that it can be, it calls nei­ther for knee-jerk defense of the tra­di­tional acad­emy nor blithe cel­e­bra­tion from those whose depart­ments or job prospects are safe from the chop­ping block, but mea­sured con­sid­er­a­tion of new pos­si­bil­i­ties for reap­pro­pri­at­ing the cri­sis of the uni­ver­sity.

As America’s uni­ver­sity sys­tem grew and mod­ern­ized in the post­war era, stu­dents and fac­ulty col­lab­o­rated on sig­nif­i­cant reforms to Yale’s grad­ing sys­tem, grad­u­a­tion cred­its, and oppor­tu­ni­ties for inde­pen­dent study. In the post­mod­ern acad­emy, ideas for appro­pri­at­ing sys­temic trans­for­ma­tion for rad­i­cal ends run wild. At the Open Edu­ca­tion Con­fer­ence in 2009, Christo­pher Mackie offered a “Model Pro­posal for Utterly Trans­form­ing Higher Edu­ca­tion Ped­a­gogy and Intel­lec­tual Prop­erty Gen­er­a­tion,” involv­ing course credit for stu­dents who gen­er­ate online con­tent – ele­vat­ing stu­dents’ con­sump­tion of open course­ware, par­tic­u­larly oper­a­tive at MIT, to a co-cre­ative art. As a res­o­lu­tion to the sky­rock­et­ing cost of uni­ver­sity degrees, n+1’s edi­tors make the less mod­est, if more spec­u­la­tive, pitch for “the cre­den­tialed to join the uncre­den­tialed in shred­ding the diplo­mas that paper over the unde­mo­c­ra­tic infra­struc­ture of Amer­i­can life.”

Break­ing down this infra­struc­ture demands recog­ni­tion that knowl­edge com­modi­ties are objects con­sumed by a het­ero­ge­neous mul­ti­tude rather than a mono­lithic mass trapped within an imposed “con­sumerism.” As Yale’s Michael Den­ning con­tends in Cul­ture in the Age of Three Worlds, “cul­tural forms do not have a nec­es­sary polit­i­cal mean­ing, and may be appro­pri­ated and reap­pro­pri­ated by a vari­ety of social move­ments seek­ing to lead a soci­ety.” For Den­ning, cul­tural prac­tices are not “quick sales” but sites of class con­tes­ta­tion and vari­able mate­rial invest­ment. Within this par­a­digm, the masses of peo­ple to whom sim­u­lated aca­d­e­mic knowl­edge is dis­trib­uted are an inte­gral part of any pro­gram that pur­ports to redi­rect the polit­i­cal econ­omy of higher edu­ca­tion.

As the acad­emy broad­casts itself to the world, it opens itself to dis­rup­tion from this audi­ence – Ghana­ian stu­dents seek­ing an MIT degree in exchange for all the course­work, high school­ers who love the free lec­tures but can’t access highly ranked uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion because of race or class, let alone adjuncts who see the lies of tenure exposed on cam­era. The onus is on the rest of us to meet them at the gates.

* I’ve ben­e­fited from the per­sonal guid­ance and gen­eros­ity of sev­eral instruc­tors from this course. My state­ments here are directed toward the course and not the pro­fes­sors them­selves.

Author of the article

is a writer and activist, originally from New Haven, Connecticut. He edits the Nation's "Student Dispatch."