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."