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 élite 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 élite 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 smörgåsbord 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 élite 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 régime, universities accrue a sort of secondary rent on what they already own.

Like the University of Phoenix, élite 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 élite 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 coöperation 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 régime 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 coöperation and uncoöperation, 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."