The (Continual) Transformation of Higher Ed: Links and Housekeeping

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The (Continual) Transformation of Higher Ed

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The (Continual) Transformation of Higher Ed
The (Continual) Transformation of Higher Ed: Links and Housekeeping
By Clay Shirky • Issue #4 • View online

I thought about including links and housekeeping last week, like this was an actual newsletter, but ‘long Usenet post’ has been my writing style for 30 years, so I think essay issues will remain focused on a single argument.
Meanwhile, this issue is only links and housekeeping, including:
  1. Podcast with Paul Ford
  2. Thoughts about how membership might work
  3. Thoughts on membership platform
  4. Book review: Paying for the Party (2013)
Podcast with Paul Ford
Paul Ford is the co-founder of Postlight and the author, most famously, of What Is Code as well as my favorite of his writings, The Web Is A Customer Service Medium. I’ve known Paul since the Semantic Web seemed worth arguing about, and he graciously invited me onto the Postlight podcast, where we mainly talked about how terrible EdTech is.
When COVID hit – I just actually asked a room full of my colleagues [from other schools] this question – I said “When COVID hit, did any of you call your EdTech vendors for help?”
There was a moment of silence, then the entire room started to laugh.
The tools we turned to when this thing hit were Google Drive, Slack, and of course, Zoom. Which is to say all of a sudden everyone in my position and roughly my position at thousands of colleges and universities across the U.S. discovered that teaching and learning is work, and that tools optimized for work might be a good thing to adopt.
The EdTech conversation starts at 5:30.
Thoughts on membership
I started Continual Transformation of Higher Ed mostly by looking at other newsletters – special thanks to Rusty Foster of the great Today in Tabs – so I added membership without really knowing what that would mean. (A few of you have signed up as members without a clear description of what it means either, which I take as a vote of confidence, thank you.)
The subscriber list to a newsletter like this will always be tiny, which means the number who sign up for membership will always be tinier. (I could probably have the members over for dinner.) And people who think about this stuff for a living are often too busy for open-ended conversation. One of the reasons conferences work for focused conversation is that they are themed and impermanent, so I am thinking about membership being a series of discrete conversations you can participate in or not.
My current plan is to set up a conversational space for CTHE members with just three topics:
  1. Discussion
  2. Polls
  3. Quarterly Donations
What we’ll use Discussion for may surprise you! Free form link drop and conversation on themes of higher ed. As active or not as the membership collectively wants.
Next, I am going to experiment with embedded Polls. (There’s one in this issue about membership platform, below.) The Polls conversation will be for members to suggest new polls you all might be interested in, and for discussing results of existing ones.
Finally, Donations is an experiment in group targeting for giving. Every three months, I’ll put up some funds the membership can direct to an educational non-profit. We’ll decide who gets the first check by December 31st. (Let’s say donations will be $500 a quarter; a small amount, but appreciable for over-the-transom cash to a non-profit.) The Donations conversation will be for proposing and then deciding who should get the money that quarter. 
So that’s the plan, at least at first – membership with three ‘participate as much or as little as you like’ conversations. Three bucks a month; join if that seems interesting. (The newsletters themselves will remain free to read and forward.) And thank you.
Thoughts on platform
A related question is what platform these conversations should take place on. Revue, the newsletter tool I use, is tightly integrated with Twitter, but does not support blog-style comments, so any conversation for members will have to be hosted somewhere else, and Twitter DMs do not seem up to the task.
Slack or Discord work well if people already check them; email is ubiquitous; and then there are potential experiments like trying to treat Google Classroom as a conversational space, or hosting the entire conversation in a spreadsheet
Revue does not have a way to embed forms, but HandyPolls offers a “Poll options as links” tool I’m playing with. If you are considering becoming a member, let me know which of these 5 options you would most prefer by clicking it:
What platform should CTHE use for members?
  1. Slack – Standard business app
  2. Discord – All the cool kids are using it
  3. Google Group – Standard mailing list
  4. Google Classroom – Experiment with a learning platform
  5. Google Sheets – So crazy it just might work
Book review: Paying for the Party (2013)
One of the books that has most shaped my sense of American higher education is Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. In 2004, Armstrong and Hamilton embedded in a women’s dorm at a Midwestern flagship university (‘Midwest University’ or MU), observing several dozen recent arrivals to the campus, ultimately following many of them for five years.
Watching these students, they observed that the university maintained several different student pathways. As they put it
Pathways are simultaneously social and academic and coordinate all aspects of the university experience.
They called the three pathways they observed Mobility, Professional, and Party. These were never explicitly named by the university, but were nevertheless well understood by faculty, administration, and the older students, along with institutions like clubs, fraternities, and sororities. Incoming students were directed to various pathways depending on their interests and resources.
The mobility pathway “provides vocational training to anyone who is willing to work hard to acquire it.” This is basically how people think college works overall: If you show up and do the work, you will be prepared for a range of good jobs after you graduate.
The professional pathway is for students seeking high-status jobs or admission to prestigious graduate programs. The thing that distinguishes the professional pathway from the mobility pathway is that it
…does not compensate for individual or family “deficits” in navigating the academic and social challenges of college. Instead, it explicitly employs parents in the task of creating successful graduates.
Armstrong and Hamilton have much to say about these pathways – how the mobility pathway has been hollowed out in many public universities, how the professional pathway is often out of reach for first-generation students. Most of the book, though, covers the party pathway, the pathway of Tuesday night drinking and easy majors.
Though this is in line with a lot of complaints about “Kids today!” et cetera, what Paying for the Party makes clear is how completely complicit the university itself is in maintaining that pathway:
The party pathway is built around an implicit agreement between the university and students to demand little of each other. […]
A developed party pathway requires that easy majors be richly variegated, with many possible sub-subspecialties, ways to opt out of challenging requirements (for example, language, science, and math classes), and schedules compatible with partying (that is, no Friday classes). When a party pathway is robust, these majors are well advertised, recommended by advisors, and generally supported by the school.
When Armstrong and Hamilton talk about an implicit agreement, they don’t just mean general tolerance for drinking and Greek life. They mean that when a math test for a large intro class fell during a round of scheduled parties, the math test was rescheduled.
The party pathway works best for students from wealthy families. For these students, their active social life let them network with other well-off students, which led to all sorts of opportunities for internships, romantic partners, and travel, during and after their undergraduate years. This helped compensate for getting mediocre grades in easy majors.
The heart-rending part of the book covers the trajectories of students who did not come from money. These ‘wannabes’ faced a nearly immediate dilemma:
[T]hey needed to select pragmatic majors and earn good grades, but it was nearly impossible to do so while trying to keep up with their more privileged peers in the party scene. Most downgraded majors and career goals as an unintended consequence of the party pathway.
Over and over the women Armstrong and Hamilton follow are allowed and sometimes even encouraged to make terrible short-term choices that create significant long-term problems. In the worst cases, advisors – paid to help students navigate their college careers – actively helped them prioritize social life over studies.
One student they follow, who they call Karen, found her social life interfering with her studies to the point that she failed a required class for her Education major. Rather than change her party schedule, she changed majors, to Sports Broadcasting and Communication. When she did, no one at MU mentioned to her that personal industry contacts are generally necessary even to get an internship. Karen had none and got none. Two years later, she switched back to Education, but had to leave MU for a regional campus, because her GPA was so poor. And because Sports Broadcasting credits counted for nothing towards an Education degree, she spent an additional two years in college.
Downgraded majors like this happened with alarming frequency.
The remaining fifteen women took one of the many “business-lite” options that existed outside of the business school. […] For instance, one woman’s advisor suggested telecommunications as “an option going around the Business School [to get] that same degree”. Of course, a telecommunications degree is not the same as a marketing degree—or else there would be no need to “go around” the business school.
When these students do manage to recover in their academic careers, it is often only after transferring to a regional campus or community college, in part because such colleges don’t have party pathways.
Even though I read Paying for the Party years ago, and have referred to it often since, reviewing the book again for this review reminded me how many of these blood-boiling observations it contains.
The book’s one weakness is that it occupies that uncomfortable space between academic writing and popular non-fiction. To count as any kind of framework, all three pathways need to be fleshed out in their own chapters, even though the clear center of the book is the party pathway.
Similarly, it sits uncomfortably between ethnography and sociology. Because it takes place at one school, it’s generalizations aren’t always successful; at the same time, it is too abstract to fully flesh out the students they follow. I wanted, for example, to hear more from “Erika”, who has a too-late revelation seeing students at another college balance school work and social life:
I was so just fascinated by how every single person [at the the college she visited] had gotten up on a Friday to go to the library and do work and, like, got their stuff done. And I loved it. You know? It was great. When I go to the library … my friends are like, “Really? You’re going to the library again?” 
More continuity with the people having insights like these might help us understand how students come to terms with the hugely consequential decisions they made simply by going with the flow, but the book can’t both look at the structure of college life and follow these personal stories.
These are quibbles, though. Even given the somewhat diffuse format, Paying for the Party is a blistering indictment of an institution failing a particular class of students. Among other things, the book makes clear how and why the ‘student success’ movement is such a necessary corrective.
I’ll end with one last observation, from “Nicole”, that could have been the book’s epigraph:
I wish someone told me that four years ago I was going to have the best time of my life but none of it was going to be realistic, and then once I graduated everything was going to change.…
Elizabeth A. Armstrong  and Laura T. Hamilton; 2013
Continual Transformation of Higher Education is a newsletter by Clay Shirky. Publishes weekly, more or less. Feel free to forward. Subscribe here.
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