It was an exciting but daunting opportunity. How would I speak to an audience that thought about language and procedures for studying it in a radically different way? Several years ago I gave a talk like this at a conference for the Association of Computational Algebra. It didn’t go over well.
This time, I decided to experiment with a TED-style talk. There’s been a lot of criticism of the TED format. Most of it centers on whether the talks are accurate and informational or simply entertainment. Some do seem to be the intellectual equivalent of cotton candy — tasty but evanescent. But they also, I think, are a model for how to talk to a wider audience and enlist interest across cultural, institutional, and disciplinary boundaries.
So I studied up. There’s Nancy Duarte’s TED talk on TED talks, and Chris Anderson, a TED coach, has also shared his recipe. I think it boils down to three things. First, use biography (yours or another’s) to tell a coherent story that centers on the problem you work on. Second, have a clear transition from the problem to your answer. And finally, emphasize why that answer is powerful — what it changes about how we see the problem, and what it might mean for others. To put it differently, they rely on an analogy drawn between a personal narrative and a larger problem.
Put this way, it’s a recipe that applies to most of the good talks that I’ve seen, except TED talks are more personal and less complex. You have to put yourself forward and abandon qualifications, hedges, and the basic acknowledgement that others have been working on similar problems, often more successfully.
Despite discomfort with the TED format, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can get my scholarship out to a wider audience, especially communities beyond academia. This seemed like a great opportunity to experiment.
So I sat down and hammered it out. Meg was out of town, which meant that most of the writing happened with my daughter in my lap, and we practiced with her in the baby bjorn (she’s my biggest fan).
The final title: “Understanding Analogy: Theory and Method.” The folks at ISI posted it here. It doesn’t quite live up to the billing, but it worked. My auditors generally agreed that analogies are an important feature of new ideas and that I’d found a new way of looking at them. And since that talk we’ve been talking about collaborating on a machine learning tool that finds analogies. I’m recruiting undergrads for some initial work this summer. It will be exciting to see where this leads.
Sometimes it’s great to be last to a party. I just heard about the V21 Collective at INCS 2015 (my thanks and congrats to Narin Hassan + organizers for a huge success in Atlanta). I’ve had my head down trying to meet a big deadline and I’ve been almost completely absent from Facebook and Twitter. I’m less a Luddite than someone trying to actively manage a long addiction to technology. So I was surprised to learn about a debate, organized around a central manifesto, that placed some of my favorite scholars and good friends on both sides of a line in the sand.
The virtue and vice of manifestos is that they draw these lines. They’re inhospitable to the qualifications, allowances, readings, and citations that would fill out a more careful conversation and blunt the cutting edge. This allows them to be both gleeful and urgent, playful and purposeful. It’s fun to write that a spectre is haunting Victorian Studies. And we do feel haunted even if we have trouble seeing its shape. This is a great chance to engage that problem.
Chicago continues to hum along as an intellectual engine in part because it has been so savvy at leveraging the particular strengths of its faculties and its institutional resources, especially the U Chicago Press. And this is a smart opportunity to drum up some interest and help draw Victorian Studies into a warmer conversation that can excite energy, interest, and (most important to those of us pre-tenure) publications. Ben Morgan continues to help us think around the corner in advocating for venues that draw younger Victorian scholars into conversation at formative stages in their work. And while I haven’t met Anna Kornbluh yet I’m excited to talk about her book when we do. I met most of the folks now in V21 for the first time when we joined for the informal workshop that Ben organized at NAVSA here in Los Angeles. It was thrilling, electric. And the upcoming V21 symposium in Chicago is an auspicious way to collect some of this energy and give new charge to the discipline we work in. One can almost feel through the rails the vibrations of a coming special issue of Critical Inquiry. Maybe I fantasize.
I have to say, I struggle to draw lines myself, so it’s been hugely interesting to read the manifesto and some of the circulating criticism and responses. My immediate and lasting reaction is excitement. Finally (I still feel) there’s an active debate that has people widely engaged and talking but doesn’t feature the “crisis in the humanities” or the terrors of the anthropocene (I’m not a hater, btw; I talk about both issues regularly).
But in talking about the debate with folks at INCS I gathered that few of us are really sure where this new line is, even if we share a general sense that we know what kind of scholarship is being targeted. One way to put it, in accord with Kathy Psomiades, is that we generally agree on the difference between a good and bad conference paper, but it’s easier to diagnose these in terms of the characteristic failures of a specific talk than the characteristics of bad papers generally. To paraphrase Anna Karenina, I think good papers share a basic felicity, but bad papers are bad in their own special ways.
So in the spirit of collective inquiry, I’d like to pitch in and help identify what makes good work compelling. Manifestos, above all, are a call to roll up our shirtsleeves. I’m sure we can all think about theses we’d like to see.* 10 is an arbitrary but shapely number. But I think, in the spirit of the manifesto’s format, it’s more appropriate to engage theses individually rather than in the negative or en masse. So I want to take up the first thesis, because I think it demonstrates both the strength and basic challenge of the boundary that is drawn:
1. Victorian Studies has fallen prey to positivist historicism: a mode of inquiry that aims to do little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past. Among its symptoms are a fetishization of the archival; an aspiration to definitively map the DNA of the period; an attempt to reconstruct the past wie es eigentlich gewesen; an endless accumulation of mere information. At its worst, positivist historicism devolves into show-and-tell epistemologies and bland antiquarianism. Its primary affective mode is the amused chuckle. Its primary institutional mode is the instrumentalist evisceration of humanistic ways of knowing.
In sharpening the distinction between good & bad Victorian Studies, the V21 authors have settled on the entrenched opposition between a sophisticated engagement with contemporary critical theory and what I think is more clearly a soft new historicism. This has really gotten under people’s skin. I think what we need instead is a discrimination between good and bad historicisms, and I want to explain why. For one, I’m guessing that “new historicism” doesn’t appear in the manifesto (instead of “positivist historicism”) because, even if most of the “bland antiquarianism” they identify operates under that paradigm’s blunter edge, the authors recognize that new historicism, at its cutting edge, was driven by deep and substantive theoretical reflection. It’s been almost twelve years (!) since Andrew Miller observed that “Victorian literature seems, on the evidence of [that] year’s publications, to remain confidently immured within an orthodox, loosely new-historical set of historiographical assumptions, devoted to understanding and judging individual texts by appeal to historical contexts sometimes richly-but often poorly-conceived” (SEL Autumn, 2003). Clearly the V21 authors don’t think that much has changed. I generally agree, but I think Miller gives a more precise definition of the problem. In making that point he also had the benefit of a review format, with the institutional capital and professional status to show us precise examples of what he meant. So perhaps we want a “newer historicism”?
Moreover, I think “positivist historicism” is an unfortunate substitute for new historicism, because in the service of a strong generalization, it reinscribes an even looser set of assumptions about what terms like “positivist” and “historicism” mean, when we Victorianists, of all literary scholars, need more precision. We can’t rely on Walter Benjamin’s Theses on History when characterizing two of the dominant historical paradigms of the nineteenth-century. First, “historicism.” If Benjamin carefully studied Leopold von Ranke’s Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker, I’ll eat my hat.** Ranke’s point in describing a history “wie es eigentlich gewesen” was that writing history was both a science and an art; historians should bring imaginative intuition in contact with strict critical attention, and set aside facile moralization or “lessons” (see Frederick Beiser’s discussion in The German Historicist Tradition (2011)). Who doesn’t agree with that? And if I do have to eat my hat, I’m still not sure why we should turn to Ranke or Benjamin (versus, say, Walter Scott) to characterize historicism for Victorian scholars or the Victorian period.
Similarly, Comtean positivism, for all of its late zaniness, was also a profound, and profoundly influential attempt to think beyond history as a “mere accumulation of facts”; to elucidate the general patterns of history and think about their theoretical as well as historical implications for present society.*** As Auguste Comte noted in Martineau’s translation of his Positive Philosophy (1853) positivism itself was just one of many systems that addressed “the necessity of observing facts in order to form a theory, and having a theory in order to observe facts.” Comte’s writings were among many adaptations of Claude Henri de Saint-Simon’s own scientific historicism, which supercharged a whole range of thinking about the texture of historical difference, formal transformation, and the political implications of intellectual labor for the present. You don’t get to Karl Marx without Saint-Simon. And isn’t there a connection between Comte’s critique of the “theological stage” and Marx’s “spectre”?
In an even longer view, that strain of positivism was important to Émile Durkheim and the Annales school of French historicism, with the strong focus on time series data and the cross-comparison of periods, and this in turn helped shape Michel Foucault’s thinking (as Thomas Flynn argued in his Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, 2005). Foucault, a positive historicist? Sure, among other things.
In a long enough view, of course, everything is connected to everything. For any set of ideas there are a host of mitochondrial Eves; that’s the poverty of intellectual history. But these exercises are intriguing because they help us to think about how we might return to movements like positivism or the nineteenth-century historicist turn in search of fresh ways to think about our present concerns. This is what is fun about manifestos; they give us something concrete to think with, push against, push off of.
So instead I imagine a Thesis 1 that calls for dynamic historicisms, instead of a static historicism that explains text in terms of context; reflexive historicisms, rather than a reflective historicism that doesn’t see how the objects of study change their times; and most of all, historicisms that recognized the heterogeneity of historical understanding within the nineteenth century. Bah, an outmoded call for “reflexivity”? Why not? Reading Theses 1 this way, imaging my thinking as part of the qualifications that a manifesto does not permit, I understand V21 as a call to interrogate the historical procedures of the nineteenth century, in their connection with what we do today. To ask, in effect, who is the Victorian Foucault?
For what it’s worth, I think we do need, as Elaine Freedgood insists, to keep reading the basic theoretical texts that provide renewing precision and opportunity in thinking about our objects of study. That collection of touchstones continues to expand, particularly when we think critically and inventively about works in the nineteenth century. Surely, for instance, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species belongs in those ranks. Yet it’s my intuition (and here I agree with Ryan Fong) that renewed engagement happens in close contact with our teaching and as part of our effort to communicate our research and our ways of thinking to a larger audience. When I can catch someone’s interest over a dinner table, or I see a flash of recognition in the classroom, I know my formulation of a difficult perspective works.
At one of the INCS plenary sessions, on, appropriately, “Victorian Futures,” Dino Francis Felluga and Jay Clayton made the basic if sometimes uncomfortable point that our scholarship operates in a larger community of interests and yet (at least from my perspective) there are few institutional incentives to get our work out there, intervening in larger conversations. Under the conference theme of “mobility” Felluga and Clayton urged us to mobilize our work, to get it and its hefty insights out to more audiences. Some of the many approaches they analyzed look more promising than others. As a student of the digital humanities, I think (with Lauren Goodlad) it will play an important part. Maybe the V21 conversation as an opportunity to get us moving and get our work into the larger world beyond the paywall.
The more general point is that, in place of/alongside the renewed the “Presentism” proposed in V21’s Thesis 8 we (by which I mean we humanists generally) need a renewed evangelism. For some reason I feel like this is my most controversial suggestion. The fight for critical heft and innovation, in my view, is part of a larger fight for interest from graduating grade school seniors, the fight for relevance in the minds of parents and the larger community that encourage our students to choose specific paths, the fight for enrolment numbers. Students = jobs = better placement. Sure, we help our students see the light, but first we need them in our classrooms. Classes are our opportunity and we’re losing them. This isn’t particular to Victorian studies, but perhaps we can work on putting Victorian literature at the leading edge. This is a good start.
Finally, I hope this discussion proves a series of constructive lines in shifting sands; that we can work to reframe and develop the future of Victorian Studies without dividing it into camps. Aren’t we all historicists (of one stripe or another)? Who doesn’t know the year of Victoria’s accession? The first reform bill passed? That The Prelude & In Memoriam appeared? If we understand V21 as calling for renewed historicisms, as well as renewed formalisms, renewed digital humanities, renewed materialisms (the list goes on), it’s a really, really big tent. What can I say; I’m a social person. I’ll be excited to see everyone this summer, share a beer and plot our possible futures.
* As a side note, I can also imagine a thesis that addresses the problem of the “Victorian” as a period. I almost never self-identify this way unless I’m in some specific professional environment. Outside of those contexts, saying I’m a “Victorianist” provides a kind of characterization and a set of questions I’m not generally ready to tackle. Can we agree that among the major periodizations in English literature it’s the most challenging to justify? The period is explicitly defined in relation to a monarch rather than a set of ideas, historical movement, or dates. Sure, centennials and historical movements are arbitrary. As Martin Hewitt notes in his “10 Alternative Theses”, “all periods are contingent,” and I think this is their strength, if they are grasped and interrogated as such. But can you imagine someone in early modern studies saying, I’m a Jacobean? Victorian is on weakest footing as a periodizing term; as Priya Joshi has observed with respect to 20th-century India, it may be more intriguing to think about the work of the term and its literature outside of the normative bounds of period or geography (Yearbook of English Studies 2011). Irene Tucker, for instance, has given a persuasive account of how the period helps to designate a real transformation in historical sensibility, so that “by the time of [her] death, Victoria’s place has come to seem only the smallest part of what – and where – Victorianism is” (Victorian Studies Summer, 2003).
** I’m not ready/willing to dive into the Benjamin bibliography.
*** Of course, I realize that in using the term “positivist,” the authors mean rather what John Guillory has termed the “spontaneous philosophy of the critics” after Althusser (Critical Inquiry Winter 2002). But, as Guillory notes, positivism in this sense is more accurately the spontaneous philosophy of scientists; as an ethic of the transcendent value of the nude fact, it’s less meaningful (I hope) for Victorian Studies.
This week I’m back from NAVSA. Well — not really back; it was just up the road in Pasadena. But I expect to spend some time nursing this (intellectual) hangover and thinking of the talks that I saw and the questions that were raised there.
Most immediately, it’s clear that digital work has hit the pavement in 19th century studies. Natalie Houston gave a fantastic talk about her “Visual Page” project, which uses Google’s tesseract OCR reader to analyze formal elements in a print corpus of Victorian poetry. It was stunning how much a computer can learn about a poetry collection just from the blank spaces on the page. Maeve Adams gave an intriguing paper that read across key terms in Victorian periodicals as “epistemic communities” and used this to ground a far-reaching argument about formalism in the 19th-century. And Rachel Buurma expanded on her work on Charles Reade and his archives — an eccentric even among archive rats. As she put it, his wildly profuse collections of documents, indexes, and indexes on indexes, add up to archives “on the way to becoming novels.” I’m almost convinced to read more Reade. It doesn’t sound like he would have appreciated YAHOO (I read the marginalia as: “In other words know the contents before you know anything about this”):
On Saturday I participated in a digital roundtable that Anne Helmreich of the Ghetty Foundation organized to field questions about research and pedagogy from conference attendees. The Prezi from my own talk, about some of the tools I’m using in class, (using Facebook as a social CMS and Google Drive for workshops) is posted here. My main point was that English seminars have always been “flipped”: focused on in-class workshopping and intellectual tinkering. Which makes it easy to fold in digital tools. (I take my inspiration here from Jentery Sayers and his Maker Lab.) But I was more interested in hearing what the other panelists and the attendees had to stay about the state of the digital union with C19 studies.
Most questions raised by the participants were about the ins and outs of digital scholarship: how to recruit technical collaborators (find research questions they’re interested in); how to find time and money for the work (no good answer there); how to use statistics (to be avoided while best standards are worked out); how to use undergraduate research more effectively (give them work that is tied to your own research + break projects into discrete chunks). This last point was made by Dermot Ryan, current Undergraduate Research Director at Loyola Marymount. I suspect the dismal statistics for undergraduate research conducted in the humanities at LMU would be matched at USC. It’s a thorny problem. I’ve been thinking about ways to pull undergrads in to my next digital research project. But as I focus on finishing my analogue book, there’s not much I can think of sending undergraduates out for, besides checking references. Clearly this is a problem with hermetic patterns of research. In order to frame more collaborative projects we have to hash research questions into practices that depend less on our own idiosyncratic habits of mind and the idiolects of convenience. We (or at least, I) need to be better at looping others in.
It was also a huge pleasure to meet Petra Dierkes-Thrun and learn more about the “Wilde Decadents” class she’s running at Stanford and its blog. The class generated tremendous interest; the work the students produced was read by visitors from across the globe. I’m frankly envious. She was particularly savvy promoting the course and its Twitter account through academic networks and listserves like the Victoria List.
But perhaps the most intriguing contribution to the roundtable, to my mind, was Andrew Stauffer’s diagnosis of the NINES project. NINES is currently working to redefine itself to better serve the current wave of digital scholarship. As Andrew described it, NINES was originally envisioned as a coordinator and peer-review network for online collections produced by academics — sites like the Rossetti Archive, the Woman Writer’s Project, and Darwin Online. They envisioned an academic internet populated by public research archives. Instead the major commercial publishers and Google have digitized masses of texts and placed them behind paywalls. Gale’s NCCO database is a case in point. A corollary challenge is that NINES’ COLLEX originally provided a solution to the basic problem of finding a CMS to furnish different kinds of academic content. But the widespread adoption of other open source CMSs like OMEKA diminishes the case for further investment in COLLEX. The folks at NINES are now trying to figure out how else they might support digital research — for instance, producing new tools for digital analysis along the lines of DocuScope. I’m looking forward to their public launch of Juxta, which produces a visual codex for textual variants. There’s an undergraduate who’s been asking for a good tool to start DH work with and this looks friendly enough to be promising. Andrew also suggested NINES might start convening seminars which bring humanists and engineers together to test new research avenues. It would be exciting to have an interdisciplinary research seminar that was formatively tied to a technical team rather than an academic department — tied to makers as well as thinkers.
At its heart, NINES is a classic disruption story. It announced a new chapter in 19th-c scholarship when it was launched in 2003 — the same year as NAVSA’s first conference. Both organizations are now at a crossroads (Dino Felluga handed his role as NAVSA’s head and to Marlene Tromp on Saturday). Given the rapid change of our technical tools, no organization or project that locates itself in the digital sphere will we able to avoid a regular reinvention. I spent a considerable amount of time getting the Monk project software up and running for an early experiment with my Darwin analysis. I invested even more time figuring out the Meandre suite, including a trip up to the UVic digital workshop, with hours both in person and via email, drawing on the expertise of Loretta Auvil and Boris Capitanu. That culminated in a single talk at the Seattle MLA on the global network imagined by Oliphant’s novels. The return on investment for this work has been relatively small. And now both Meandre and Monk have exhausted their funding and have begun to recede into history. I’ve just now noticed that “monk-project” is embedded in the permalink for this post — legacy of an early vision for this site.
If it sounds like I’m grousing, maybe I am. We need to emphasize the long dead ends as well as the triumphs of DH scholarship when we talk to curious peers. But the big “but” is that, as academics in the humanities, we’re tinkerers by trade — whether on our computers, in the classroom, or at the archive. For my part, I’d be exploring some version of these technologies in any likely case. It’s just so much time wasted stringing zeroes and ones unless I invest this labor in my research. Besides, I want to show my daughter what hacking looks like.
About a year ago, at the previous MLA, I gave a talk on a panel that detailed literary reactions to the Scottish Rising of 1745. I’d thought I’d written about it, but in the process of getting this server back up and running, I found this old draft post. As part of that panel, I gave a talk on Victorian reactions to the ’45, focusing on the novels of Margaret Oliphant and Robert Louis Stevenson. Part of the question I wanted to raise was whether the rising is typically understood at a site of political and historical closure that cements the constitution of “Britain” as a cultural entity. One way to get at this, I thought, was to see whether literature written about the rising emphasized Britain over Scotland and England.
But it was also a good opportunity to experiment with using network analysis and mapping to explore the geographic imagination of the nineteenth-century novel. One way to raise the question of political formation i to look at the locations that are explicitly cited in each novel, and to map out how they are connected. To do this I extracted location entities from several of Stevenson’s novels using the Meandre framework (apparently now defunct), as well as 65 of Oliphant’s, derived from the Internet Archive, and I did a series of network analysis graphs using Gephi to look at which locations are cited most frequently, and which other locations they tend to be cited with. An example of a plot this produced is below, and shows locations referenced in Oliphant’s novels, sized by reference frequency and connected by proximity of references.
I found it hard to figure out how to visualize the networks effectively in a talk. This was less of a problem for the Gephi visualizations, which are static, though images with a large number of nodes presented a challenge. One strategy I experimented with was to do a screen capture movie and then edit the movie so that I could produce a video that zoomed in as I spoke. In retrospect, it would have been more effective and flexible to use Prezi.
One question that working on the talk raised was how to evaluate the utility of these visualizations in the context of a talk. In the case of Oliphant, the justification accrues in the difficulty of assessing the range and depth of her fiction. An essayist and author of more than ninety novels, works which were often simultaneously serialized across several publications, it is almost impossible to wrap your head around her production. On the other hand, it’s a gives you the chance to make some nice visualizations. Here’s two animations I made using GEPHI and Google Maps. The first is a network map of locations in her novels with node size and proximity scaled to total number of links, the second is a world map with the locations geocoded.
Two weeks ago I noted that someone had recently tried to get into my WordPress server. My firewall traced the query back to an IP in China, though I don’t have the ability to figure out where it originated from initially. I linked it to news of escalating activity from abroad; it seems that attempts to get into academic networks are sharply on the rise.
Then a week ago my server collapsed under what seemed to be a DDOS attack. I tried to restart it several times, but everytime I got the server back up it was swamped with traffic. I’ve spent a good eight hours now launching a new server and migrating over content from a backup. Most of my posts are back, but I lost the last year’s worth of images. I’ve only been able to recreate or restore about half.
It’s all kind of creepy. And it may be beyond my capacity to try and stay on top of escalating security problems on a private blog. Apparently there’s a botnet that’s been hacking WordPress servers generally for the last several months. I like having my own site; I like the ability to post whatever content I want and try out different kinds of server technologies; my Omeka-based class last year depended on this capacity. But the bar is getting higher.
A friend of mine drew my attention to the NYTimes’ recent article on advanced in essay-grading software. It’s technology that will raise hackles at campuses around the country. The claim is that such programs are becoming sophisticated enough to grade college-level writing. Of course, their effectiveness is widely debated. The article helpfully includes a link to a study by Les Perelman which critiques the data being used to support such claims (he argues that sample size problems, confusion between distinct kinds of essays and grading systems, and loose assertions undermine the argument). The software is getting better, but it still doesn’t look like it can quite replicate the scores produced by human graders.
But such criticism is an argument at the margins. There is now clearly room for debate on both sides. Machines are comparable on standardized tests. The long-term trajectory is evident: if machines are roughly as effective as a force of part-time human graders, standardized tests will end up using the software to save money. They’ll keep some humans in the loop cross checking and validating, but the key incentives all point in the direction of greater automization. The reductive structures and simplistic arguments which we train students to replicate for these tests has laid the groundwork. We’ve already whittled essay writing into an algorithm. Continue reading →
The annual NSSE benchmark study of universities is out and it has a handy “Report Builder” that allows you to generate reports drawn from their broad survey of freshman and senior undergraduates at a huge range of institutions in the US and Canada. I decided to play around with it a bit, and generated these two models of student opinions about their major at competitive research universities in the US:
Freshman Responses by Major
Senior Responses by Major
This seems to confirm the counterintuitive reaction I get when I tell people outside the university that I’m an English professor. 9 times out of 10, they tell me how *hard* they found their English courses in college. Continue reading →
Just got back from ICR 2012 in Tempe, AZ. Huge thanks to Ron Broglio and Mark Lussier for hosting (and to my friend Michael Gamer for organizing my panel). I made some new friends and had a hell of a time — too much fun, really. If you’re interested, I’ve put the talk I gave up here.
But I wanted to quickly jot down some take-aways. First, climate events had a much larger impact on the Romantic period than I’d understood — perhaps even helping catalyze the French Revolution. Second, in an era of climate worries and Zombie apocalypse obsessions, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man may end up having a larger influence than Frankenstein:
Finally, the marvelous Marilyn Gaull gave a talk on Romantic science that was an inspiring opener. Her main point: that the “two cultures” are never so far apart as they seem. But as I was mulling it over later, I realized that institutionally, it feels like the two culture divide is collapsing. At universities, the humanities and sciences are increasingly fighting a joint rear-guard action against the expansion of professional schools into their curriculum. After mulling this over with some others at the conference, I’m pretty sure this trend isn’t particular to the schools I’ve worked at.
It is probably a little self-serving for me to criticize for-profit colleges, but the report put out by the Senate’s Health, Labor, and Education committee is withering. Among the findings:
Well over 50% of the students who begin an associates or bachelor’s degree curriculum withdraw without receiving a degree.
For-profit colleges average a 19.2% profit on their revenue, spend 22.7% of their revenue on marketing, and only 17.2% on instruction. Notable, the figures for publicly-traded schools were worse than privately held for-profit colleges.
A big driver: Federal aid.
In 2009-2010 alone, fully a quarter of Department of Education funding (which only discriminated between colleges on the basis of accreditation) went to for-profit colleges. For-profit schools, unlike community colleges, have substantial financial aid offices that are adept at matching eligible students with federal student aid. The inquiry had been running for two years now, yielding testimony to extensive fraud and an industry that consistently places profit above education and student outcomes.
For me there are two key take-aways. First, for-profit colleges are profitable because they are serving a huge portion of the underrepresented, economically disadvantaged, and minority students who are eligible for various federal aid programs. It would be tremendously valuable public service if they did this while providing a solid education and finished degrees (and the committee singled out schools like Strayer, Walden, and National American University that are doing just that).
Second, the findings should amplify criticism of the trend to model higher-ed’s administrative structures on corporate governance. For-profit colleges should be seen as a test case for whether market forces and the profit motive can serve the public good more efficiently. The committee has found repeatedly that raises in tuition are considered with a view toward profit rather than the cost of instruction. Right now, the primary service of for-profit colleges is to siphon federal funding to shareholders while burying disadvantaged citizens under mountains of debt.
The New York Times and the Chronicle have mounted a one-two this week to publicize the problem of student debt (something I’ve posted on previously here and here and here). In an extensive front-page story from Sunday, the Times lays out the problem from the perspective of undergraduates, and the Chronicle followed up today with an analysis of graduate recipients, particularly Ph.D.s working as adjunct faculty, that need welfare and other public-service benefits to make ends meet. Both provide extensive analysis; the Times piece in particular leverages an extraordinary amount of statistical support.
The implications of the problem are broad, now that more than half of graduating seniors are going to college. If college is fast becoming a prerequisite of stable middle-class employment, it seems clear we need policies that provide education without burying the students under a lifetime of debt. I was fortunate enough to attend a state school on scholarship; many of my colleagues won’t finish paying off their educational loans for a decade or two.
One place where the Times piece suffers is in its analysis of the sources of the problem. Continue reading →