I'm about to say something a college professor shouldn't say to his students, but I care about you a lot so I'm prepared to break the code and say what needs to be said: Your college experience is likely to set back your education, your career, and your creative potential. Ironically, this will be done in the name of education. You deserve to know about this! You have what it takes to reclaim, reform, and remix your education. Don't let college unplug your future!
Reality Check #1: The Digital World is Your Home Campus
You already know this on some level. The campus for your education isn't made principally of buildings and books; it's made mostly of microchips and media. Any other "school" is a satellite now, subordinate to the main, digital campus where you reside and thrive. And since you grew up digital, you've been matriculated since the first click of a mouse button, with no need ever to graduate. You world of learning and your world of play are seamless in the digital domain, and you are pretty much a senior on that campus, even in your teens. You spend your spare cash to get that iPhone or laptop, and you move effortlessly between virtual and physical worlds. The reality check is that physical schools and structured curricula and degree-seeking programs form a system that makes enormous demands upon you but which is fundamentally out of sync with the fact that your identity, development, education, and success will be intimately intertwined with the digital domain.
And why shouldn't they be? No generation of youth has ever lived in a more exciting era than ours nor learned in more compelling ways than are granted to you electronically today. Frontiers of opportunity have been opened for you through digital means that would make Cortés weep at how comparatively little spoil he carted off from the Aztecs. Each of you can reach across the planet, exploring the topography of our world with the ease of a soaring bird. You can befriend others from foreign places and cultures with the click of a key. You can get up to the minute updates from a robot on Mars on your cell phone, or Google Alexandrian libraries with an ease that would surpass the fantasies of generations of scholars. You can be a spectator to the cosmos or to the local city council meeting. But your new world does not leave you watching on the sidelines! You can share your lifestream, add your perspective to countless conversations, and have the world comment back--interacting with people who will value your ideas and your style. And what style! Modes of creative expression are being opened to your generation that none have known before. You can shape and share your identity in a thousand different ways, testing what you like, feeding your own passions, carving your own way. What a fantastic time to be alive!
Reality check #2: Surviving in the Real World
Hold on. It's one thing to trick out your avatar for the metaverse of your choice or suction Limewire for some fresh tracks, but what about earning your bread? Generations of parents and high school counselors have convinced you COLLEGE IS THE ANSWER. After all, how are you going to get a job if you can't show that shiny sheepskin to the suit across the desk from you in the personnel department? Blogging won't pay the bills! Maybe not.
Reality check #3: Sheepskin vs. Online Identity
It will be a long time before a college diploma is as quaint as, say, getting a public notary's stamp. But there is another system already competing with college, and it will start those bean counters in the tuition office sweating soon enough. This alternative to college credentials is as huge as the Stay Puft marshmallow man from Ghostbusters and he's towering over the skyline right where town meets gown: online identity.
That's right. Who you are and what you've done will in the very near future be so well documented by your online activities that a resume will be redundant. The time will come when a college degree will be suspect if not complemented by an admirable online record--and I'm not talking about transcripts. Your "transcripts" will consist of your lifestream: your blog, your social networks, your creative work published or otherwise represented online. Cyberspace is already more real to you than the physical space of your college campus--it is becoming so for your future employers.
Here's an old joke. Two farmers were strolling down the road. "Say, Joe, there's the new feller's mailbox. Whadya think them letters after his name stand fer?" "Well," says Joe, spitting some tobacco juice to one side, "everybody knows what BS stands for. MS must be 'more of the same.' But PhD? Couldn't tell you." His friend answers, "I know! 'Piled High and Deep!'"
Kinda lame, but it makes my point. Let me translate this into a real-life case. Recently at a nearby university there was a minor scandal because some big shot CEO was claiming he had a degree from the school but in fact he did not. When the university reported this fact, do you know what the response from his company was? "Quit wasting our time. It's what he can do that matters, not where he graduated, and he does well for our company. Let's get back to work."
What people in my department always tell those seeking creative writing degrees will soon apply to every college major and student. "Look, if being in a degree program can give you a structure that will help you produce, it might be worth it. But in the end no one's going to care whether you have a degree or where it's from. Your work will speak for itself."
Speaking for yourself is what the new media is all about. And you don't have to raise your hand to be allowed to speak. You dont evin haf to spel rite, though that doesn't hurt. The credentialing system of college will ultimately prove less important than whether you use your college years to generate a body of visible and durable online work, openly accessible to the world, shouting who you are louder than any "graduated with honors" certification on a transcript one must pay to see.
Think about that the next time that you pull an all nighter for a term paper that will get thrown in the trash within the month. What you do online will last and will accumulate; much of what you do in college will disappear--unless, of course, you do for yourself what college will try to keep you from focusing on. You must consciously and conscientiously build your online presence. That's right. Invest in your future by one-upping the sheepskin before it disappears from significance like a lost mortar board thrown skyward at graduation ceremonies. If you are not visible online now, your diploma will be invisible later.
Reality check #4: They're Gonna Scare You
Visible online! Are you crazy?! Plagiarism! Stalkers! Identity thieves! Old, vengeful girlfriends armed with Photoshop and your mother's maiden name! All those privacy issues! Even when it's safe it's a waste of time! You should be more careful, my young friend, one's reputation is a very hard thing to rebuild, and you never know what harm you will bring on yourself...Yada yada yada.
For good measure they will tell you stories like this one. "Haven't you heard about Mr. Online Idiot who got turned down for a job because the HR person Googled that unsavory picture from one of his less circumspect moments?"
Good point. Well, here's the flip side of that scenario. When I was evaluating applications for the presidency of a student club, the woman who got the job was the one that simply sent me to her blog, Spherical Chickens. What the hey? Spherical what? Past the catchy title I discovered a student with real thinking in her writing. Her blog showed the people with whom she connected and how invested she was in her schooling, her peers, and the literary life our club was all about. I recognized very quickly what she was capable of and qualified for. You see, she had been establishing herself for some time. Her online presence--all that thinking and linking and connecting. That was her resume! You bet she got the job. She offered me her resume, too, but she'd given me everything I needed to know with a single URL.
You need your own spherical chickens. Do you get it? A diploma is deadness, a sort of gravestone marking your time. A nice memorial, hopefully, but it isn't a living thing. But blogs are alive. They show your thinking and developing and working. Have you started one yet? Maybe tried out microblogging through Twitter or identi.ca? How about social bookmarking through Diigo or Delicious? Show me your think, students! And show the world, too. Show us how and where you connect, how you mash up your world. Be a DJ to your own groove. The tools are all there, and either free or cheap. People will be watching. People that count beyond your friend list on facebook. They already are watching, wondering why you aren't on the radar yet. Representing yourself well begins with showing up and revising on the fly. The ones waiting to get it perfect are on the sidelines of a game everyone gets to quarterback in. Why wait?
You'll wait because college is structured that way, dang it. Your college has a placement service, internships, an alumni network (hopefully). They have a structure that is going to help you succeed in life, right? Only far too many students reach the end of their four years of college like deer caught in headlights. It's only at that late date (or maybe in their senior year as they cross their fingers to get one of a few special internships...) that students start thinking they can present themselves to the world. ROFL!
Get online and get on the map! To be clear, lurkers aren't on the map. Googlers are online but search is unilateral. Email is online but sooooo 20th century, hiding the exchange of thought in the dark fiber of the net. No, the true Internet (what's been dubbed Web2.0) is an interactive grid, powered by the dynamic interplay of you talking and the web talking back and all of us involving/evolving one another's thoughts and creations. That's where you need to be online. Don't be your grandma glowing at being able to send a digital snap to you by email--unless your grandma also has a podcast or at least an RSS feed and is syndicating herself.
Is the Internet a time waste? Oh, yeah! Aren't there predators and scam artists and pornographers by the bitload? Yes. And shouldn't we all be careful not to get sucked into a black hole of any type? We should. But the biggest danger of the Internet in your generation is that people are keeping themselves from taking advantage of it. And I don't mean skimming some profits on eBay! I mean profiting from the social-intellectual matrix online. I know you get it, but do you get it all the way? Why are you holding yourself back? Students, you digital natives shouldn't put on the thinking cap of those digital immigrants who think the Internet is mostly a DANGER ZONE or that it has reached it's paramount utility by emailing a PDF of a scholarly article. Paleo-pathetic!
And here comes the triple whammy for college students. Once you are in the machine, clutching the sacred syllabus in one hand and shelling out Benjamins for textbooks with the other--once they have you on that semester cycle of credit hours and midterms and pressure deadlines that keep Rock Star and Prozac both in business--you simply can't squeeze in time for extras. <image of stressed coed> If I don't finish that paper I will fail that class; if I fail that class I will not get that job. And besides, I have to be responsible!<image of coed's mother in her head>
Holy trapped in Old School! Be responsible? for what? How about being responsible for your own future and your own education? Such irony here! We professors are instructed not to be the "sage on the stage" but to be the "guide on the side." We're told that students do better when they take initiative, teach themselves and one another. And they are right. And they do not even conceive of the fact that such self-directed learning is both available and should be happening beyond the artificial boundaries of classroom, semester, and campus. It's all good, all very progressive, provided you color inside the lines. Well, that's a photo filtered in sepia tone. Don't buy the rhetoric about inviting students to play a greater role in their education if that education is the walled garden of the status quo. That's not good enough for you. And don't buy the rhetoric that your university is blazing a trail with high tech when an old school paradigm prevails. <image of university magazine with supercomputer and smily nerd>
Reality Check #5: When College Gets to 2.0, They'll be Late for 3.0
My first title here was "castrating student opportunity by transforming college at the speed of lava," but I thought that was a bit strong, so I revised. My point is simply this: college is slow while learning is fast. Tooooo slow. Academia is an institution, and institutions by nature are conservative. They are built to resist change, even if they think they are accommodating it. There are reasons for such conservativeness--strong enough to be worth defending, but not at the mounting cost accumulating like Viagra spam in your junk mail filter. Behold! The INSANITY of the GLACIAL PACE of the OLD SCHOOL trying lamely to hipify itself:
"Hey, Phil. You're the department chair. We really need to be more current with what's going on with social media. I saw Michael Wesch's amazing Web2.0 video on YouTube and it was really inspiring."
"YouTube? I though the porn filters blocked that site."
"Yeah, well, I applied for an override code and finally got one last week. But anyway, we need to be studying blogs and wikis and such. Looks important."
"You're right, Candace. We've got to act on this immediately. Tell you what. Next Fall when the curriculum committee meets again, get them a proposal. Maybe they can approve a new course that will be ready for a faculty vote by December."
"Would I be able to teach the course on new media in January?"
"Well, it would still need to go up for college approval, then to the university. But I will definitely fast track it on my end. After all, this is timely stuff."
"So...maybe the following Fall?"
"Well, we have to have course catalog proposed changes in by October, but the curriculum committee won't meet until then. So it would be another full academic year before it was officially on the books, even with quick approvals. And you know Marty in the college..."
"The thing is, Phil, these students are really excited about all this. I was hoping to channel that excitement into some of their self-directed learning."
"It will only be a better class once it gets all that careful review. Besides, Candace, it will work in your favor. Let others work out the kinks with all that new technology so you don't have to."
"Hmmm. Well, in the meantime I suppose I could at least blog about some of these things."
"You're blogging? I thought you were finishing up that manuscript for University of Toronto Press. Look, I don't want to micromange your time, but tenure review is coming up. You might want to save some of those extras for after the important work is on the shelf."
"But the students are all blogging or talking about my courses already on facebook. Some of them have even sent me friend requests. Maybe I should strike while the iron's hot."
"The Internet isn't going away, Candace. Just keep your eye on the ball for now. I know you want to help your students, but you don't serve them well if you don't get your scholarship done."
"Actually, I was thinking of trying to blog to them about my research. One of my students had an idea I thought would help the book along."
"Your students aren't your peers, Candace! You can tell them all about your research once it's finalized. Then it will trickle down into your teaching naturally."
"What about the provost telling us our students should come first?"
"He has tenure, Candace. That's when you can say those sorts of things."
So very chilling, but that's academia for you. Got a burning question? Let's put that on self-reflective ice until it's good and dead. How many facebook updates had Candace's students posted just during the time of that conversation? Which of her students might have had a more meaningful experience if his education and her research were a two-way conversation that he and she both dared themselves to engage in?
But that's not what all that computer infrastructure is for in college. It's not there to bring the pursuit of knowledge (teaching) onto the same plane as The Pursuit of Knowledge (big people research). No, your college wants to dazzle you with spiffy computer labs and brag it up that the Internet is piped into the dorm rooms, but the whole structure of college works against the best educational uses of the web no matter how wired the buildings are. So much oversight and review has been worked into the hierarchy and politics of higher education that it has made itself incapable of valuing or accommodating the very media and methods that could accelerate your learning.It ain't right, and there it is.
College is trapped inside of its ways, and it wants to keep you there and make you believe that ONLY THROUGH THE GRACE OF ITS CURRICULUM AND DEGREES AND SUPER SPECIAL EXPERTS AND ACCESS TO ITS PRECIOUS STORE OF SUBSCRIPTION-ONLY SCHOLARSHIP WILL YOU EVER DO OR SAY ANYTHING OF VALUE. Moreover, "We're going to put a hold on your graduation until that library book is returned!" Me SKARED!!
Hey! Don't believe what the system preaches by its structure! You can graduate to engaging with the world right now!
Here's another scenario to illustrate how college can't help itself from retarding educational progress because of its very structure. Let's say a professor comes back from a conference jazzed about using blogs and wikis. His college is with it enough to say, "You bet! Blog away! We'll alert the alumni magazine editor!" But hold on just a bit. You know, we have an IT team looking into what the best blogging system is and how to handle the back end of data demand, and of course the Blackboard course management system that the university spent half its endowment on has been promising blogging in its next module and we'll need to get that up and going with a pilot group to work the kinks out for a semester or two. And wikis? Well, we can't have students having direct access changing data on university servers. We don't have the firewalls or oversight needed for that can of worms, and it will take some time to evaluate which third-party blogging or wiki platforms could be an alternative...
And that is how Web2.0 dies in college when college administrators think they are bringing it to life. Kinda puts the iron in ironic. Ouch!
But they deserve our pity, really. They just can't help themselves. They, too, are victims of the system. They can't help but kill the things that would bring your education to life. Oh, the humanities!
Reality Check #6: School Impedes Education
Listen to me, students! Your education is far too important to wait for academia to catch up! The train is moving, and you know it! You're already on it! You are connecting to each other through peer2peer, social networks, and text messaging. Don't even get me started on video games! Get a Second Life! But the old guard just makes you feel guilty about it, as though every text message were a drug deal you were recklessly thumbing while driving a carload of toddlers without seat belts. No, we profs make you check your tech at the door, keeping sacred our little patch of control--all while, VOLUNTARILY, the whole tribe of today's youth has adopted and worked into their daily lives the greatest educational delivery system of the century--the cell phone. Your personal tech needs to be taken more seriously, students, not treated as an impediment to learning! Turn your cell phone off in the theater, but not in the theater of learning! yuk yuk
I give my students my cell phone number so they can text or twitter me right from mid-think, and you know what? It's great to be part of this dynamic system of learning that these new technologies enable. Are you going to trust your education to those scaredy-profs that won't let you in on what they are doing in their closed-science lab or won't deal with you except when you are in class or during office hours?
So here's the thing. You can't change them. The system will just roll you if you try. The answer? Don't burn down the campus. No, just treat your classes like you do your CDs--rip, trade, and burn the best tracks, deleting what doesn't fit your playlist. YOU are going to be the change, the generation that replaces those too blinded by the pride of custom to recognize that mighty fireball of knowledge and connection blazing through the bright fiber of our computers--only to be firewalled and fizzled by the man. You stand on the shoulders of pygmies.
If you are in college or headed that way, you are going to have to see its structure as the impediment that it will doggedly strive to be. And they are just gearing up for the real fight. You thought the music industry was playing dirty and showing their true, tawdry colors? Just watch and see how much colleges will push back, insisting on the precious nature of their way of receiving, transmitting, and approving knowledge. What a tantrum we are in for! <image: girl throwing tantrum> "Nuh-uh! WE say how to learn, where to learn, what to learn. WE SAY!!" They will proudly wave the flag of tradition and the brand of their school--as though their university were more than a portal on the world, as though their campus were in fact the world, as though education itself were a commodity they could brand, rather than a way of engaging the world. They will lose their credibility in being able to give meaningful shape to your future if they freeze your modes of learning in the past.
Don't let them shape you into a drone that believes he or she is not credentialed to think, speak, act, or create unless it is in terms of their syllabus, their "terms," their degrees. Unfortunately, colleges will (like the RIAA) prove themselves not to be about the "music" but all about the business. If colleges really believed what they preached about general education and preparing students for the world, their leaders would cut the Gordian knot of red tape and cover-one's-butt bureaucracy and usher in the new paradigm. They could help to accelerate the evolution of learning by opening up their concepts of what kind of knowledge is valuable, and they would value you students for real--not patronizingly but authentically--for what you can really do and be within that magnificent world that is your playground and privilege to explore, digest, remix, and rebuild. But it won't happen in college. The great and spacious building of academia is the pride of the world--an increasingly pinched and persnickety world of self-congratulating experts swallowed in the solipsism of their esoteric inspeak. Oh gads, I'm infected myself!
Academia still has power; college still matters, but you don't have to play the game. Don't check yourself when you have the urge to connect, explore, create, and express. Use the tools at hand. Feel the energy of living knowledge sustained by the new media. Don't sit in the voluntary detention of self-censorship, kept from more involved participation online by worries over whether you will get a good grade in college. Give yourself the best grades ever by claiming what is offered to you tuition-free. Find those crazed teachers (typically adjuncts and grad students with less to lose) who have not been lobotomized by the moribund methodology of conventional learning and teaching. Trust the ones who give you their cell phone numbers and who light up when you make a blog post tangentially related to that course but something you are passionate about. In that earlier cultural revolution, they said, "Don't trust anyone over 30." No, that's not it. The digitally sympathetic are a minority, but they are everywhere that you can find them, and that's more likely to be on facebook than in the marble hallways of the Widener library at Hahvard.
A concerned professor
Twitter me at wakingtiger :)