Could “home college” work?

Via Tyler Cowen, I recently ran across this fascinating Chronicle of Higher Ed piece, laying out yet another new model for post-secondary education. The author, Hollis Robbins, an administrator at Johns Hopkins, argues that with so many underemployed PhDs floating around, bricks-and-mortar tuition so high, and MOOCs lacking the intense personal interaction, between student and professor, that can make the college experience so rich, the time is ripe for the rise of “home college-ing.” The term makes clear that the analogy is to home-schooling, though Robbins also points out that there is also a precedent in the private tutorial system that was once so popular among the elite, here and in Europe especially. And with the oversupply of very qualified teachers, presumably the quality of a home-college education could be every bit as good, at least in the areas of a particular instructor’s specialty, as that a student would get at a top-notch university. At a fraction of the cost, no less, with the tutor still earning quite a bit more than what he or she has been making, adjuncting here and there.

The appeal is clear, and from both the financial and academic points of view, there’s clearly an opportunity. I’d note especially, with respect to the former, that bricks-and-mortar institutions have set themselves up to be completely unable to compete with private tutors on cost, via decades of increases in spending on administration, very little of which has any bearing on the quality of anyone’s education. Robbins also points out that tutors could easily take on multiple students at once, getting the most, financially, out of every hour spent leading a class, or preparing for a lecture, discussion, or test. She also notes that accreditation shouldn’t be much of an obstacle, with the way here having already been paved by the home-schooling movement.

Would this work? I think that on some limited level, it could. As Robbins takes care to point out, toward the end of her piece, the best niche might be educating first- or second-year college students, preparing them to enter traditional institutions, from which they’d get their degrees. We hear a lot about many students going to community colleges to do just this, some to save money, others because community colleges can provide a more gentle ramp-up to doing college-level work. Private tutors could easily compete here.

I think, though, that home-college-ing might be less successful in replacing the full four-year experience, for any but a very few students in a few specific areas. If you already know, at age 18, that you want to be a professor in some specific area, home college could work, if you work with a tutor who is a recognized expert in that area, or at least has a proven ability to get you into a Ph.D. program that will then feed you into a tenure-track job. Or if you’re an extreme introvert, four years of home college could work.

But college, even – and, I would argue, especially – for the elite students who used to study with private tutors, is about socializing. And not with professors. As I’ve argued before, the on-campus experience, particularly at the Ivies and Ivy-like schools, is worth the price premium, or at least perceived to be worth that premium, because it provides a unique opportunity, at a time generally accepted to be formative of one’s adult self, to devote one’s time to rich, intense personal interactions with one’s peers. And then to leverage the connections formed, for personal and professional gain, over the rest of one’s adult life. Think back on your own college experience – do you remember your professors, or your peers, when you think about the people you met and spent time with then? Are you still friends with anyone of either group? Most likely your peers come out ahead on both scores.

Home college, at least as Robbins has laid out this model, couldn’t provide much by way of opportunity for this sort of thing, because students’ primary interactions would be with tutors. And this means home college isn’t likely to appeal, at least as a four-year program, to many people.

That said, I see one way to get past this problem. Home-college tutors, in a particular area, could form some sort of association, by which their students could study with other associated tutors, meet and work with those tutors’ students, and, it stands to reason, socialize with them. What’s the critical number of associated students, that could make such a “college” work? A starting point might be the enrollment numbers at successful smaller colleges. Five hundred seems a good number… Would this mean, say, 50 tutors in an association? There would be additional costs at this point, with the admin work being beyond what the tutors could reasonably do. But with students presumably taking care of their own housing, food, insurance and so forth, and no buildings to take care of – events could be “meetups” at rented or borrowed sites – these costs would still be low relative to those borne by bricks-and-mortar schools. And at this point, with enough students to form a real community, such an association could have a real advantage over MOOCs. It might be worth trying, for a group of recent PhDs with a lot of energy, no teaching jobs, and the desire to make a career for themselves, in the field they thought they were getting into, when they started grad school.

Can Inkshares be the Consumer Reports of long-form journalism?

My friend Paul Spinrad has an article proposal up on the interesting new site Inkshares. The idea is that if enough people contribute funding, Paul will write a long-form piece on messianic Judaism, a topic that, as you’ll see from his proposal, has interested him for some time. He’s a talented writer with tons of experience and I’m sure would produce a great piece. What interests me more, though, is the Inkshares model. To Paul’s mind, it’s one that could enable great journalism to continue to flourish, i.e. enable journalists to have both the funding and the freedom to write engaging longer-form pieces on all manner of topics, of the sort that used to be commissioned by more than the handful of remaining upmarket general-interest magazines.

Is Paul right? The idea is appealing. Journalism, now, may flourish on the web, often in the form of blogging, but long-form pieces seem much less common than they used to be. It takes time and money to write the sort of stuff Paul’s proposing to write, and if crowdfunding takes off in this area, he and other journalists would have both in spades. Time is the key here, I think – time free from having to crank out short pieces to pay the bills while working on a longer one on the side. Also important, I think, to Paul and other Inkshares writers, is the perceived freedom from editorial pressure, from advertisers and publishers looking to please advertisers.

I wonder, though, if this is really the way forward for journalism. One potential problem is getting funding. Readers can get, at quite low cost and often for free, all manner of great writing now, on all manner of topics. And while few web writers produce work of the length of the typical Maciej Cegłowski essay, long-form stuff is out there, and plenty of the short stuff is of excellent quality. Moreover, plenty of the most talented web writers are willing to write for free, either as a hobby or because their jobs enable them to do this – Cegłowski is one, I’d also nominate, off the top of my head, Robin Hanson here. Other writers support themselves through ads on their sites, or by writing for free-to-the-user, ad-supported sites run by others.

In all these cases, moreover, the writers go ahead and write, without waiting for funding. And there are, they’ve shown, all manner of ways to do this and make a dime. Sure, these writers, when working on a topic that would traditionally have been tackled in a long-form piece, may have, for economic reasons, to break it into smaller chunks, and put them out intermittently. But I don’t see evidence that the rise of the web, and decline of magazines, has meant the decline of serious, insightful writing on weighty topics, or the narrowing of the range of opinions on those topics. If anything, the opposite would seem to be the case. Not writing, until you get funding, strikes me as ignoring all the other options for getting great serious work out there.

I should add that I could see Inkshares succeeding not as the Kickstarter, but rather the Consumer Reports of journalism. CR doesn’t take ads, and while plenty of other publications put out very good product reviews, it’s done very well by positioning itself as the most serious, reliable, and independent source for this content. For its readers, myself included, it’s this unique combination that makes CR their go-to source for buying advice, when they’re buying a fridge, a car, or insurance. Inkshares could do this too, I think, charging a yearly subscription fee, and positioning itself as a cut above Slate, Salon, HuffPo, et al, and perhaps even the New Yorker and the Atlantic, or at least competing with them, by hewing close to the standard of the best long pieces that run in those latter two publications. Staying online would keep costs low, and cultivating their relationships both with readers and great writers would enable them better to connect the two, by commissioning the right work from the right people, and presenting it in the right way. Of course this would be a tough task, but if its editors love journalism as much as I think they do, this could be a path to success.

What are the new markers of regional speech?

I took this fun Times interactive U.S. dialects quiz and enjoyed it, and was amused when it told me that my vocabulary and pronunciation tics mark me as from either Rockford, Illinois, or St. Louis, neither of which places I’ve ever so much as visited. (To be fair, it also showed Cleveland, where I did grow up, as among other places I’m likely from, and having not lived there in almost 30 years, I can’t be a stickler for accuracy.)

But I was struck by how old-fashioned are all the objects for which the linguists have identified varying, and each regionally specific, names, allowing them to be taken as markers of origin. Drive-in liquor stores, roly-polys/potato bugs, “you all” vs. “youse,” “sub” vs. “hero,” and so forth… Perhaps, I don’t know, a generation ago, these could be understood as reliable clues about where someone grew up. But is that really so true any more? U.S. speech, at least educated speech, has become more uniform, at least in vocabulary. This was true even when I was in college, in New York, 30 years ago, the first time I was around a lot of people from a lot of different places—most of whom, even in many cases if they weren’t from the U.S.—spoke pretty much the same. “You all” and “youse,” at least for most anyone who’d think to go to the Times site to take this test, would be expressions to use only as affectations, signaling a non-elite, or rather non-elitist heart and soul, in the way only someone who’s secure in his or her elite status would think to do. (Recall here the impossibly precious late 90s fad, among just the sort of people who’d take this test, for saying they had a “jones” to do or get something or other.)

Also, where are the references to new markers of regional speech? Certainly these must exist. And a quiz using them wouldn’t just be more fun than one that, in spots, seems like it could have been given to the characters in either a Bowery Boys short or Tom Sawyer. You could identify a New Yorker by showing a photo of someone with his mouth on a subway turnstile and asking for a name for this practice. Maybe Seattle speech has expressions that can be traced to the intricacies of Microsoft intra-company politics, or the vagaries of old versions of Windows. The use of “hella” shows you’re from the Bay Area, and while “wicked,” used the same way, strikes me as a bit old-fashioned, it’s probably still a contemporary sign of being from New England. I’d love a dialects quiz that doesn’t just show off how well the linguists know me, but also teaches me something about American contemporary speech.

The I has it

I’m just now getting around to reading Nicholson Baker’s U and I. I very much like it, as an artifact of a particular approach to literary criticism. In his insistence on putting himself and his story first, focusing on his relationship to Updike and Updike’s writing, in his slapdash style and affection for the low comic, and his working in anecdotes about laughing with his mom about Updike’s bons mots, he’s a bit like a supernerd Hunter Thompson, one who’d have written memorably about Nixon, had he ever managed to leave the library.

As a book, though—as something to read—I’m not so keen on U and I. I didn’t expect this, as I quite like Baker’s fiction, and while his other non-fiction can verge into the batty, it almost always makes for an enjoyable read. But this book is a slog. The main problem is Baker’s persona. He puts his ambition on display, which isn’t in and of itself bad, as an effort to create an interesting story. But his ambition comes off as petty, the sort that makes you think that if all he wanted was status, he’d have done better to go into another field. Moreover—and I think this is the main problem—here he relates to the reader as a writer first, and as a person second. U and I, because of Baker presenting himself here so relentlessly as a Writer, produces none of the wonderful “Hey, that’s happened to me too, and I’ve had those same thoughts, and if I’d written about them, I’d have done so in the same way!” effect produced by his fiction, and much of his other non-fiction. He tries to be a regular guy here, making jokes about how unlikely his prospects of ever being on the golf course with Updike, but because it’s clear he very very much wants that, and wanting that, as he himself admits, is so petty, he comes across as not only petty, but as a petty man who thinks he’s profound. Because, he is, you know, a Writer. And, again, you wonder, why didn’t he just go into sales and strive to play golf with his CEO, as a way of shortcutting a promotion to VP?

The thing is, Baker is a better writer than Updike. Maybe even a better Updike. Like Updike, he writes about the mundane, in its contemporary U.S. suburban variant, in a way that brings out its poetry, after a fashion, without belaboring that point, and never losing sight of the need to tell a good story, in the standard sense, even when that story can occasionally be a bit hidden. He’s a plain-language writer, too, putting readability first and never letting a purple phrase get in the way of his readers identifying with&liking, often loving—the people he writes about, all of whom come across as people, not characters. He makes a point of notmaking points, political, social, and the like, at least in his fiction. There’s none, that is, of the simplistic politics, overstudied characters, and overwrought language that mar so much of the work of so many other writers we class as literary—yet there’s no doubt that his work, with its thoughtful treatment of big ideas and careful studies of people, places, and situations, is anything but. I’m reading Vox
at the same time, and here too I’m reminded of a parallel with Updike, another man who wrote truthfully, profoundly, yet in an incredibly understated fashion about sex and its place in contemporary American life.

And on all these counts, I think, Baker is a better Updike. The occasional clever turns of phrase you find in an Updike story—Baker recounts some of them in U—mar Updike’s work, I think, by making us see him put himself up on that Writerly pedestal, and making his work, if only for the instant it takes to get through a flowery sentence, mundane in the way of so much fiction that wants to be profound, but isn’t. The sex stuff, in Updike, reads badly in many cases, perhaps because it’s dated, but likely because it’s just crass and in that, dull. Updike’s protagonists never much appealed to me—in the main, they seem like jerks. Perhaps this is generational, or perhaps, again, Updike’s stuff is dated, and the topical nature of so much of his work has made it age particularly fast. (I see a parallel between his fiction and old movie comedies, like The Ladykillers and The Producers, which must have been incredible when they first appeared, all the more for the how they treated the topics, but which are almost unwatchable now, cloying and slow-going throughout.) Baker does all this stuff better. In his fiction. Reminding me that I need to get on with Vox. U and I, I’ll put aside.

Who really cares

On the way to work the other day in San Francisco, I walked past a parking place that had a sign saying the lot was under new management, and the new folks are “passionate about parking.” I had a cup of coffee in one hand and my briefcase in the other, so I didn’t take a picture. But when I got to work I did a web search and found out that indeed there is an outfit, one Pacific Park Management, that declares itself passionate about parking, and it manages the 7th and Harrison lot I’d just walked past.

Does their passion make me more likely to park there? If parking really is the thing they not only do, but obsessively think about, and are proud of that, should it? And why do they bother? It’s so hard to park south of Market, they can’t really need a declaration of passion, or indeed anything beyond the most minimal effort—open the gate, swipe the cards, one after the other—to fill the lot from the minute it’s open until whenever they feel like closing it.

Or perhaps this passion is one they declare to win over the various whoevers who own the various lots they manage—if you’re going to lease out a lot to someone and everyone’s offering the same for it, why not go with the passionate bidder, even if that weirds you out a bit? Or perhaps, as I suspect is the case with many people who use “passion” in a context decidedly non-passionate, in the traditional sense—that is, to declare, oddly, to me, anyway, how much they love their work—the Pacific folks are engaged in equal parts marketing to others and marketing to themselves, convincing both, they hope, that whatever they do is indeed, ultimately, an exercise in self-actualization, and the better for it, for all concerned. I do wonder.

Message from the Past

I used to think the iPad’s failing was that it didn’t do enough different things – most notably, that it didn’t have a physical keyboard that would enable it to substitute for a laptop. I don’t really use my iPad, and that’s one key reason why.

But I’m an outlier – iPad sales have shown that plenty of people are happy to have one, and use it to do some things, while having other devices to do other things. Those other devices including phones and laptops and desktops, and Kindles, and… In other words, people – device buyers – have shown a clear preference for having multiple devices, and not stressing that none does everything.

If you were a devicemaker, presumably you’d take note of this, focus on finding your device’s niche, and filling it.

Unless you were Microsoft.

Minerva and the experience design of an “Ivy-standard education”

A new company, backed by some smart folks and their money, says it will “offer an Ivy-standard education at half price.” Online, of course, saving on facilities and other overhead, and thus able to charge less. And presumably also, by virtue of enrolling way more students than any of its nominal competitors, making plenty of money in volume sales, even if its margins are lower.

Will it work? I think so, if we understand “Ivy-standard education” to have to do with what goes on in the classroom. Plenty of people want that and either can’t get in, or can’t or don’t want to pay for it. A well-designed high-end online education shouldn’t be hard to sell to some significant chunk of those folks, if the price is right. And if Minerva’s exclusive enough in its admissions policies, and enables students to leverage the power of a closed, well-designed, richly featured online social network, it might even compete with upper-tier on-campus programs, at least to some degree, in the “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” department.

But do classroom learning and making connections define an on-campus “Ivy-standard” education? I think there’s a third component Minerva needs to add, or rather figure out how to replace – the experience of being in college.  That is, the all-absorbing, intenselfy emotional experience of living among other like-minded, like-background students, largely cut off from the world, while constantly being told, ’til you start telling yourselves, that you’re above the rest of that world, either intellectually, socially, or both.  This experience, I think, is key both to the appeal of exclusive schools and the price premium they command.

As a society, we see this time as one that’s essential to shaping the self.  And of course, as a not-unrelated practical matter, it is when many of us make many of those key connections that help us later in life. Not to speak of meeting lifelong friends and, often, mates. Paying to do this all at an Ivy is like paying to stay at an expensive eco-tourism resort.  You want not just to increase your odds of making these connections with the right people, you want this experience to be at once intense and satisfying.  That means being among people who are like you, if you’re from an elite background, or like the person you want to be, if you’re trying to get into that sphere – or rather, trying to get your kid into ii.

Colleges have always devoted a lot of attention to designing this experience.  And elite colleges have intensified these efforts, it seems to me, since the ’80s – which, not coincidentally, was when tuition began to skyrocket. Since then they’ve made a concerted effort to give students a combination of countryclub amenities and copious opportunities for memorable personal and social experiences – the sort that, again, have traditionally marked college life as both unique, and a uniquely significant stage of one’s life, and also, not incidentally, do much to keep the donations flowing after graduation.

Call this the experience-driven education. The parallel is imperfect, but designing it can be seen as similar to producing a good Hollywood movie. Savvy Hollywood producers, working with talented directors, succeed by designing their customers’ use experience down to the smallest detail.  How do elite schools do this, for their students? Substitute “classmates” for “characters,” make sure that those students are told and shown that they’re special and are sharing a unique, important experience, and make sure that experience follows a narrative arc. Think of college as a coming-of-age story. A naif arrives in a new place, knowing he has to learn much, and work hard, to complete a journey that will lead him to a goal he wants to achieve. Those he lives and works with are all doing the same thing, so he feels part of a tight-knit group. The school tells him he’s special, and he and his parents, and his classmates and their parents, look at their tuition bills and will this to be true. Sleeping around and drinking too many pitchers with his friends strengthens those bonds and creates mini-dramas that make the overall experience more intense. Of course there are tough courses to get through, along with other obstacles that make the goal more difficult to achieve, and thus that achievement more meaningful. The occasional friend who drops out, the knowledge that his parents have made a big sacrifice – these things add poignance. Afterward, he gets a job through alumni connections, or, more likely these days, admission to a prestigious grad program that in turn enables him to work in a prestigious profession. He keeps many of his college friends, and it’s an important part of his life to talk with them about the old times, to continue to talk about and do things they discovered they liked to talk about and do, when they were in school. So the whole endeavor seems worthwhile.

Can Minerva compete with the Ivies on this score? I have my doubts. Occasional velvet-rope meetups and online chat rooms aren’t going to cut it. Perhaps Minervea will move into a different niche, competing with second-tier colleges, and online programs run by the first-tier outfits. In any case, the competition will be fascinating to watch – and will do much, I think, to shape the way future generations think not just about learning, but about the experience of “coming of age.”

The charm of East European absurdist literalist design, or…

Last night my wife and I had a very nice meal at Belli Osteria, a new Berkeley Italian place run by a former teacher at our kids’ school.  The arugula with roasted tongue was particularly good, the wild boar with pappardelle was also quite nice, and while the black ravioli dough had been rolled too thick, I enjoyed the subtle tastes of the spinach and shrimp filling, and of what seemed to be meyer lemon juice dripped on top.

What interested me more than the food were certain aspects of the decor – particularly one wall sculpture, which had brightly painted wine bottles, upside down, attached in a sloping-down line to a wooden rack.  Berkeley is a college town, and this is the sort of goofy-amateurish would-be-whimsical thing you’d see in a cafe where students hang out, done, no doubt, by the boyfriend of one of the baristas, a guy who’d be taking some time to explore his art, before going to law school.  Or some such.  Looked at that way, it was both charmingly in-its-element, and ugly, and not worth a second look.

But I looked twice.  The chef-owner is from Romania, and the bartender told me that his brother did the decor.  So the odd wall-hanging, to me, was more appealing.  In the 90s, I lived for several years in Moscow, and during that time traveled some in Eastern European, and in Budapest, Prague, Tallinn, wherever, I always seemed to find myself, at some point, in some bar or cafe or restaurant where something like this hung on the wall.  There, such a sculpture would suggest not amateurishness, but rather a sort of heroic dadaism – a flight of absurdism, pointedly pointless, save for the suggestion that in art, and more broadly in life, in direct contradiction to everything one heard and read in any Party or government or officially sanctioned source, there is no point.  Or perhaps there’s no point worth striving for, save transient personal joy, and thus not only can nothing be rationalized, the effort is itself futile.  And thus absurd.  The crazily hung and painted bottles, in this reading, would be…  Just bottles – and bottles that no longer serve any real function, except to be laughed at, privately.

A bottle sculpture as a critique of heavy-handed rationalizing socialism?  Of course. This sort of thing can be read as being of a piece with any number of similarly conceived and executed East European underground artworks of the Communist era.  And, in that region, at that time and for a while afterward, you couldn’t see them as anything else.  And seeing this thing, last night, both pleased me and made me recall fondly that time.  I was younger, with no real responsibility, and so forth.

Of course, in Berkeley, college town that is, while it’s more likely to find its best audience – people like me, as well as East European emigres of, now, a certain age – it’s even more likely to be seen as something it’s not.  The barista’s boyfriend, and all.  And communism fell a while ago, so the next time I see it, I’m as likely as not just to think the thing is ugly, and in this, not great at setting the scene for what is, all in all, a lovely dining experience.  I hope the food is the same, the next time I’m at Belli Osteria.  But now that it’s given me a few moments of nostalgia, I won’t miss the bottle sculpture, should it, in the interim, have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Death of the mid-list bookstore

Just as print publishing’s decline has hit mid-list authors particularly hard, so too is Barnes and Noble suffering.  Why do I equate the two? I think the same factors are at work in both cases. Both provided an o.k. experience—reading, in the former case, browsing and buying, in the latter—when other options weren’t available. You’d buy and read any old novel you were on vacation in a seaside town with one tiny bookstore, and it was the only novel you could find that you hadn’t read. Now you can download a movie or play an online game, or download an e-book, from almost anywhere, so that book doesn’t compel you to buy it, unless you’re fairly sure that reading it will afford you a great experience. Going to a Barnes and Noble is o.k., but only if there’s no local bookstore with more character—and apparently those bookstores, against all expectations are doing just fine. And if it’s variety and price you’re after, everything’s online.  I’ll miss Barnes and Noble, if it disappears, if only because when I was in school in New York, I always loved browsing the stacks at its flagship 5th Avenue store, which wasn’t much on charm, but had a hell of a lot of books. That Union Store megastore is pretty cool too.  But I see that like the mid-list author, B+N, as a chain, doesn’t offer anything you can’t get elsewhere.

Of ethnographic interest

In which MFA faculty writers praise another MFA faculty writer, from whom, perhaps not coincidentally, they’ll hope to get the book blurbs, recommendations, and committee votes they’ll need, to get the publishing contracts, fellowships, awards, and teaching posts they most covet.

Also there are some details on what it’s like to be an MFA faculty writer.  At the end, there’s some stuff about the fiction of George Saunders.