December 14th, 2012
I really like visiting Washington. I started this blog last week when I was in DC for the annual conference of the Council of Graduate Schools. But as is often the case on the road, and especially at conferences, I couldn’t quite finish it in time. I took this snap of the White house on a brisk sunny day. The picture always lies, and so it is the case here. Yes, that really is the White House, and, look, there’s the Washington Monument in the background to the left, but what the image doesn’t show is the incredibly cluttered amalgam of tourists and security people just outside the frame. I had to stick my hands through the fence to take the shot. The grandstand for the January inauguration of Obama is still being erected, just to the right of me, and there were scores of gawkers and school groups staring through the iron fence, eager to catch a glimpse of the President. There was a spirited sense of well-being in the air. I think people in Washington are so relieved to have Obama, and not the Romney clan, in the White house that you could feel the relief. I sure did.
The 700 or so deans who gathered daily in the conference hall were also relieved. At least, they knew they had a president who believed in education and funded research. Obama isn’t perfect but the alternative was unthinkable. Anyhow, as usual with a largely US-based meeting there was a lot of talk about the future of post-secondary ed, and a great deal of debate about the merits of MOOCS–massive open online courses. Canadians coined the term but prestigious American schools are running away with its application. Harvard and M.I.T. have collaborated to get into the game, with Stanford and UCLA and Berkley being early adapters, as well. Hundreds of thousands of students take MOOCs now, although they do not have to be students registered anywhere whatsoever to take the online courses. Most recently the University of Toronto announced its intentions to jump into the field and so they will be the torch bearers of the Canadian public system. Will MOOCs destroy on-campus life? Will they start poaching students away from their less prestigious universities? After all, if you can get a diploma from Harvard why would you bother attending classes at, say, Regina? We talked long and late into the Washington bars about the merits of MOOCs, as well as other topics. Anyone who can predict where all of this is going doesn’t know what s/he is talking about.
Several other themes dominated the meetings. Internationalization was a recurring topic as was career pathways. Today, if a grad dean conference isn’t talking about how best to prepare students for a world beyond academe then it’s just being irresponsible. As always with CGS meetings, the quality of speakers was extremely high, from well-known NY Times journalist David Brooks to Michael Berube, the president of the Modern Language Association who pretty much challenged humanities to shake itself up and reinvent itself as a more progressive and flexible site of learning. Yeah, good luck with that, Michael. And, as always at the D.C. meeting’s, the satiric troupe The Capitol Steps performed their shtick for us all at the opening banquet, exploding the most silly characters and absurdist elements of the presidential election to mock just about everyone and everything. Canadians laughed and even felt a bit smug.