Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dis Interested and Dat Interested

Some folks seem in a huff about the DIY U book, both the author Anya Kamenetz and Stephen Downes, whom Kamenetz takes to task because he is a not a journalist. Kamenetz goes on to call herself an intellectual. I think she's right about Downes, but for the wrong reason, and she's wrong about being an intellectual, which makes a lot of the rest of the discussion problematic.

The canonical situation where investigative journalism clearly is necessary begins with power which is entrusted to provide a public good. Then, either through its deliberated machinations or en passant through the normal business process, power becomes aware of some damaging information. Power prefers to conceal this information to reap the benefits of the office. However, the public has a right to know, after which power must suffer the consequences. Investigative journalism is there to satisfy this public need. It doesn't always work well - we were suckered for way too long on WMD - but everyone should be able to understand the function. Insiders to power putting out information are just not credible. Think of BP's response to the disaster in the Gulf.

The problem with using this argument is not that it is wrong, but it is irrelevant. Downes is not a mouthpiece for educational power. And online learning is so distributed that looking for a concentrated power with insider information is simply misplaced.

I'm not saying there shouldn't be investigative journalism about Higher Ed. There is a basis for that in the most recent post in the Tomorrow's Professor series. The author argues that, at least within Engineering, research and teaching compete with one another rather than complement each other as is typically portrayed in those promotional videos delivered during the halftime of basketball and football games. This in itself isn't a story. One needs to push it further and argue with investigative evidence that tuition dollars are reallocated to research in a way that does not complement student learning and that this is an act of commission by high level administrators. Then one has to produce the goods to show this claim is true and not a bunch of malarkey.

It's interesting - this sort of investigative journalism doesn't seem to be happening at all, maybe because it is so hard to make the case. (My campus and university was the object of investigative journalism, but that was about an admissions scandal, which to this observer was a small potatoes issue.)

There is a different sort of journalism. I'd call it cultural anthropology for the masses. Malcolm Gladwell typifies this sort of reporting. There is no issue of concealment of information. Rather, there is some phenomenon that readers are unaware about or an explanation for the phenomenon that is unknown. This sort of journalism popularizes one or both of these. I take it that DIY U is in this category, though I've not read the book.

There is a question with this second sort of journalism whether insiders can do it too? (I'm thinking particularly of the Michael Wesch Video A Vision of Students Today. That video went viral so on the popularizing front it did a good job.) Before getting to that let me point out that there is a potential problem the other way - the so called journalist doesn't have a clue in writing the piece. When I held my Assistant CIO position and the Student Newspaper would write a piece about the Campus Learning Management System, that was always a concern. All the senior management in the IT organization got coaching from our public affairs office on how to interact with the press, just for this reason. The real problem is that you are typically talking about a complex issue that people want to investigate in a fairly short time period. So the piece ends up being superficial or missing some salient points. Indeed, that there is only one piece rather than a lengthy series is evidence that the goal is producing a published story, not muckraking. The problem isn't unique to student newspapers. It happens with the commercial press too.

This is actually an argument for insiders writing. They know what they are talking about and they are persistent. So what's the problem? Insiders may lack perspective. They also may lack objectivity. I believe the same can be said for Fox News and MSNBC. Some people might call what those stations do journalism (even if they color it yellow). I don't. I also have this rather old fashioned idea that news should be separated from editorial and only the former entails journalism. Downes makes no effort to sort his information in this way. I'm not saying he should. I'm just saying he doesn't. So I wouldn't call what he does journalism. Of course, words do have have a tendency to change their meaning over time.

There's one more point to be made. Downes writes a fair amount about himself. That is no sin. I do the same. When talking about learning everyone is a learner so not talking about their own learning would be really odd. But this has to do a number on the objectivity/subjectivity thing. The choice seems to be either to write objectively but then miss the first hand perspective entirely or give up on objectivity.

Kamenetz gives us none of this. If she simply referred to herself as a reporter, that wouldn't bother me. But she says she's an intellectual too. That irks - too self-possessed for my taste. I will not read her book.

No comments: