Category Archives: Academia

Here Comes the Protocol University

Today’s sermon is inspired by NY Times columnist David Brooks’ case that what was an economy based on making “stuff” is now an economy based on sets of instructions. The Protocol Economy, as he’s calling it, has its iconic source in software, that set of instructions embedded in our stuff — cars, appliances and, of course, computers.

The implication for college professors — and for the entire K-through-post-doc education — is that education is already a crucial part of the protocol economy. My job teaching undergraduate and graduate students is now not only driven by emerged and emerging technologies — web sites, social media; what I do is now judged according to a set of instructions called “outcomes assessment,” which is itself a protocol based on a logical, data-driven system that spells out (the scientific term is “operationalizes”) the “objectives” of a course in such a way that what and whether a student actually learns can be measured.

The big idea is to eliminate wiggle room. No longer will students be required to learn “the material” because such a instruction is amorphous, ambiguous and therefore not measurable. That approach to teaching  is now regarded disdainfully as merely a bad piece of software. It’s Old School,  shot through with contingency, and in the protocol  university contingency is unacceptably nostalgic, vague and inefficient — its inefficiency impotent to generate the quantifiable, comparative, competitive results which are now the basis of life support for educational institutions: government support, corporate donations, grants and other forms of economic and financial  transfusion.

As a professor whose expertise includes public relations — relationship creation, reputation management, branding, ranking, visibility, credibility — I see how the  public relations industry  has shrewdly embraced the industrial protocol and assessment strategies enabled by search engine optimization, social media, and all forms of user-generated content. Mass communications have been de-massified, a process that has been in the works for a generation. The demassification has all but killed mass advertising, and with it mass media. The world of communication is now parsed one-at-a-time — one irate consumer, one pissed-off voter, one beetrayed celebrity spouse — and then the one’s get aggregated to the millions. (Hello there, Susan Boyle.

We live now day to day, awaiting the next new thing and  its Schumpeteresque creative destruction of the sweet and sour old things (bye, bye Seattle Intelligencer, professorial lectures, and human bodies cheek to jowl in a classroom; bye bye textbook divisions of big publishing companies; bye bye publishing companies).

All of which is to say that we now live in age of agitation and even crisis. Of what a friend of mine calls Continual Partial Attention. An age where continual monitoring is no match for slander and libel that goes viral in a heartbeat. In a way, a fabulous age full of fables: Make your own, see it fly. But that’s another matter for another time.

In the protocol economy, the winners will know how to create, live by and be judged according to rigorous sets of instructions. The losers will recuse themselves, wax nostalgic and wane into irrelevancy.


Leave a comment

Filed under Academia

Graduating Into Ambiguity

Forty years ago Dustin Hoffman in the title role of “The Graduate” got single work of what we, in the wised-up audience, knew to be idiotic career advice:

The advice giver, if memory serves, got justly punished for his bourgeois  irrelevancy and dismissive attitude toward young adult angst. He got cuckolded by his wife, iconically played by Anne Bancroft, who seduces Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock.

Mother Nature doesn’t like it when you make fun of her, as a commerical told us once upon a time. And youth doesn’t take kindly to being mocked by middle aged guys whose wives could be fair game.

All this is a long way around the barn to make the point that Benjamin’s plight the summer after his college graduation has much in common with the anxieties of today’s college grads. I should know. I’m a college professor.

I should know — but that’s really less than half the story. I should be able to help them. I try. Sometimes I succeed — although the success is not mine, of course, but theirs. They do the heavy lifting. They get the informational interviews (“Sir, as you know, I’m not here to ask for a job because, as you’ve told me, you’re not hiring. What I’m here for is to learn about your company and your industry. To do the kind of research that will help me put me in position to be a strong candidate when the economy turns around.”)

Then they follow up. Make lists. Get referrals. Take punches to their emotional solar plexus. It’s not pretty out there when the recent grads hit the street and the Internet to strut their stuff.  For one thing, there’s just too much stuff on the street already.

I get emails from anxious students. I get emails from excited students who’ve landed a real job interview. I get messages posted on my Facebook wall from students seeking advice, registering complaints, feeling deflated. Sometimes I get texted by recent grads who are jumping for j0y in 140 characters.

Did I mention ambiguity? Or have I just buried it way down here? After four years of higher education, students who have majored in anything from sociology to communication to English to history are prone to suffer from not having the confidence to tell the  world they’re this rather than that. They want to world to tell them who and what are. Not all of them, but many of them. “I want to be “in” advertising or publishing. “But I don’t know as what, exactly? What’s on the menu? What do you think I should be, having known me for all of l5 minutes?”

Ambi-this, ambi-that. Ambivalence.

Of course, there are the just-graduated who come on very strong. “I’m an actor,” she announces with second-nature gender neutrality. Or “I’m a musician — I play guitar (rock, soul, techno) — and bass.”

But it’s a lot harder for  just-grads to say with a straight face, “I’m a broadcaster.” Or “I’m a writer.”  Or “I’m a director.”

As for me, I didn’t stop at GO — I went straight to graduate school, where I was trained to parse novels, plays and poems for their meanings or to discover how I myself was reacting to them. But my real reward would be the doctoral degree that was intended to qualify me to compete for a job as an assistant professor.  I didn’t get very much training to do the kind of work assistant professors actually do, which is teach and try to understand students and help them survive in a world of ambiguity. To do that, I needed to stop being an assistant professor and get what academics laughingly refer to as “a real job”. Out in the ambiguous world. Where I felt plenty of ambiguity — enough to drive me back to academia after more than a decade earning my living as freelance writer, magazine editor, corporate speech writer, marketing manager and PR agency account executive.

As one of those tenured professors — and months away from applying for Medicare — my professional life is nowhere nearly as ambiguous as it was when I was a corporate middle manager or freelancer in magazineville. But I’m glad for the time I served in the trenches of ambiguity because unlike some of my colleagues — academic lifers — I have the kind of experience of, and connections with, the ambiguous world that causes my just-grads such anxiety.

Leave a comment

Filed under Academia, Business, Higher Education


The handcuffing, perp walk and arrest of Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. is one of those can’t-believe-it news stories. It’s also irresisible grist for PR blogging heads like me.

That a prominent citizen could be arrested for trying to get into his own (OK, rented) home is a source of wonder. Sort of the opposite of evolution: In the Skipgate Breakin, so many things had to go south for the bizarre tableau to have occured. As of today, the story’s legs have grown legs. After President Obama launched into the middle of the whole mess — racial profiling, racism, “stupid” Cambridge, Mass., police, etc. — the White House tried spinning a retreat: The president didn’t actually mean that he thought the local police were stupid, but only that cooler heads should have prevailed).

But “stupid”was the word that the president, a wordsmith, used. One of the cooler heads that should have prevailed was the president’ — particularly in the  context of the press conference he summoned to lobby the nation to support his health care reform.

But Mr. Obama shot himself in the media with his improvisatory sniping at the Cambridge police department. By identifying himself with Professor Gates (‘it could have been someone like me!), he pushed his agenda off the front pages of the Washington Post and Boston Globe whose editors headlined Obama’s bashing of a local police force.  Points off for media relations.

Not that the president has been the only hot head. Professor Gates wasn’t what you’d call a model of civility, either. Furious at the gall of a local cop to continue to disbelieve Gates’ insistence on his very identity as a home owner, not to mention Harvard professor with an international reputation and a PBS documentary series, Gates head practically exploded. Who in his own best interests tells addressed a clealry agitated cop seeking an I.D. by dishing him with streetish disrespect ( “I’m gonna show my ID to your Mama”)?  Certainly not me.  Whenever a police officer has asked for my I.D., I am quick to hand it over — as well as I can from a fetal position.

As for the Cambridge cop  — from whom Gates has demanded an on-your-knees apolology for being a racist– it didn’t turn out to have been his best day, either. (The both-sides-can-share-blame interpretation was nicely said by a spokesperson for the Cambridge police.)  Yes, the police offier was only doing his job. But once he was able to determine that the angry gray-haired fellow was the rightful owner of the home, he would have done himself and Gates a big favor by hopping back in his  squad car and allowing the outraged professor to rage and fume.

But, Nooooo!, as they used to say on “Saturday Night Live”. The professor boiled over and his “tumultuous behavior” indicated a “disorderly person” charge — at least until the story hit the wires and the Cambridge Police saw the wisdom of dropping the charge.Boston Globe columnist Joan Venocchi framed the incident as a machismo moment — two tough guys facing off, one powerfully connected, the other one with handcuffs and a pistol.

In no time the tempest-in-a-teapot story went viral. Naturally, every public official and talking head had to weigh in — Massachusetts’ governor, an African American, identified with the outrage of a prominent citizen of color being racially profiled and harrassed in his own home; and Al Sharpton — whose wit is highly underrated — allowed that he’d heard of Black folks being arrested for driving while black, but until now he’d never heard of being arrested for being in your own home while black.

Whether Professor Gates carries through with his promise to sue the Cambridge police department is a matter for additional speculation. It has been said that tragedy is close to farce, but in this case the farce has it all over the tragedy. Of course, from a PR perspective — and an interpersonal one — there’s no greater tragedy than a damaged reputation. More than anything — race relations included — reputation seems to be all the rage here.

While this is an awful moment for the two principal players — professor and cop — it is a rewarding opportunity for a communications professor like me with no skin in the game. I think of sociologist Erving Goffman’s theory of dramaturgy  — that all the world’s a stage and we are but poor players upon  it. From that perspective, this was compelling theater as well as wildly inept mismanagement of what Goffman called “dramaturgical discipline,” an individual’s ability to manage his (or her) “face,” even when the sky is falling.  The sociologist was fascinated with the many strategies we all have for navigating potentially identity-damaging situations just like the one under scrutiny today.

More often than not, we are successful at deflecting the other guy’s suspicion and even hostility — a skill set that makes civil society functional in the end. But sometimes one or both parties fail to discipline their act, so to speak, which results in the melodrama that makes for great tabloid news and photos. The famous professor in handcuffs on his porch, mouth agape as if screaming nasty things about the cop and his mama. A public spectacle!  Fabulous!

While Gates has a good shot at collecting a fat settlement from the embarrassaed Cambridge Police — already dressed down by their governor and president — he may well take the high road and cool his rhetorical jets. It’s pretty clear that by appearing of the “Today Show” and hearing powerful people publicly take his side, he’s already perceived to be the winner in the face-off.

As for Officer Crowley — whose history of vicious racism includes attempting to save the life of Boston Celtics basketball star Regggie Lewis who went down in practice with a heart attack — it’s his reputation that has been cuffed and perp walked.

From my perspective, this is not a crisis but an incident which has the potential to become a crisis if either or both sides escalate it with bad language and law suits and more taunts of ‘yo mama’.  But I’m betting that, to quote another president, both parties to the dispute will, over time, get back in touch with the better angels of their nature.

Leave a comment

Filed under Academia, Crisis Communication, Politics, Public Relations

Twitter Messiah

I started teaching college almost 40 years ago chalking and talking. In my mid-twenties, I was the age of the undergrads, give or take. After a few sidebars in the Real World, I returned to academia double the age of the students. These days, the age multiplier is three, and given the sorry state of my 401K, I can see the writing on my Facebook Wall: 4x.

My retirement plan: Feet first.

Which is why I’ve learned to write in 140  characters or less. My retirement is a re-tweet.

But more than that. I’ve become a twitter messiah, assigning, persuading, herding  students into twitterdom. Blogs, I hear, are another tech disposable. This one, as well.

I see I’ve gone well over the character limit. (Good friends might say I exceeded that limit long ago.)

So it’s time for a song (as I anticipate the Oscar medley this evening).

Rourke, Winslet, Slumdog, Adams, Springsteen, Boyle. There you have my picks (you needn’t have asked).

Leave a comment

Filed under Academia, Technology