When the Medium Becomes the Message

More musings about higher education in a post-pandemic world . . .

While isolating at home during the winter Covid-19 surge, I re-established contact with an academic fellow traveler from my pre-21st century days as a doctoral student. Our conversation turned to the declining popularity of traditional humanities and social science disciplines among undergraduates, a trend seemingly initiated by the 2008 recession and possibly accelerated by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. As professors tend to do, we each had previously identified a second possible cause of this trend: the failure at the undergraduate level of these disciplines to evolve in response to technological change. Back in 2013, I wrote an ALPS post about the need for faculty to examine assumptions about curricular content and delivery given the new technological demands of employers, but my friend expressed it much better late last year here. His basic point: students are more likely to study what reflects their daily experiences and clearly connects to attractive careers than what does not. Universities, being subject to finite resources, will institutionalize the former while casting aside the latter.

As my friend wrote, technologies like internet search, smartphones, big data, and social media were already having an effect before 2008, but they radically altered life afterward. Yet how many undergraduate political science, history, or English literature programs now train majors in app design, predictive analytics, or video production? I’ve taken a few small steps in this direction, with online video content, ArcGIS storymaps, and KnightLab timelines, but always at my own expense and independently of the formal curriculum. My friend has made a much deeper commitment to learning and teaching these technologies, but again, he’s done it despite, not because of, the norms of his discipline.