Distant Learning

By Christopher P. Loss

Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education by Mark Garrett Cooper and John Marx. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

When I was a kid growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania, my family’s nineteen-inch black-and-white TV picked up only three stations—one of them from Canada—and then only on clear days. This was the 1970s. My parents were professors. And their determined resistance to keep “the tube” out of our home was the great shame of my childhood, a good bit of which I spent wandering around my neighborhood in search of friends with color TVs and cable.

Perhaps because of my media-deprived upbringing, my own family—like most every family—is fully wired. We have cable and internet, streaming services, and more devices than we know what to do with. We are a captive audience caught up in a web, so to speak, of mediated experiences that shape and give meaning to our daily lives. It turns out that a key organizational node in this vast communications network, according to Mark Garrett Cooper and John Marx’s Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education, is the modern university. “The American research university,” the authors boldly claim, “is a media institution,” thus proving, once and for all, the futility of my parents’ resistance.

By “media institution,” the authors mean that the university serves as a site in which “group connection occurs” and “audience creation and management” is a core, if underappreciated and understudied, organizational feature. They deploy the term media both as an “object,” or set of changing technologies, and as a “method,” or process of evolving practices, in order to explain the amazing growth and expansion of the American university over the past 150 years. Put differently, the book seeks to explain how universities stoke demand—or, to use Cooper and Marx’s parlance, “woo audiences”—for an experience that has been and remains voluntary.

The answer that they unbundle over the course of ten rigorous but rewarding chapters is that the university does so through a range of different mediating experiences that occur both on and off campus, in traditional mediating spaces, like classroom buildings and laboratories, and in other, more exotic venues. The authors have collected and probed an assortment of bureaucratic, intellectual, and cultural constructions often treated separately: college football games and Carnegie units as well as Great Books curricula, agricultural extension programs, educational TV, professional disciplinary communities, and “big science” team-research projects during World War II, to name a few. Along the way, Cooper and Marx demonstrate how universities have deployed increasingly sophisticated communication technologies to deliver content to students and bring them together. The secret of the university’s success, the authors maintain, is its ability to reach and entice multifold audiences using everything from face-to-face lectures and live sporting events to scaled-up digital learning. The university offers a little something for everyone.

Some of the cases that Cooper and Marx explore illustrate their theory more convincingly than others. They are on solid ground when discussing how university extension programs have connected experts and learners through radio and film. Their analysis of college football’s “audience-binding powers,” which attract millions of fans every Saturday, likewise bolsters their provocative argument. So, too, does the authors’ evenhanded discussion of massive open online courses and digitized mass learning. Elsewhere, their analysis is less persuasive. I’m sure that the building and detonation of the atomic bomb shocked and awed “audiences” around the globe, but I’m highly dubious of the authors’ assertion that a “communications complex, far more than a military-industrial complex, connected the university with diverse and sometimes competing initiatives after World War II.” All the scholars of the modern university with whom I communicate would be mystified by this statement, which also highlights a chief difficulty of the book. In turning nearly everything the university and its experts do into exercises in audience creation and maintenance, Cooper and Marx tend to lose sight of more prosaic but central institutional norms and incentives—federal patronage, for example, and the quest for professional status, authority, and power—that also mediate the organizational structures and experiences of the US academic system and its inhabitants.

Ironically, Cooper and Marx’s effort to retell the history of the modern university from the perspective of the institution’s mediating role, drawing on theoretical insights from film and media studies, narrows their view rather than expands it. The authors uncover some of the technological adaptations and social constructs that helped higher education expand its reach and nurture a loyal audience, though they have far less to say about the political, social, and economic forces and events that buffeted the sector and made those developments necessary and possible in the first place. They miss the mark on the rise of the military-industrial complex, the single most significant event in the history of the modern university, which largely built the institution as we know it today. They also don’t spend nearly enough time exploring the origins and effects of the federal financial aid system and how it made possible the university’s relentless pursuit of audience that they find so fascinating. Yes, they mention the major higher education policy milestones of the last century—the GI Bill of 1944, the National Defense Education Act of 1958, and the Higher Education Act of 1965—but they slight the current economics of higher education, and, more specifically, the fact that getting a degree is really expensive and that people pay lots of money to be part of the higher education audience without any guarantee that it will pay off.

Even so, I admire Cooper and Marx’s willingness to tackle this topic in such a creative and adventuresome way. Understanding the modern university as a mediating institution that “shapes and patterns group interactions” and “forges connections among diverse groups, enabling collaboration and engendering debate” certainly adds to our knowledge of its social and cultural utility in the contemporary era. Their contribution is important at a time when higher education leaders are looking for new stories to tell about why the sector matters and how it nurtures the public good—a topic that I examined in my own scholarship on the role of higher education as a mediator, or parastatal organization, situated “between citizens and the state.” Media U is a welcome addition to this growing literature as well as to the critical university studies literature more broadly. It is an imaginative work that will give fellow scholars and motivated laypeople plenty to think about. It deserves a big audience. I hope it gets one.

Christopher P. Loss teaches history and education at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century and the forthcoming Front and Center: Academic Expertise and Its Challengers in the Post-1945 United States. His email address is c.loss@vanderbilt.edu.

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