Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Entrepreneurial Option

In many industries, people with skills and/or drive are able to venture out on their own. If a given employer doesn’t treat them right, they can hang out a shingle and start their own company. In rapidly-changing industries like high tech, even some monster companies (like Google) are younger than some still-in-process dissertations.

Academia isn’t really like that. If I can’t find the right college or university for me, it’s not like I can simply start my own. The barriers to entry are much higher than in many other industries, both for regulatory reasons and by virtue of simple curricular coverage. I suspect that this is one source of the malaise so common among academics – unlike so many others, we can’t really go into private practice without starving, and we can’t start our own enterprise. If an established shop doesn’t fancy our wares, we’re out of luck.

A few for-profit chains have sprung up, but they usually did so either with tremendous initial private backing (the U of Phoenix, with John Sperling) or by coming under the wing of a major corporation (DeVry, for many years under Bell and Howell). These weren’t the academic equivalent of a few kids in a garage hitting it big; they were more like Lucas and Spielberg financing their own movies ‘independently’ of the studios.

As my regular readers know, established shops have both limited funding and tremendous blind spots. That’s before we even get to the standard human frailties, the constraints of tenure, etc.

Writing doesn’t have quite the same barriers to entry, but academic publishers are relatively few and far between, strangely persnickety, increasingly fad-driven, and very lightly read.

I suspect that part of the chronic academic anxiety about blogging has to do with the unprecedented lack of barriers to entry. If knowledge isn’t certified, how will we know if it’s good? We’ll actually have to read it!

Well, yeah.

A blogger like Bitch, Ph.D. or Aunt B. (of tiny cat pants) attracts attention solely through her writing. Not through institutional prestige, personal fame, or the intimidation factor of being Important; just through writing well enough (and often enough) to be worth reading. That’s all. Just through sheer craft. (Danigirl, of Postcards from the Mothership, has just been nominated for a well-deserved writing award for her blog. You go, Danigirl!)

I started blogging out of frustration with the literature of managing higher ed, most of which is sheer drivel. I had no intention of dutifully footnoting all of the drivel to try to add another unread article to the pile; I actually wanted answers to the dilemmas I face every day on the job. I wanted to read something useful. Whether it brought a vita line or not wasn’t (and isn’t) the point. In order to get that conversation started, I hung out a virtual shingle and started posting. Now people actually send me ideas (at ccdean at myway dot com! Keep ‘em coming!) for posts, which is both useful and incredibly gratifying.

Note the irony: in order to pursue new knowledge, I had to do an end-run around academic publishing. This raises the question of the point of academic publishing.

The folks on the outside who constantly chide academia for not running like a business are welcome, at any point, to suggest ways to lower the barriers to entry enough to make real competition possible, to let the underemployed but highly talented youngsters compete on a level playing field with their tenured elders. Seriously. Send any ideas to ccdean at myway dot com. I’ll even post them, if you permit.

Google succeeds so brilliantly by capitalizing (pun intended) on the wisdom of crowds. The blogosphere applies the wisdom of crowds to ideas. It breaks the lone-genius-in-the-library model, and replaces it with something like conversation.

So I’m throwing down a challenge to the crowd. How do we take the next step: to apply the wisdom of academic crowds to actually teaching students, and getting paid to do it? Even idea mcnuggets are welcome, since one of the side benefits of the blog format is that people can synthesize other people’s contributions into something new. Anything useful is welcome!