The University and the Degree from a Mediological POV


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The university is a sociotechnical system. It is a hub of interconnected nodes consisting of knowledge, bureaucracy, entertainment, art, and infrastructure just to name a few. After soaking up Debray’s philosophy about mediology, it made me question how we view the almighty university degree. His work also inspired me to push the envelope a bit by considering the college degree as a media form. In other words, to ‘de-blackbox’ the degree using metatheory. In Papolias’ (2004) review of Transmitting Culture, the author explains how Debray and other mediologists aim to focus more on “the instruments and technical apparatuses that support the formation of cultural meanings” (p.166). So not only is the university degree a type of media, but it also should be regarded as a technical tool to transmit cultural values. The degree transcends our professional abilities (“I graduated with a degree in X”), social relations (“Oh I was also a Com/Bio/History major!”) and familial relations (parents pushing their children to “go get a college education’).

One cannot talk Debray without mentioning his view of communication versus transmission. In Debray’s mind, communication is very self-centered, focusing on temporal actions and responses. Debray argues that humans lack the purview to truly engage in transmission of meanings. For Debray, transmission equals culture. It is transmission that really makes our experiences, thoughts and beliefs remain within cultures (instead of vanishing with us individually). If that is the case, I see the university as one of the most frequent and respected ways humans engage in transmission – and the most ostensible end result is a degree. This leads into my point about the institutional forces that relate to mediology and the degree. Two other areas that I found relevant with my argument/stance include mediology’s view of material forces and selective forces.

Institutional Forces
We all know that getting a degree is a process- it requires several steps before it is handed to you: the application, coursework, payment and fees, etc. All of this involves an oft-hidden political economy at work right under our noses. The university knows that to sustain itself (financially and for relevancy), it must have a supple amount of patrons a.k.a students to make the two, four, or six year commitment. According to an article by the Chronicle of Higher Education, “for the typical family, college is one of life’s big-ticket purchases.” This pricey ticket is worth it for hundreds of thousands of students and their families. Why? Institutions have for hundreds of years instilled hope and assuredness that certain treasured values (namely, knowledge) and cultural footholds will live. As Debray states:

The institution acts as a kind of registry or patent office, but rather than passively conserving its changes, it is never done sifting, revising, censuring, interpreting, and peddling them. It also authorizes others to turn to pass on its achievements or even to deflect and divert them. The church though its preaching, the university through its teaching…” (2000, p.11, emphasis added)

Each time a student earns a degree it is recorded. It is meticulously registered formally though commencement activities (the grandiose ceremonies), and informally by the Registrar’s office and academic departments (mundane tasks). This is the university at work keeping track of students’ culmination of individual achievements. It is also important for the university to keep track of the path students traveled down to earned their degrees because future leaders, Nobel Prize winners, etc could be in the ‘pile’ of degrees.

Media Forms / Material Forces
To understand the degree as a media object, I see it as a physical message. It’s the tangible way of saying “I have met the minimum qualifications to earn a Bachelors/Masters/etc degree in this field.” If you compare the degree to common media such as TV, a book or a website it has similar properties as these undisputed physical forms of media. Debray would argue that TV, books, and the like have certain values attributed to them, and have social influences on our social constructs. I believe that the degree is a media form because it is first a highly-symbolized artefact (made by humans) and second, it is a way of communicating and transmitting meaning across mass channels. The degree does significant work for the university – just imagine if every time you applied for a job or applied for another degree some university official had to talk to whoever was reviewing your application and explain “Yes s/he completed coursework in X amount of time, did this, and this, and majored in this.” Our cultural norms make it acceptable to simply state you obtained a degree and move on.

Selective Forces

Lastly, it was in Chandler’s reading that he made a point to mention how selective of media are and how it in effect, creates an uneven power distribution in society. The university from the beginning was created for elite scholars but even today there are still concerns over access to institutions of higher education (which is why online ed and MOOCs have been in the spotlight). This is another major issue but it’s worth bringing up considering Debray point that every school needs someone to lead it to make decisions (as well as who else will makes decisions) from admissions to budgets to academic life.

Overall

I used Debray to offer a (hopefully) newer insight on components (physical and non) of the university that often are overlooked or are invisible. This may be an area I choose to delve deeper in for our final papers/projects. There is still a lot of ground to cover with mediology and plenty of critics to go along with it too.

Videos For Thought: 

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4:19

References:

Chandler,Daniel. “Processes of Mediation.”

Debray, R. Transmitting Culture, trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.    Excerpts in pdf: From Chaps. 1-2; from Chap. 7, “Ways of Doing.”

Papolias, Constantina. Review of Transmitting Culture: “Of Tools and Angels: Regis Debray’s Mediology,”Theory, Culture & Society, 21/3 (2004): 165-70.

Supiano, Beckie. (2012) Degrees With a Price Tag. The Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/article/Degrees-With-a-Price-Tag/135060/