Semiotic Ghosts in the Educational Machine

Rebecca Cox opens her book, College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another (Harvard Univ. Press, 2009), by explaining that a certain image of college, illustrated in films like Legally Blond & Good Will Hunting, dominates people’s perceptions of what it’s like to go to college (1).

Furthermore, that image is also traced back to the origins of contemporary college education in the late 19th Century: a time of transition when professors & their research took center stage as the source of an instructor’s knowledge & authority. Searching for truth via the research process (using the values of objective inquiry) became more valued then teaching (a gendered social process akin to raising children) (89-90).

So, the image of college held by people and, hence, held by students, is influenced by two sources: popular culture texts (such as films) & historical developments in education.

Not only that, but these images influence instructors & students alike. Cox claims that college instructors have certain expectations for what their students will be like & what they are capable of doing. These expectations present a disconnect, she says, between college instructors’ expectations & students’ actual performance (5).

It also presents a disconnection, I would add, between instructors’ expectations of college & students’ expectations of college. Students have an image of college but instructors, too, have an image of students.

This image is, perhaps, a kind of semiotic ghost (as coined by William Gibson in “The Gernsback Continuum”): an idea of the world that is not the real world we inhabit & yet is lodged in the collective consciousness of our culture.

The fact that these images are so pervasive is not only quaint but harmful. These origins & these images, Cox claims, “have limited out ability to reimagine what college can or should accomplish” (9).

In this imagery I see the disconnects & the unrealized potential but I also see opportunities to ask questions:

  • What is the image of college that people have? (Or probably more accurately, What are the images?)
  • What are the images that students have? What are the images that instructors have? How are they similar? How are they different?
  • What are the sources of those images? What popular culture texts produce or reflect those images?
  • Do people understand that what they think about college is an image (as opposed to a reality)? Do they not know the difference, or do they choose to ignore the difference?
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