An Elvis analogy.

27 12 2011

In her year-end post, our pal Kate mentions my fondness for historical analogies. Her historical analogy in that post is union musicians protesting their replacement in movie theaters by pre-recorded tracks.  While I love that story, I’m not sure it’s a good analogy for edtech as it has a happy ending. Theater owners (who were mostly the Hollywood studios at that time) make money, customers get cheaper movie tickets and the musicians’ union didn’t disband because there were still plenty of places for them to play live music. Indeed, I suspect if you work for the local in Nashville, LA or Vegas, you can make a fair chunk of change as a union musician still.

Speaking of Vegas, I was on my way to Christmas in Vegas with the family (not a bad idea at all, really) when I first read Kate’s post.  In honor of that trip, I was reading Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love:  The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. That’s the second volume of a two-volume biography of THE KING.  The first book, which I read years ago, is quite wonderful for understanding just how important Elvis was musically. The second is mostly depressing, like Nick Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, but still a great read.

I don’t remember most of them, but it’s clear from the book that Elvis movies are almost all pretty awful. Guralnick blames Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, for that mostly. Early in the book, Guralnick explains the way Elvis’ contracts were structured.  Elvis made between $750,000 and $1,000,000 per picture.  That was almost as much as Hollywood’s top star at the time, Elizabeth Taylor.  But then Elvis and Parker split 50% of everything the picture made after it earned back its costs.  Since the kiddies were going to see Elvis in anything he did, that gave Elvis every incentive to make his pictures as fast and as slipshod as possible.  The scripts were awful (Elvis played a race-car driver in three different movies), the music was often ill-chosen and he certainly never got a chance to develop as an actor.

So who did this hurt?  Elvis, of course.  Not financially. He made lots of money, but doing nothing but acting in movies with dumb stories and recording soundtrack albums with bad songs on them made him miserable.  This is Guralnick, p. 207:

“It was clear that he himself was neither interested in, nor satisfied with, the music that was being released in his name, and for all the Colonel’s pep talks and recitations of figures and numbers, and deals, there was no getting past the fact that the records were no longer selling as they once had , they no longer mattered as they used to.  He admired the Beatles, he felt threatened by the Beatles, sometimes it made him angry how disrespectful the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were toward the public and their fans – but most of all he was envious of the freedom they evidently seemed to feel and to flaunt.  He, too, had once enjoyed that freedom, he, too, had once been in the vanguard of the revolution, and now he was embarrassed to listen to his own music, to watch his own films.”

In case you’re wondering where I’m going with this, professors are Elvis. Students could be our adoring fans, but they’re being encouraged by the Colonel to demand the same bad movies over and over again.  Take this particular money-making idea, for example:

MyEdu is an online tool aimed at helping students better plan and manage their college experience. It was originally founded in 2008 as Pick-a-Prof, a website that allowed students to rate their professors; the following year the Internet startup was rebranded as MyEdu and its mission became more comprehensive. Through tools that track students’ course requirements each semester, provide detailed degree planning and rate faculty members, the site aims to improve students’ return on education by increasing graduation rates and decreasing the time it takes to earn a diploma.

“Going to college is much like investing in your portfolio; you have to keep an eye on how much return you’re getting on your education investment,” says Frank Lyman, MyEdu’s senior vice president.

Is this really what we want to teach them?  Now that President Romney has promised all our students jobs when they graduate, they’re going to end up being insufferable. Is going to college a good idea if you go for the wrong reasons?  Here’s Guralnick quoting Elvis (p. 468) looking back on his film career, before the pills eventually killed him:

“It was a job.  I had to be there at a certain time in the morning and work a certain amount of hours, and that’s exactly how I treated it.”

I think professors and students alike could learn a lot from Elvis’ experience. If you do what you love for the wrong reasons you will no longer love it.




6 responses

27 12 2011

On the other hand, not all of MyEdu totally sucks. There is something to be said for advising students how to graduate sooner and with less debt.

So which higher ed figure does the Colonel stand for? Admin more interested in filling seats and directing student services to that end? Sadly, not a vice limited to for-profits. Is Elvis an adjunct?

27 12 2011
Jonathan Rees

Elvis is the patron saint of performers of all kinds.

29 12 2011
Britney Titus


Shouldn’t student advisors and financial aid services, both of which are already implemented at a University, advise students on how to graduate sooner and with less debt?

29 12 2011

They should but don’t always… rarely if ever at the rural community college that I adjuncted at for a number of years. Consistently, the message more like fill those seats and don’t hesitate to push indebtedness to do so. A for-profit would have been proud.

29 12 2011
Music for Deckchairs

I agree with Vanessa. It’s genuinely hard for employees of any institution to advise students not to attend, or to leave prematurely, even to seek a better fit elsewhere. It’s like that moment in retail where the assistant whispers to you that the clothes don’t flatter you and there’s a sale on at the other end of the mall where there’s something just your size: there’s a reason for the whispering.

So in general we benefit from unbiased consumer advice, but I think on the evidence of many of the popular prof-ratings systems out there, not to mention government driven efforts to turn analytics into institutional data snapshots, the quality of that advice is just as suspect.

I’m curious to know if US institutions operate under any kind of code of conduct in relation to encouraging student debt? This is becoming a significant factor in many other industries where the product is a loan of any kind. Are we obliged to regulate the claims we make about the likelihood of employment and the manageability of the future debt? Are we even obliged to say how big that debt will be?

1 01 2012
Britney Titus

I agree that many employees and/or advisors do not offer appropriate support and advice to the students. What I am trying to say is that the problem should not automatically be replaced with an online supplement either. I feel like in today’s day and age everything is so quick to be computerized. Oh going to the library is inconvenient let’s get ebooks or my advisor isn’t doing his/her job so I need an online tool that does that for me. I personally think the problem itself should be dealt with first, especially when there are student fees in place that go towards these advisors and services.

And in regards to the advice itself, I agree that the information and statistics may be bias if it comes from the institution itself and students should know the real likelihood of employment and manageability of future debt. That is why I am thankful that I have professors that have been very true to me and said there is a risk in going to grad school and whether or not it will truly pay off in the long run. Students need to be told the real truth and yes that may come off bias from the institution, but that’s no worse than them googling job market in the 21st century and having fifty links to “online education services” and “best online degrees to acquire,” both of which can incur debt and not be a guaranteed job either.

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