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.