- Travels in Academe
Travel writing is a genre of literature that has long been in vogue. Indeed, the travels of Don Quixote (1605) may well be regarded as the first novel. Although the landscape and people of the country or region under study is frequently center stage, more often than not the writing also informs the readers about the land and citizenry. Paul Theroux, for example, is perhaps the most popular travel writer alive today; he has journeyed to Patagonia (1979) and the Middle East (1990), and is famously cranky. Theroux, like VS Naipul (1998), seems not to like the people he visits or even enjoy his travels very much. Pico Iyer (1988) and Bill Bryson (1995), on the other hand, tend to be fascinated by the differences in the people they meet. All of these authors, and certainly Cervantes (1605), offer a useful portrait of both how they view their worlds and the worlds themselves. At its best, travel writing not only inspires a desire to travel and experience cultures and lands different from our own, but it also provokes the reader to reflect on his or her own inner landscapes.
Two current books on the academy may be thought of as postsecondary travel writing. In Governing Academia: Who is in Charge at the Modern University? Ron Ehrenberg assembles a collection of authors who have different takes on higher education's landscape. David Kirp, in Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, aims to be the academy's de Tocqueville, traveling from campus to campus. What is interesting in these books is not only that they provide insights into the current conditions of the postsecondary land, but that the authors, as typical of all travel writers, find different points of interest, and occasionally disagree over what they see.
Any reader of The Nation or The American Prospect will be aware that David Kirp, a professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is a first rate writer with a penchant for irony and a clever turn of a phrase. His current book is a series of quasi-case studies of different colleges and universities. His method of choice is both maddening and comforting; he really hasn't a method. He chose institutions that he found interesting to highlight a particular [End Page 354] problem, visited them, and then concocted a story. There is no discussion of his method other than a brief throw-away line here and there, and he makes no claims to findings that are valid, reliable, or even trustworthy. However, Kirp is such a crisp and engaging writer that most readers will forgive his methodological agnosticism and become involved in the lands he describes. Yet still, just as I enjoy an author who travels somewhere but does not speak the language, I finished Kirp's book wondering if a bit of methodological rigor might have made the book not only enjoyable reading, but also a bit more on target with some of the findings.
Each chapter begins with a clever title that tells a story. "Benjamin Rush's Brat" outlines how Dickinson College has changed its image through marketing; "Mr. Jefferson's Private College" relates how the University of Virginia has privatized its graduate school of business; and my own institution, the University of Southern California, shares a chapter with the University of Michigan entitled "Kafka was an Optimist" about the trials and tribulations of revenue centered management (RCM).
Kirp is dead-on target with his choice of topics. In a book about the movement toward marketing in higher education, Kirp relates how institutions are now in search of a 'brand,' how students have become 'customers,' and how for-profit institutions are changing the academic landscape. Although these ideas are hardly earth-shaking—Slaughter and Leslie (1997) delineated their parameters nearly a decade ago—the deft touch of Kirp's prose brings home what the results...