The University as Craft Enterprise. Or, College as Cheesecake Factory

Nigel Thrift has a new, dystopian, speculative post up on his blog at The Chronicle of Higher EducationHe reveals, at the end, that the entire vision he’s just laid out doesn’t really sit well with him. But, before he gets there, he raises a series of “what if” questions: what if a new kind of political economy were to arise in the American & British university system? What if it looked like the conglomerate chain model that so many restaurants follow (think: Olive Garden, Cheesecake Factory) where “large numbers of customized choices” would be “delivered efficiently and well through the production of greater variety, better quality, and lower cost”? He’s inspired, in this reflection, by Atul Gawande’s New Yorker piece, where he reflects on how the medical industry could re-shape itself in accordance with these standardized restaurant models. In a nutshell: what if university education were to become a mass produced product with greater predictability and standardization? There would still be some old hold-outs, who could represent the “craft model”… the nostalgic sort, that’s only available for those with time and money to burn. 

Of course, the first thing that came to my mind was: isn’t this already happening? Isn’t this what the whole MOOC phenomenon (“elite” universities partnering with private companies like Coursera to offer Harvard-style lecture courses that are cheap to produce for “the masses”) is all about? Isn’t this craft model exactly what enterprises like the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research are trying to produce? This isn’t some dystopian future that might happen, if we don’t come up with something better. It’s what is happening now. These are the actual conditions of our existence. 

I find this depressing, of course. Which is why, I suppose, I wanted to post something about it. I’m wondering if, through some sort of ironic exercise, it isn’t possible to just have a laugh, instead. Some questions: If the MOOC-at-Harvard phenomenon is like the Cheesecake Factory of higher ed and the Brooklyn School for Social Research is the Blanca-in-Bushwick (a 12 seat, $180-200 per person joint in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood)… what is the McDonald’s of higher ed? What is the greasy-ass, independently owned truck stop diner of higher ed? Or… if someone called you up to help build a business model of the university-as-cheesecake-factory… what would you pitch? Instructor uniforms? 




27 Responses to “The University as Craft Enterprise. Or, College as Cheesecake Factory”

  1. Jordan Says:

    “What is the greasy-ass, independently owned truck stop diner of higher ed?”

    University of Phoenix.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Mandatory elbow patches!!!

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    15 pieces of tweed!!!

  4. Ian Bogost Says:

    I found myself trying to retweet the “tweed” comment. And then feeling ashamed for being disappointed that I couldn’t.

  5. Jason Hills Says:

    Theory glasses as professional wardrobe!

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Ian, I sometimes want to add hashtags in real-life conversations.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Wouldn’t Phoenix be McDonald’s?

  8. Ian Bogost Says:

    No, Phoenix would be Applebee’s.

  9. beatrice marovich Says:

    I agree. Phoenix would definitely be McDonald’s. And I think bow-ties should be mandatory. For either gender. But they’d have to be worn with a suit.

    Also, Adam, my boyfriend (who does not have a Twitter account) has actually used hashtags in conversation. It started ironically. But it’s kind of become shorthand.

  10. beatrice marovich Says:

    Wow, Phoenix as Applebees! A liquor license and everything.

  11. Jordan Says:

    Food trucks would be a nice development.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    DeVry is McDonald’s. ITT Tech is Burger King.

  13. Ian Bogost Says:

    The McDonald’s of Higher Ed…

    Nigel Thrift wrote a somewhat mind-bending article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about the Cheesecake Factorization of higher education. You should read the whole thing, but here’s a choice excerpt: What I think we will see is this same……

  14. Michael Norton Says:

    “What is the greasy-ass, independently owned truck stop diner of higher ed?”

    The Community College: Locally managed and catering to locals. Seating is often limited, but also often not in too high demand. Budget is low, prices are cheap. And you’re probably just as likely to get something wonderful as something sub-par.

  15. Ian Bogost Says:

    I think Michael’s got it right with the community college.

    As for McDonald’s, I can’t think of one. I tried to explain why here:

  16. beatrice marovich Says:

    Absolutely. Michael, I think you’ve just articulated why I love both diners and community colleges: I never have much money, but I love to roll the dice.

    Ian, I think you’re right. There may not, yet, be a McDonald’s of higher ed. Perhaps the MOOC might look (because it’s partnered up with institutions like Harvard) like it’s poised to become a Cheesecake Factory. But with a mis-step or two, it’s more likely to end up as McDonald’s.

  17. Ian Bogost Says:

    I’m also not sure if Cheesecake Factory is better than McDonald’s. I mean that both literally and figuratively.

  18. beatrice marovich Says:

    Right. That could throw a wrench in the whole analogy. Although… perhaps this is where the political lines in the sand would really be drawn! The dean says, “OK everyone. What I need you all to remember is that we’re not McDonald’s. We’ve got pride, class, we’re the Cheesecake Factory!” But the faculty would, grimly, have to acknowledge the meaninglessness of the distinction.

  19. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Adam: all you have to do is say “number-sign-thug-life” and you’ve done it. I do it at least once every three days. Post-Sheen, I use an unadorned “number-sign” in text messages as shorthand for “#winning,” usually as an interrogative, “Are you winning?” or, simply, “#?” The use of “number-sign” “In Real Life” (“IRL”) is compensated by the fact that I never use the “number-sign” on Twitter, unless I’m trolling (for e.g.,) “Hart of Dixie” fans (which are very few). For instance, after inventing academic battle raps! (where you were most certainly taken out; definitively, some might say), I didn’t invent #battleraps!–although I encourage others to do so.

  20. Ian Bogost Says:

    Or worse: that the distinction *isn’t* meaningless, but that the Cheesecake Factory is more horrifying. Its pretense toward earnest, sit-down, wholesome, social dining covers over the truth. McDonald’s may be revolting but it’s more or less exactly what it says it is.

    No matter the case, these analogies seem legitimately helpful in talking about MOOCs and other trends.

  21. Gerry Canavan Says:

    […] Higher Ed as Cheesecake Factory. Reply from Beatrice Marovich. Reply from Ian […]

  22. christopher Says:

    For the fast food analogues, I would definitely agree that places like DeVry and Strayer which specialise in associate degrees (plus MBAs!) and are nearly on every corner would fit the bill. I would include Phoenix in that list. The ‘middle class’ analogues to Applebees would be places like state universities with some satellite campuses but not nearly as many as the ones above. Perhaps even places like Columbia and NYU which have satellite campuses in other countries would also be included here.

  23. Phenomenologist Says:

    I’m surprised by how many comments express vicious and unwarranted prejudices against community colleges and their students. First of all, I very much doubt that anyone has experienced a statistically representative sample of what they’re talking about. Secondly, what’s up with the guy who called community college students “fuck ups” in his posted comment? This sort of abusive language obviously violates the comments policy and should never have gotten past the censors.

  24. beatrice marovich Says:

    Let it not go without note: I did say that I “love” community colleges in one of my earlier comments. I made this comment without irony. I teach an Intro to Philosophy course at a community college, and I consider it one of the more worthwhile things I do, as a human being, these days. So it’s not as if this comment thread was fixated on bashing community colleges.

  25. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Tyler’s comments on this thread have been removed, at his own request.

  26. Phenomenologist Says:


  27. Wesley (@thitherward) Says:

    The analogy goes further than one might think. I went to both a community college and two ‘real’ liberal arts colleges, one theoretically more informal and one that plastered Latin everywhere: think McDonald’s, a local coffee shop, and a high-end chain. Of the three, community college was by far the hardest academically(!), but the only one I learned anything from was the one with Latin everywhere, and then only because the professors frequently went off on irrelevant tangents. Continuing the analogy, I like McDonald’s, I hate coffee shops, and when I was very young and my parents dragged me off to one of those high-end chains, I ate the parsley they used as decoration.

    Then again, I have fundamental disagreements with the structure of academia… but as far as what there is, community colleges, in my experience (and that of some other people I know who went to them) aren’t as bad as is commonly thought.

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