I work as an academic administrator at Capella University, a for-profit university that exists physically in Minneapolis and virtually all over the world, thanks to a distance-education model oriented toward working adults. By training and experience, though, I am a 20th-century U.S. historian, specializing in the history of business and technology. I will soon submit my dissertation on World War II heavy industry to the history department at Northwestern University.
On the face of it, San Francisco Bay shipbuilding does not have much to do with postmodern distance learning -- although the wartime entrepreneurs in my research ran organizations that grew and changed at rates exceeding even Capella's rapid growth.
Indeed, it is the incessant change that makes work at Capella interesting. Certainly, the position has sent me on a detour from the "normal" path of a young historian through my perpetually job-poor field. That was my choice. Last fall, I went on the job market wielding my A.B.D. status -- that is to say, unarmed. A score of applications resulted in only one serious and dead-end response, from a tiny, impoverished liberal-arts college.
Partly as a result of this abortive foray into the academic job market, I began looking more closely at jobs that called for academic credentials and skills but that were not necessarily straightforward teaching jobs. A friend who worked at Capella let me know about an open position. A long round of interviews made it clear that my own academic credentials and experience were crucial "value-addeds" (to use a fascinating bit of business-speak).
Much more quickly than I expected, and far more quickly than any academic hiring, I was offered and accepted a position as a "faculty associate" in Capella's master's and doctoral programs in the business school.
My daily duties revolve around tasks like identifying instructors to teach particular courses and responding to Capella learners who need help finding missing forms or suspending their studies. In many ways, it's a straightforward customer-service job -- it's just that the service in this case is higher education. Many of the "service providers" have, or are earning, advanced degrees, especially M.B.A.'s, and many of the upper-level administrators have Ph.D.'s.
It's unclear how many other A.B.D.'s and Ph.D.'s at Capella chose to work there because of the weak academic job market. But for me, giving up the life of the adjunct-teaching doctoral candidate certainly relieved the harsh financial pressures to which I had grown unpleasantly accustomed.
According to figures from the American Historical Association, I currently earn a salary that is close to the entry-level average for assistant history professors. (Incidentally, I had assumed that work at Capella would be deeply infused with constant talk about money. And while such matters are a topic of frequent conversation, they are not discussed any more frequently or fervently than they were at the universities where I was a grad student and an adjunct instructor: It's just that Capella talks about profits and revenue while Northwestern talks about endowments and fund raising.)
Capella's five schools offer degrees ranging from bachelor's degrees in business and technology to doctorates in organization and management, clinical psychology, and education. All of our courses are "delivered" over the Internet, either through e-mail correspondence between an instructor and a student (a variation of the one-on-one readings course at the core of much graduate study in the humanities) or, more commonly, in a virtual "courseroom" shared by a dozen or so students and an instructor (an elaboration on the online discussion groups now commonly used to supplement courses at "bricks-and-mortar" colleges).
With respect to the array of degrees we offer and the structure of our curriculum, for-profit education differs only slightly from what Capella employees frequently call "traditional higher education." For example, our curriculum starts out too with basic introductory courses and moves up to more advanced, esoteric ones.
But in other ways, Capella does exhibit some marked, if not quite revolutionary, differences from the institutions of higher learning in which millions of Americans have been educated. For instance, Capella turbocharges an engine that already drives many nonprofit colleges: Almost all of our instructors are untenured adjuncts -- meaning that they work on short-term contracts to teach several courses or advise Capella learners. A relatively small number of "core" faculty members (also untenured) perform those same duties and assume administrative tasks as well.
Another dissimilarity between Capella and a "land-based" university is the process by which Capella develops its courses. As a graduate student and adjunct instructor in nonprofit academe, I had the good fortune to teach several courses, each of which I designed and led entirely by myself. Most courses at traditional colleges are the product of one instructor's design, albeit often matched to fixed catalog requirements or run through a curriculum committee.
In contrast, a half-dozen or more people intensely collaborate to develop a single course at Capella. Indeed, a sizable team of "instructional designers" do nothing else. Although some of our courses betray their origins in that bureaucratic abattoir -- the committee -- by and large I would argue that the courses offered at Capella compare favorably to traditional lecture-and-seminar courses.
The reliance on the adjunct instructor and the use of teams to devise new courses both seem familiar enough to me as a "knowledge worker" and as a scholar of modern America. I think my training as a historian of business helps me adjust to other features of work life at Capella. For example, the university has its own lexicon, which parallels academic jargon: At Capella, a memo is crafted, not written; a productive workday will result in deliverables; there are no professors, only faculty (which is both a collective and a singular noun); and, crucially, the allegedly passive, absorbing students of the traditional university have been replaced by purportedly active, seeking learners.
Inventing a specialized vocabulary is, of course, a classic way to distinguish "us" from "them," and nowhere more than in late-modern American companies like Capella. As a historian of technology, I am especially fascinated by the way technology affects Capella's management of problems that emerge from the literal and figurative distance between instructors and learners.
Bluntly: In the normal course of things, learners never meet each other or their teachers. The Internet, of course, provides the chief medium of course-delivery and communication between learners, faculty members, and staff members. Still, e-mail, fill-in-the-blank forms submitted electronically, and even the telephone can hinder the resolution of even prosaic paperwork troubles, much less the inevitable disputes over points of scholarly analysis and interpretation. A few minutes at the registrar's counter or in a professor's office could fix these problems at a traditional institution, but Capella must expend a great deal of money and energy on decreasing the friction generated by supposedly frictionless electronic media.
Some of this effort, in keeping with Capella's "new economy" origins, consists of large investments in information technology -- upgrading Capella's Web site and improving the "courserooms," for instance. But the key to Capella's efforts to reduce the distance between its faculty and its students is obstinately old-fashioned: Getting them in the same place at the same time.
Several times each year, in different locales around the country, Capella learners, faculty, and staff members assemble at weeklong "residential colloquia," which feature a full complement of seminars and workshops and a rare chance to actually meet other members of the university. As you might expect, these residencies are quite popular.
Depending on how you want to look at them, the residencies represent either a big concession to the "traditional" way of educating people or a savvy means to develop a hybrid form of education -- one midway between the established, place-based model of learning and an emerging, space-based one. At the very least, the next decade will determine the feasibility of such a hybrid. At the most, the next decade will see the consolidation of that new model. Either way, it will be an interesting process to watch.
And it's a process about which many of my friends and colleagues in the traditional academy are very curious. No one in academe whom I've told about my job has been overtly dismissive, and many have been supportive of my effort to get off the adjunct track.
That said, my academic advisers and graduate-student peers frequently voice doubts that a model like Capella's can really challenge land-based institutions, even for the brains (and wallets) of the working adults whom Capella and its direct competitors have identified as their biggest market.
While I share some of these suspicions of the "next big thing" rhetoric, working at Capella has already given me a better, broader perspective on higher education that will be useful whether I choose to make my career permanently in for-profit education. And it will be especially valuable if, and when, I return to teaching.