Film,  metaphor,  onlinepivot

Jaws and the online pivot

Unless you are very new here you will know that I like a metaphor, and I also like Jaws. So, here it is, the Jaws/Covid19 online pivot analogy you didn’t ask for and don’t want.

Jaws is a movie in two acts, much like our Pandemic response thus far. The first act takes place on the island of Amity, gearing up for its summer boom of the 4th July. Our central character, Chief Brody, wants to close the beaches, because people being eaten by a shark is a bad thing. The sartorially exemplary Mayor Vaughn wants to keep the beaches open because of the economy. People have been having some fun with this with regards to Trump and Johnson. But in higher ed terms there is a more stylistic analogy with this first act (although the second act is where I’ll focus). Amity Island is presented as idyllic by Spielberg, all bright sunshine and picket fences. The shark lurks out there in the deep, the dark, the unknown. This might be how some in higher ed have been operating too – the pandemic (the shark in this analogy, obviously), is bringing into focus many issues that have been downplayed. The reliance on overseas students for income is akin to Amity’s reliance on summer dollars. There are frailties everywhere in Amity that the shark’s presence exposes – minor corruption, class, incompetence, distrust of outsiders and precarious employment. You can map most of these on to higher ed also, as the weaknesses in a fragile system have been exposed.

After the body count rises, the Mayor is forced to face the inevitable consequences. The first act ends with Brody hiring fisherman Quint to kill the shark, accompanied by shark expert Hooper. Despite desires to carry on, higher ed reached a similar switch in the mood and tone of its narrative when the online pivot began. We’ve been through the “the beaches will be open on the 4th July” phase, when higher ed thought we could carry on business as usual, and now we’re into the unknown waters..

The second act focuses solely on the Orca boat and the three protagonists. For this part of the analogy to work, it’s important to accept that Jaws is not really a movie about a shark. It is in my reading, a movie about three aspects of humanity (or at least masculinity). It can also be interpreted as a patriarchal myth (men killing the symbolic female, we’ll come back to this) or an attack on capitalism. In the more straightforward three aspects interpretation, each core aspect of socialised masculinity is represented by one of the main characters: Brody is the family, domesticated man, Hooper, the intellectual and Quint, machismo. If you like Freud in your summer blockbusters, these can be interpreted ego, super-ego, and id. These three are in competition on the boat, and ultimately only two can emerge from their confrontation. They essentially form a triangle, with each element in tension with the other, but just maintaining a stable pact.

Along comes the shark and this fragile balance collapses. As anyone who has balanced cards to make a triangle will know, a collapsed line with two points is more stable and it will revert to this with the slightest disruption.So what has this to do with the online pivot and ed tech? In our analogy Brody represents learners – we want to do right by them. Hooper, the intellectual represents the academy and educators. This leaves foul mouthed man of reality, Quint who here represents ed tech vendors and OPM. Prior to the arrival of the shark they can exist in uncomfortable co-existence, like our three characters, but this is fragile. With the arrival of the shark, only two can survive ultimately. It can be any two from these three but not all of them.

You can have educators and ed tech vendors in a mutually, financially beneficial relationship that treats learners just as customers with a wallet. Post-pandemic there is a rush to vendors to create online courses and universities do this to ensure their income, particularly from overseas students. Alternatively, after the pandemic the lack of agility in universities and their frail finances sees many collapse, and learners turn to commercial providers. Vendors and learners engage in a form of deprofessionalised, unbundled education market. The third scenario (and the one which plays out in the film with Hooper and Brody surviving), is that educators and learners exist in a higher education system which after the pandemic and its reimagining of socialist intervention is based around education as a social and public good. The shark won’t let all three emerge from the crisis, now we get to decide which pair it is

A further perspective is that in all three of these scenarios, women and people of colour are excluded, and given recent thought leader battles this might be telling, but that would require a dedicated interpretation to do it justice.

Of course, none of this actually inevitable, and you can do your own analogy with any film you choose, in which vendors, educators and learners all co-exist for mutual benefit. But in this scenario, only two paddle back to shore. Jaws 2 gives us the perfect tagline for 2021 also – just when you thought it was safe to go back to campus…


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