COMMENTARY by J.W. Traphagan: Infantilizing Discourse and the Marketing of Higher Education

Infantilizing higher education is a product of hypermarketing, which turns the university into an emoji.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for FastCompany on the constant use of emojis and exclamation points in emails and other online forms of communication that have emerged over the past few years. I framed the article in terms of the concept of hyper-positivity, which I associated with the “overuse of emojis, exclamation points, and adjectives like ‘excited,’ adverbs like ‘tremendously,’ or business-world cliches like ‘reach out’ in a way that creates a disingenuous tone in writing.” I also noted that the term can apply to individuals who are overly emotive in how they interact with others to the point that it becomes exhausting for those around them.

A comment someone raised on LinkedIn in response to that article pointed out this has much in common with wackaging, in which products talk to us, saying things like, “Keep me in the fridge!” I realized that, in many ways, we see the application of marketing discourse in virtually every aspect of communication.

Contacting someone is no longer adequate; we must “reach out!” to them, telling others about it with an exclamation point at the end of the phrase. In other words, the assumption is that we should constantly market our thoughts and emotions to others. We can’t just write an email. We need to SELL it!

We need to do that even if the contents of our emails or other communications are mundane. Wackaging occurs when marketing attempts with a humorous tone become tedious and annoying because they drift into overfamiliarity and fake friendliness. That is precisely what happens when people use emojis, exclamation points, and phrases that exhibit over-familiarity. It devalues and diminishes a professional environment and eliminates the context of debate and disagreement. Everything needs to be happy!!!

What is the link to today’s higher education?

In an interesting article on the infantilization of higher education, Antony W. Dnes notes the growing tendency of students to be unable and unwilling to face challenges to their questions and ideas. He notes that some of it is related to risk aversion. People will fight to hold known ideas and work extra hard to avoid the risk of having their ideas challenged to the point of losing. When that happens on a college campus, it becomes difficult to debate heterodox ideas because it encourages people to seek protection from perspectives that conflict with their preconceived beliefs.

Dnes then makes a head-shaking point. Higher education administrators are complicit in degrading higher education when they view colleges as commercial enterprises. In that view, the academy is not a forum for intellectual debate; it is the locus of commerce, and students must be satisfied with what they buy. If they aren’t happy, they might (heaven forbid) go to a different business—er, college—to purchase their degree.

As Dnes notes, the current model of higher education administration undermines intellectual controversy because controversy represents a risk when it comes to marketing. The focus is on selling a degree, the faculty, sports teams, and the most important thing—a happy time. Students will be happy (unchallenged) and experience four years of fun classes with great professors! 😃

The problem? That mindset and approach infantilizes higher education and turns it into an emoji string. While the business mindset reduces risk from the perspective of administrators concerned with sales, it undermines the entire purpose of higher education.

We must move away from that attitude for mission-related reasons. A university is not a business, and students are not customers who must be satisfied. College administrators need to ditch their focus on selling their institutions to “customers” through marketing campaigns that superficially represent students as satisfied customers.

Instead, they must focus on how the educational experience challenges and changes students. A university’s value is found in how it generates a learning community in which people express heterodox ideas and are pushed to see the world from new and diverse perspectives.

Some universities do that in their marketing material. But as a parent with a senior in high school, I also see the onslaught of daily junk mail sent by colleges trying to sell my daughter on a college life that is shallow and hyper-positive using risk-free images.

It’s the university as an emoji.

Leave a Reply