Saturday, May 02, 2009

End the University as We Know It: Op-ed

End the University as We Know It: Op-ed contributed to the New York Times by Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor's Op-ed letter to the New York Times deals with the structure of college education in the United States. In particular he rails against the specialization of departments, entrenchment of faculty due to tenure, the use of adjuncts and graduate students for research and teaching, and the inability of professors within the university to interact with each other on problems of significance, instead diving in solitude on their increasingly narrow areas of interest.

As a visiting junior faculty, I probably fall into what Taylor would consider an affected class, the non-tenure-track academic. By way of background, I am on an engineering faculty at a research institution, and I also have a graduate degree in a social science, so I think I have at least visibility to all parts. With that in mind, look at Taylor's arguements.

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

He also ignores the possibility that these department-based division of labor (as he calls it) have a purpose and origin. And it is something other then arbitrary or even subject based. The different fields of study exist because the people in those fields think differently. For my own undergraduate major, political science exists because they look at events and issues differently then historians or philosophers (Poly Sci focusing on the Who and How as opposed to Who and When and Why or interactions between members of social groups). And similarly, Economists, focusing on ownership and factors of production diverge from political scientists. In the more modern era, at the point where mathematicians and electrical engineers noticed that there were substantial groups within them that starting thinking and talking about math and engineering among each other differently then the rest did, it made sense for computer science and computer engineering to be established. So to eliminate the departments means saying to people who think, discuss, analyze in similar ways to disassociate themselves and join the larger group, who think, discuss, and analyze in a different way.

And what the departments have done is to make it possible for people to learn how to think in this ways deeply and well, which does not happen when you organize people by subjects (vs. ways of thinking) (Note: since 'ways of thinking' is not something that gets codified anywhere, departments do require nouns as names, just because human being have to use words to communicate.)

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs.

Taylor desires to eliminate the current department structure in favor of cross-cutting areas defined by problems. An example of one set of cross cutting areas that he gives are: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

The areas he gives present too easy a target. The obvious one is "who picks the areas" and "why ephemeral areas". And the real obvious hole in that he apparently decides that things that have solid form are not important. (buildings, roads . . .)

What most universities (and I have in mind examples of top level universities, and not-so-top-level universities) have done was form centers built around topical areas. And those who decide to be involved can collaborate and bring their different ways of thinking to bear. Commentary on the article add the benefit that participants get to self-select, unlike Taylor's idea (more on this later) (I am actively involved in research at one such center, while clearly being a member of a specific department.)

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting.

It turns out the "do not need to do all things" happens naturally. Because you can only have a finite number of faculty. And management of finances dictates that a department make choices. Collaboration is harder. Again, is it top down, or are faculty entrepreneurs who look for people who have the backgrounds that their own institution when they need skills and knowledge and ways of thinking that they do not have (the center I am affiliated with has active faculty from three different public universities.)

4. Transform the traditional dissertation.

I imagine that Taylor thought this was his guaranteed shot. But before you decide to get rid of something, it is often useful to make sure you know why it was there in the first place (before something comes falling down on you.) The dissertation is not meant to be something to brag about. The scholarly certification provided is the proof that the person is capable of thinking about some subject deeply and completely. If there is a problem with small print runs of dissertations at university presses, the obvious solution is to not have a print run at a university press. A few print-on-demand copies would be sufficient (copies for the student, the members of the committee, the university library and the student's mother normally suffice) People who really need a published book should write a book and get it published.

Now, if there is a means of establishing that an individual has deeply and completely examined the said topic, go for it. The printed word (and mathematical symbol) have great advantages when communicating qualities such as completeness and correctness of thought, so it is not obvious how Taylor's alternative media can replace this.

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students.

This would be true if you are one of those people who think that graduate student professional options are only to teach/research at a college/university. Of course, if you organize the university into units that are built around a subject, you are now left with people who know how to examine a subject. If you organize people around units that are based on ways of thinking, they can then work on the subjects that take advantage of those ways of thinking. (this presumes that the way of that a particular academic field is actually useful for thinking about actual subjects)

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure.

Hmm, so the idea is to remove the iniquity of the fact that grad students and untenured faculty do not have job security by removing job security for everyone. And his idea is to do 7 year tenures. The first thought that comes to mind: you are a university with a 7-year slot to fill. Who do you use to fill it, the person who has already been there 7-years, or 14-years, or the person you don't know? Absolutely no question, it goes to the known quantity. A 4-5 year slot you can take a gamble (since it probably does take 2-3 years to know if someone is a good teacher or researcher). A 7-year slot is a large burden.

Next question, do you force institutions to fill their teaching requirements with 7-year people? How long does it take to figure out if someone is good? Probably not 7-years. In which case, some lucky students get to suffer having a known poor performer as professors. And the university also has a problem because the poor performer also does not bring in money and has to be paid from somewhere until the 7-year term is up. The leverage that should exist is the fact that a faculty member wants to be paid. How much of the pay goes with the title, and how much comes from doing that activities that the title enables the person to do? Engineering faculty at research universities are laughing at this point. When I came on board, it was stated outright that the teaching/title pay was expected to be a pittance, the real pay came because I was working on research projects (which would imply that I was helping write the proposals that lead to these research projects so that research project would continue to come in so I can be paid)

Now, there is a possibility that the background I have is somewhat strange and idealized, and that somewhere, there were academic departments/fields of inquiry that are not characterized by the way they thought about the subjects being studied, that they did were not involved in studying subjects that could be looked at in several different ways, where dissertations where not used as proof that the writer could examine a subject completely and deeply, and that faculty pay was removed from the ability of the faculty to use their thought processes on a subject determined by people with remunerative resources as interesting and worth study and support (interesting can be defined in many ways, not necessarily economic return). Then the question is, why does that department exist? (as opposed to, say, a center where faculty from other departments look at that subject using their many varied ways of looking at the world in a deep manner, which clearly did not exist in the original department?)

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