Taylor on the University

I can tell my views about the current state of academia are no mystery by the number of people who’ve told me to take a look at Mark C. Taylor’s piece calling for the reorganization of universities in today’s New York Times.

I do indeed like quite a lot of what Taylor has to say. Let me start with the part I dislike the most. I think he way oversells the degree to which some kind of online instruction can let universities share specialists. Frankly, this works against his first two proposals, in that it speaks to preserving a largely conventional understanding of specialization rather than rethinking what “collaboration” might mean in ways that are more native to online communication and media. Taylor has a long record of enthusiasm for online and distance education in forms that I look on skeptically. He made a presentation at Swarthmore some years ago on behalf of a company called Global Education Network, a company that seemed to me to be long on dot-com hucksterism in its pitch and short on real grounded value. What online collaboration can do is erode some of the apparatus that shields conventional forms of academic expertise from wider forms of skeptical review and inhibits the circulation of knowledge. Online collaboration is less about teaching and more about publication and conversation.

What I like most in Taylor’s proposal is his desire to rethink the administrative and intellectual infrastructure of the department. At a recent meeting on budget issues here, I was trying to push this kind of argument, but I think I got misunderstood as making a more conventional call for the outright elimination of some departments. The useful functions of departments, especially at small institutions, are easily distributed to larger administrative units or completely decentralized to individual faculty. Mostly they’re just barriers, both to teaching and to generative conversation.

I also really like Taylor’s call for short-term programs studying connected problems: I think some large research universities have taken this approach by funding deliberately short-lived research institutes or thematic projects. To be fair, though, I see some big practical problems with “programs” as he describes them. In the real world of academia, when you start trying to put together something like this to capture resources from some kind of common pool, you either tend to have it dominated by a Napoleonic figure who has a strong-person monomania and the charisma to capture resources or you tend to end up with a vague, wishy-washy general umbrella concept which builds a big coalition but has no distinctive identity. What you’d really need is someone with oversight responsibilities who can recognize a real “working-group” after it has formed naturally out of interests and projects which are already ongoing.

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18 Responses to Taylor on the University

  1. tony grafton says:

    I dunno, Tim. What I saw in the article looked to me like what you heard when he pitched his company at Swarthmore: a lot of noise and not a lot of thought. He’s a very smart guy who has written some original and powerful books. I expected more than a call for Chinese Fire Drill style top-down interdisciplinarity. In reality, as you suggest, such programs often end up being run by a single entrepreneur who has leverage on the university. They embody not interdisciplinarity in some ideal sense–the Fourierist antidisciplinary millennium, when the coffee at the bottoms of department pots will turn to lemonade–but the entrepreneur’s own limited (and increasingly obsolete) sense of what interdisciplinarity might mean, and over time they become less and less innovative.

    We do need more and more effective ways to find each other across department boundaries, as faculty and students. That’s not just a general profession of faith. I have written a substantial number of collaborative articles and books, often with people from other disciplines; I ran Princeton’s version of a humanities center for four years; and I have encouraged my undergraduate and graduate students to do interdisciplinary work. But I also believe, from experience, that collaboration works best when the collaborators have strong bases in disciplines to work from, and that universities need to provide meeting places for people who are already oriented in a body of knowledge and practice, not programs on Water (or indeed Earth, Air or Fire. There’s a great post about that idea at University Diaries).

    In the end, I just don’t believe that Taylor’s current pedagogy will produce more people with the range and depth he himself has shown–or his ability to write.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, fair enough. Obviously I have my own idee fixes to the point where I’ll grab at anything proximate enough. Your point is one that a lot of people have made and which I agree with up to a point. I’d like to argue that what’s key is training in a focused methodology rather than departments as administrative units–e.g., what you want to avoid is the interdisciplinary figure who never really knows how to do anything deeply. But I do think we could have “amalgamated” departments that are bigger and better than what we have: history and historicist humanities together, for example.

  3. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    Yeah, I dunno. I read that editorial and it sounded terribly top down to me. It was also written from a position of NYC/East coast elite privilege. As someone who teaches at a second tier state university Taylor’s editorial really raised my hackles. The experiment he proposes is usually something that is supposed to be implemented on someone else’s dime, at somebody else’s campus, and ultimately at the expense of the colleagues at less prestigious schools.

    I am all for abolishing the university as we know it ? just as long as the Ivy League schools go first. I can think of no better way to begin this great work than by Professor Taylor liquidating his own department of Religion at Columbia. He can also give up his tenure and sign a rolling five or seven year contract, for the good of the people and higher productivity.

    In fact, I think it would be best if Dr. Taylor were to surrender his pension. And Columbia can start paying him as an independent contractor. If he doesn’t know what an independent contractor is, ask the janitors at Wallmart (or the proof readers at a University Press). They should be able to explain it to you.

    On a more serious note, I agree that more interdisciplinary work would be useful, but I do not think you need to abolish departments to get there. I’ve appreciated your past posts on university budgeting.

  4. Carl says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve been trying to think some of these thoughts in the context of a little regional university with no particular centers of excellence or ability to generate specializations that can’t be trumped by larger, better-funded competitors. In such a context I don’t think Tony’s good objections are quite as important. We’re not training future specialists, for the most part, but mid-range terminal undergrads who will need to go out into the world and be flexibly useful across a range of practice areas.

    In fact, with a history department of four and few majors with a serious vocation I wouldn’t say we’re in a position to impart much substantive disciplinarity. It seems to me that what we can do that might be better than a couple of flyby core classes and a nominal major is add some history tools to a kit that includes a range of humanities, social science and professional program compartments. The rigor would come from selecting focus problems wisely (‘Water’ has some curb appeal but it’s pretty dilute) and bringing all of the available investigative apparatus into play in well-sequenced classes.

    I used to work in an interdisciplinary Human Development program that worked something like this, and I’ll agree that the dangers are serial superficiality or competing imperialisms. But we have that already.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Matt’s points are dead-on, of course. This is a problem with all these various complaints and critiques and demands of the university as a form (including my own) they start with the most selective and wealthy R1s and LACs as if those are the point of reference, the typical, or the institutional form which determines all others. But in fact, though there is some attempt to emulate R1/LAC structures by institutions which hope to be seen as comparable, there are plenty of places which either have long since gone off and marched to the beat of their own drummers or institutions which operate on entirely different premises for entirely different audiences.

    Taylor *did* negotiate some kind of undepartmentalized position at Williams, which I’d love to see him be more reflective about–my intuition is that maybe it didn’t work out entirely well, and maybe that’s not entirely in the court of the departmental. Stanley Fish, bless him, had a critique going of this line of ambition some time ago–that those who hanker to be outside departments are usually just hoping to be will o’ the wisps who are unaccountable to anyone or anything. (Uncomfortably close to my own posture at times.)

  6. Following Matt, I find myself mostly unimpressed by Taylor’s editorial. Some good ideas, certainly, and I suppose–as Laura says on her blog–that it can’t hurt to give those good (and obvious, I think) ideas another voicing, since so many people seem to be ignorant of them. But something to be impressed by? The truly elite research universities and liberal arts colleges have–from the perspective of those of us to teach plebeian kids down at second and third tier schools–comparatively enormous reservoirs of cash and alumni support to draw upon, enough to keep them from truly facing crises for many years yet to come. Actual reforms will have to be tested and pioneered on a much more humble level.

  7. prof.e says:

    Like most of the commenters, I thought Taylor’s points had some nuggets of interest (which you have generously latched onto) and a lot of noise. I agree that rethinking the nature of departments is intellectually exciting and stimulating, but it’s also true that most people are going to experience that as an attack on their disciplines. I do think the idea of pulling people — short-term — out of their particular departments into programs keyed toward particular problems, is important. The other part I liked was that he started by talking about graduate education, which I agree needs to be re-thought seriously — though not in some of the knee-jerk ways he suggests. (I don’t think, for starters, that just because monographs are in decline we need to get rid of the dissertation; there may be other good reasons for doing that, but that’s not one of them.)

    Mostly, I was disappointed because the piece didn’t think anyone of its ideas through to its conclusion — at last, as much of a conclusion as you can think through in a 700-word op-ed. Instead it was a kind of grab bag of attempts to provoke.

    What I really wanted to ask, though, was how exactly he was working, right now, in his position as chair at Columbia, to effect these changes. I think anyone who has tenure and who claims public space to advocate for reform should have to explain how he or she is actually working to realize those goals (other than just writing op-eds).

  8. tony grafton says:

    Carl and Russell are absolutely right. If the NYT were interested in finding out what higher education is like for most teachers and students, it would send reporters outside the charmed circle it occasionally covers, and give its bully pulpit to voices from outside as well. I’d like that a lot.

  9. north says:

    We????e not training future specialists, for the most part, but mid-range terminal undergrads who will need to go out into the world and be flexibly useful across a range of practice areas.

    This is actually something that at least one Swarthmore department has decided to prioritize, despite the fact that a rather alarming number of its students do go on to get Ph.D.s. In fact, while Taylor’s argument is designed around reorganizing graduate education and research production, I think it maybe applies even better to undergraduate education, as long as the disciplinary rigor stays put. And that’s not really a question of structures so much as actual execution.

    I’d also argue that a lot of the structural changes Taylor talks about are totally meaningless without real changes in emphasis and incentives, and would actually make the problems worse without that. Most departments *could* privilege policy-relevant work over getting published in the fanciest narrow journal available, but most don’t. If you are an untenured professor, you’re constantly working to maintain your job security, whether you have a rolling 7-year contract or a tenure-track job; because most departments reward traditional academic success, that’s what you’re trying to do. Replacing tenure with 7-year contracts, with no other change in incentives, is going to make this problem worse instead of better. Some of the most interesting professors I know of are people who got tenure and started working exclusively on policy-relevant research, or started a working group on a risky issue, or totally switched subfields and are now doing interdisciplinary research and teaching. With a 7-year rolling contract, many of those people might have stuck to something safer.

    Taylor is hoping to make risky, exciting, non-traditional research more possible, but his proposed remedy could very easily do the opposite. And there are certainly ways that departments could promote policy-relevant interdisciplinary scholarship NOW, especially at wealthy small colleges which have neither major resource constraints nor the need to maintain a graduate training program that fits the discipline’s norms.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Certainly my feeling about undergraduate study in the humanities is that the more directed it is towards onward progression into graduate school, the more it is completely missing the point.

    But, on the other hand, while it sounds great to have graduate education aimed at a wider array of professional outcomes, once you starting thinking about it, you wonder what that would look like. A Ph.D in English is not presently terribly useful if you would like to be a writer in some non-academic context or profession. But could it be, or would it just be better to dive in and try to work as a writer? Would more training just defer the acquisition of experience, no matter how the training was designed?

    Completely agree with North that removing tenure actually works against Taylor’s desire to incentivize risk. It isn’t tenure that works against that, it’s the entire habitus of academia. Removing tenure wouldn’t magically alter that. If you tried to be a public intellectual with a generalist sensibility now, before or after tenure, you’re something of an odd person out–but tenure itself is not what causes that to happen.

  11. G. Weaire says:

    I am *extremely* doubtful about any argument that sees abolishing tenure as a way to cut down on productivism and over-specialization.

  12. G. Weaire says:

    Oops. Hit submit before I meant to.

    …and that makes me doubtful about the merits of the rest of the argument, since it suggests that there’s something radically wrong about the premises somewhere.

    I was also annoyed by the nasty swipe at a colleague who thinks that studying Duns Scotus’ use of citations might possibly be worthwhile. This is the sort of thing that makes me think that the Burkean “Everything Studies” department might in practice be a narrow intellectual monoculture that would congratulate itself on how broad it was.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that worries me too. The whole point for me about good generalism is that the generalist should become more and more humble and tentative about knowledge and in some sense more and more conscious of the importance of specialization in the overall ecosystem of knowledge production. My beef is that specialization is over-represented at every level of academia and in every kind of institution. But I do get the sense that Taylor might be the other kind of “everything studies” guy: the guy who thinks he knows everything about everybody’s field that is worth knowing. That was one of the problems with the epistemological over-reach of the kind of postmodernism that Taylor practiced as a professional scholar, after all: a sort of meta-knowledge that believed it could rush to the site of any debate or practice and trump any involved or engaged position within that site of debate.

  14. Carl says:

    I note in passing that Taylor thinks adjuncts are payed ‘as little as $5k per course’ (ha – the least I’ve gotten is $1.2k; I make $1.7k for overloads now) and that our retirement accounts are all in good enough order to mandate retirement (I’ll be working until I drop, in academe or digging ditches), so there is indeed a real-world disconnect here.

    But isn’t that the question – whether the academy is a privileged sanctuary for pure intellection, in which case things like tenure as a protection of academic freedom makes sense, or a fancy tech school, in which case why the hell should we have job protections no one else has? Both, at different levels of status-reproduction – as Matt says.

  15. Western Dave says:

    I was mostly shocked by how presentist the whole thing was. We need to think about water! But the people who were studying water back in the 60s and 70s (when water was important) trained a whole group of scholars who took the questions to undergrads, who took it to tv, magazines etc. (didn’t this guy ever hear of Cadillac Desert?). When FLAS funding got eliminated because “who needed to know anything about the third world now that the Cold War is over” we lost a generation of scholars who could have told us a lot about Africa, Asia and the Middle East until 9/11 made those places “relevant” again. Huckster, indeed.

  16. Certainly my feeling about undergraduate study in the humanities is that the more directed it is towards onward progression into graduate school, the more it is completely missing the point.

    Yes, humanities education as a preparation for life is rather different from humanities education as a preparation for graduate school.

    If you tried to be a public intellectual with a generalist sensibility now, before or after tenure, you??re something of an odd person out?but tenure itself is not what causes that to happen.

    It seems to me that this was one of the issues in play between Larry Summers and Cornel West at Harvard, no?

    * * * * *

    I was also annoyed by the nasty swipe at a colleague who thinks that studying Duns Scotus?? use of citations might possibly be worthwhile.

    Yes. The fact of the matter is that intellectual risk is intellectual risk. Tayler made this project sound like old-fuddy-duddyism. Maybe it is. And maybe it’s an exciting project about the circulation of ideas, intellectual influence, and its institutionalization. It’s hard to tell.

    I was just at a conference where I listened to a presentation on paint, chemical dyes, and color reference in late 19th century American literature. Sounds rather specialized and dull, no? NO. It was fascinating.

    * * * * * *

    I’m deeply in favor of doing something about disciplinary rigidity, but I thought Taylor’s remarks were half-baked. I’d like to see him sketch out a 10-year plan that leads from Columbia as it is now to Columbia without departments. Or, if not a 10-year plan, how about a novel in which that happens.

    If you really want to make graduate education and research more fluid you have to allow faculty time for tooling-up in new areas. When you’re tooling-up you aren’t cranking out publications. If you are, maybe you aren’t tooling-up in a deep way. Learning new ways of thinking is difficult.

    * * * * *

    I was on the faculty of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for a number of years (until I failed to make tenure). As some of you may know, it’s a very good school, but nonetheless, it’s a second tier school behind MIT, Cal Tech, and Carnegie-Mellon. One thing that struck me about the place was that interdisciplinarity had a very different valence there from what it had at my undergraduate school, Johns Hopkins, or my graduate school, SUNY Buffalo. Those places had strong departments, as that’s how things are done, but there was interdisciplinary work being done and in recognized centers. This work was regarded as cutting-edge and high-risk.

    Not so at RPI. There interdisciplinary work was regarded as ho-hum and conservative. The bold and the brave craved disciplinary purity. (Note that this was over two decades ago. I don’t know the present mood.)

    Why the difference?

    I don’t really know, but my guess goes like this: RPI was really an engineering school, and the engineering disciplines are practical disciplines. Out in the field engineers in one discipline have to collaborate with engineers from other disciplines because real products, whether they be consumer appliances or 100-story mega buildings, require the coordinated and collaborative efforts of people with many different intellectual skills. So, at RPI interdisciplinarity was the stuff of the work-a-day world, the mundane world. If you’re one of the privileged ones working in the academy, however, you should aspire to disciplinary purity.

  17. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    Wow! ? Tim, its nice to see that this topic has some legs. Your post and the ensuing comments were more interesting than Taylor’s original op ed.

    Looking back on other people’s comments, and the debate about higher education funding at the state level, reminds me of the parable about the blind men describing an elephant. This thing we call the academy looks very different depending on where you are sitting.

    I hope that we can keep re-evaluating the competing visions of the academy in the light of what it means for students at the undergraduate level. It would be a shame to see the disappearance of liberal education from public universities. This is the greatest danger I see in Taylor’s reform proposals.

  18. Rana says:

    Interesting article. I don’t know how much I agree with it, however.

    My field areas are environmental history and environmental studies. As such, I would seemingly be the ideal target for a message like Taylor’s. Environmental studies, in particular, is a field that falls between multiple stools – biology, political science, English, anthropology, history, geology… – it is, inherently, an interdisciplinary major.

    But are students, or faculty, best served by having it unmoored from departments? My experience as someone who can wear either the “studies” hat or the “history” hat is that departments lend necessary stability to interdisciplinary programs like this. The two modes I’ve seen are the more common approach of having the faculty for such a program anchored in their respective disciplines’ departments – you might teach environmental studies, but you are hired as a member of the history/biology/English department – and the less common approach of hiring people in expressly to teach as interdisciplinary faculty.

    Neither works very well. The problem with the former is that the new hire serves two masters – unless the position is very clearly defined at the outset, you end up having that person being called upon by their department to teach generalist courses as well as the cross-listed ones in their specialty – and if the other departments involved in the program lack the clout of the hiring one, you can get a tug-of-war going over the new hire’s courses.

    The problem with the latter is that, in the absence of departmental support, the faculty teaching in the program lack a power base from which to agitate for new lines, grant support, defend their faculty and majors, and the like. Basically, they have all of the responsibilities of a department without the authority of one. Now, this is not so bad a position if one is already senior faculty (and therefore is protected by tenure and by the relationships one has established in the community) but it’s a particularly vulnerable one for a new junior hire.

    A very few institutions have environmental studies departments, which draw on the expertise of related departments during the search process. From what I have seen, those departments tend to be stable and supportive – but they are very rare. It is not clear to me whether this is because of some inherent problem with interdisciplinary programs, or whether it’s due to lack of administrative interest in funding new departments and the difficulty of reorganizing old ones. (A sample question: if the new program is granted a department of its own, what happens to the faculty who taught some of its classes but were based in departments of their own? What happens to the departments that hired them, if they transfer to the new one?)

    I would also add that while environmental studies is, itself, an interdisciplinary major, everyone I know who teaches it is based in a discipline. We are all open to the information and perspectives other disciplines bring to the table, but we are all still various species of specialists, not generalists, both as teachers and as scholars. (Bluntly put, the field’s too freakin’ big – I have enough on my plate with the cultural-historical end of things without becoming an expert in C4 photosynthesis as well.)

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