Mark Taylor’s op-ed has not exactly lit a fire under America’s academics. A lot of the criticism I’ve seen has been pretty legitimate. I’m still enamored of the idea of trying to make departments more supple and flexible as administrative units (Michael Berube also highlighted the department/discipline distinction at Crooked Timber).
Let me pick up on one theme that came out in a number of critiques, because I think it’s a valid rebuke of a lot of laments about the academy, including some of my own. Namely: how do you get from here to there, wherever there might be? Can you model or demonstrate some prototype or trial version of the reforms you’re arguing for?
This is one thing that has driven me absolutely wild about a lot of the conservative Mark-Bauerlein-style attacks on academic groupthink: the critics who most incessantly harp on that argument are themselves anything but pluralistic or exploratory in the way they read the work of other scholars, and show little interest in or patience for trying to persuade colleagues in sympathetic terms to change their practices.
If you’ve got a very constrained or particular criticism of academic institutions (say, for example, the role of big-money athletics) it’s plausible that there are policy solutions that could be dictated from outside those institutions, and that the road to those solutions is relatively short and simple (if unlikely to be taken). But if you’ve got a comprehensive antipathy towards the contemporary academy, you either need to talk about building alternative institutions (and how that might be done) or talk concretely about the plausible scenarios for reform. Blue-sky doodling is fine, too, but it calls for a much gentler kind of rhetoric, a more tentative voice.
Getting real about reform should involve:
1) Asking whether any institution has tried some version of what the reformer wants, and an honest assessment of the success or failure of such efforts.
2) At least a modest attempt to talk about the constituencies and interests which might support some version of the reformer’s plans, and under what conditions their ambitions might actually move forward.
3) Some attempt to concretize the new organizational and cultural forms that the reformer prefers. What would life actually be like in the new university? What would the curriculum actually consist of? What would be some of the nitty-gritty operational details?
4) Some commitments about targets, outcomes, and tests of success or failure for the new institutional designs.
It’s interesting when you do get schools that try to experiment or break a mold (like Eugene Lang college of the New School) they often end up conforming more and more to what other colleges are like because they have a hard time attracting students. Who is the market that will attend these new institutions? A variation on point 2.
Yeah, exactly. Every time I’ve done some blue-sky thinking here, someone comes along and says, “Look, there is a place that does something very much like that, and it’s fine, it’s good, but it’s not Robot Jesus, not the perfect thing you’re imagining it would be”. As a lot of folks have noted about Taylor or any attempt to radically revise departments, one of the huge embedded costs of such an effort if it were not done everywhere at once (and how likely is that) is that the people who were employed at Mark Taylor’s Special School would instantly become unemployable in much of the rest of academia if they took the bait and really tried to live up to that new design.
But if you????e got a comprehensive antipathy towards the contemporary academy, you either need to talk about building alternative institutions (and how that might be done) or talk concretely about the plausible scenarios for reform. Blue-sky doodling is fine, too, but it calls for a much gentler kind of rhetoric, a more tentative voice.
Why should we think this? The argument you’re implicitly making seems to prove way too much. In particular, what would it say about the Declaration of Independence? Or the Communist Manifesto? The Declaration of the Rights of Man?
Hey, manifesto away, but that too is another level of analysis–at that point, complaining about something as ho-hum or quotidian as how universities are organized seems fairly out of place.
the people who were employed at Mark Taylor???? Special School would instantly become unemployable in much of the rest of academia if they took the bait and really tried to live up to that new design
Although, Tim, given that there are many of us who are de facto “unemployable in much of the rest of academia” that might be less of a drawback than you’d think. I’m already on the short end of the stick, making do with what part-time crumbs outside my specialty I can get. The thought that a full-time job doing what I’m interested in (environmental studies and history) might unsuit me for other academic work doesn’t bother me all that much.
Couldn’t we say, though, that “area studies” was once equally inventive and pragmatically oriented? The thought of training students in East Asian studies and African studies and so forth (and achieving fluency in foreign languages like Arabic and Chinese, no less!) surely was once viewed with equal doubt. And yet such interdisciplinary training fit into a Cold War program that the federal government embraced and funded quite well.
So, I agree with Taylor, and I think the items for measurement you mention are already there in a sense. I just wish Taylor had made two other points to situate his ideas:
1) We have outgrown the Cold War university model; we need to rethink that.
2) Universities are increasingly privatized (a process that escalated toward the end of the Cold War). If a paradigm shift is to occur, this trend also needs to be contemplated. Can private money fund change, or is federal money needed? My sense is that this trend will be very hard to reverse, since it is part of broader pattern related to social security, health care, and so forth.
Obviously, I’m not too bugged personally by becoming locked into a single institution, since I’m such a freakish mutant at this point that I have little marketability. But if an institution were to commit as a matter of policy to encouraging people to stray from narrow disciplinary legibility while most other institutions stayed very ‘vanilla’ it would have to accept the responsibility for making a “revolution in one place”.
I’m not sure that departments and disciplines can be so neatly severed, except on a fairly basic conceptual level.
Departmentalization and disciplinarization go hand-in-hand. There is a sense in which I am part of a discipline which can trace its origins back at least as far as Hellenistic Alexandria – and for certain kinds of work that classicists do, that’s a quite reasonable way to look at it. But there’s another sense in which classics has a more recent disciplinary origin in the 18th-19th centuries with the development of the modern German university and its imitators.