Monday, April 27, 2009

Mark C. Taylor: How To Destroy Academia
Episode 1

Academia has its problems. Yes it does.

This, however, is approximately the worst set of recommendations for change I've ever seen. In fact, I would bet large amounts of money that this set of recommendations, if followed, would come pretty darned close to destroying the university. Even if you think changes need to be made, you should not think that these changes need to be made.

Now, I'm an experimentalist about such things--I'm disinclined to rule too much out too quickly and without giving it a try. But some of Professor Taylor's suggestions are almost certain to be disastrous.

In this installment, let's look at Taylor's worst suggestion, his suggestion 2:
Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.
Now, it's not clear that academic disciplines divide inquirers up in optimal ways. And it's clear that the divisions are in some ways artificial. And it's clear that cross-disciplinary collaboration can sometimes be beneficial.

But this suggestion, if implemented, might very well relegate the American university system to second-rate status almost immediately.

First: this model of flexible, topic-specific departments is popular largely in the weaker parts of the humanities and social sciences. Women's studies, cultural studies, every-geographical-region-you-can-think-of studies...these are the parts of the university where you find some of the weakest scholarship, easiest courses, and most absurd theories. To restructure the most rigorous, reputable and successful parts of the university (e.g. the sciences) on the model of the least rigorous, reputable and successful parts is not exactly a smart move. Believe me, the very last thing we want is for the physics department to look more like the "communications" department...

At my own institution, the more frivolous bits are in constant flux, combining, dividing and recombining into new centers, programs and special curricula...always looking for the magic bullet...something that will bring something like success without requiring genuinely hard intellectual work. New is good; change is good. Much energy is given over to meetings and administrative busy-work that could better be spent on scholarship. Though, given the nature of the scholarship in the relevant areas, I suppose that might not actually be true...

(Let me also note that Taylor's suggestion makes me hypothesize that there is an intellectual/political agenda behind it. He is in religious studies, a discipline infected by the virulent viruses of recent intellectual fads (postmodernism, poststructuralism, cultural studies, etc., etc.). "Antiessentialism" is the orthodoxy in many such places. Although there's a great deal of confusion about what such folk mean by 'antiessentialism'--they only sort of mean what philosophers mean by it--the short version is: nothing (e.g. the study of history or biology included) is what it is because of its real properties. More fashionable is the view that we make things what they are by how we represent or categorize them. My guess is that this (indefensible yet fashionable) theory might be behind Professor Taylor's suggestion.)

Currently, people are already doing much collaborative work outside their disciplines, and universities are encouraging and facilitating such collaboration (it used to be called "interdisciplinary" work, but now the buzzword is "multidisciplinary"). Consequently, there is no very good reason to destroy the disciplines to achieve such collaboration. To destroy them that is, in favor of an ever-mutating stew of temporary quasi-disciplines...which, if I read Taylor's suggestion right, would differ from university to university, thus making collaboration by people in different institutions more difficult.

And let's be clear on this: Taylor's suggestion simply would not work. We're on the trailing edge of a restructuring of colleges in my university. It was a fairly simple one that merely moved departments around. It has taken years and uncounted professor-hours of work. There is simply no way to radically restructure the entire university every few years with no determinate disciplinary divisions to guide us. On Taylor's suggestion, every individual professor could theoretically be recombined with others in an infinite number of different ways. Whatever else could be said for any of Taylor's other suggestions, make no mistake about it: this is a blueprint for disaster. It cannot work, and should not even be tried. The meetings alone would take untold thousands of person-hours over the course of years--and this in every university in the country. Anyone who has worked in academia should be able to see that this is simply not an even vaguely sensible suggestion.

My worry, however, is that this suggestion will be taken seriously. More and more, the university is run by an administrative class--non-scholars who got degrees in academic administration. (Yes, sadly, there are such degrees.) Conventional wisdom at my institution is that we entered our current state of perpetual flux when these people showed up on the scene--professional administrators build their CVs by changing things, not by keeping them the same. I have wasted great huge chunks of my life in endless inane meetings that almost never leave the institution in a better place than it was before. My worry is that, somewhere out there, these administrators are salivating at Taylor's idea, which would require more administrators and more meetings, and give over more time to bureaucratic busywork and less to teaching and scholarship.

Needless to say, I could be wrong (and I often am). But this is one of the worst ideas I've heard in a long, long time.


Blogger Joshua said...

I think you may need to be clearer in your criticism of "the parts of the university where you find some of the weakest scholarship, easiest courses, and most absurd theories". I kind of grasp what you're going for, but some people I've shared this post with have read that paragraph to mean something like "Women's Studies and Cultural Studies are completely unworth studying and should be eliminated from universities", when I suspect what you actually mean is "If Women's Studies and Cultural Studies intend to be useful, they should be integrated into the standard Sociology/History/Whatever curriculum".

I'm somewhat curious, myself, to see what your specific beefs might be. Coming from an Engineering background, myself, I recall the gen ed. requirements I didn't test out of (bless the APs) to be boring and insipid. I'm speaking mostly of the Psych 101 class I took, which was just complete crap from top to bottom, and where my professor worshiped the ground Zimbardo walked on. (A pet peeve of mine. Zimbardo did no science. He rigged an experiment to show the results he wanted and gets praised for it by idiots who don't know what "controls" are or realise that experimenters should never actively participate in their own experiments.) But I'm hesistant to extend this as a criticism of social studies in general, when my experience may have been the fault of a bad professor or something endemic to, say, 101 courses in general rather than Psychology courses in general.

In that regard, a more insider perspective from someone who presumably interacts with the faculty from these departments on a somewhat regular basis would be interesting.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I agree about psych in general and Zimbardo in particular.

As for "cultural studies" et. al.: all I say is that absolutely cannot take them as models for the whole university. I don't say and don't mean to suggest anything about reform or elimination here.

But yes, I actually do think the university would be better off without them. Partially because they are frivolous and largely devoted to advancing extremely left-wing political and intellectual agendas, largely because they seem to actually make students dumber.

Are they entirely without merit? Meh, maybe not. I do think there are a few interesting questions hidden in there somewhere. Women's studies, for example, could theoretically have done something good at one time. But once the goals of sane, sensible feminism were largely met (or at least started inevitably on the path to success), such folk had to find something else to occupy their time, so they turned to utter BS like "feminist epistemology" and "feminist logic." I am not making this up.

In all honesty, my sense is that there are more than a few department-types in universities that do not merely waste resources, but actually do more harm than good. They've been infected by truly idiotic Po-Mo-y theories, and they infect their students with them. The students then not only learn nothing valuable, they walk around speaking in senseless cant, making inferences so stupid that you simply can't believe it.

Yeah, it's a sad state of affairs, actually.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

I'm hesitant to reject those fields out of hand, but it does seem like the best feminist critiques (I'm thinking of bloggers like Amanda Marcotte and Jessica Valenti) come from people outside academia.

And every time someone talks about science being "patriarchal", a part of me dies. Those kinds of arguments are definitely an indication of somebody looking for nails to beat with their feminist hammer. Because, honestly, while science has typically been a boy's club, it's only been so to the same extent that the rest of society has been. There's nothing inherently "patriarchal" about, you know, actually checking to see whether things are true before spouting off about them, which is all science is.

Have you read The End of Biblical Studies by Hector Avalos? Your opinion on "cultural studies" reminds me somewhat of his own on the field of biblical studies.

(I'm slightly disappointed that none of my aforementioned friends bothered to comment directly. Personally, I have no strong feelings either way on the "cultural studies"-type disciplines, so I'm not the best foil for discussion here. However, I do have a bit of an allergy to PoMo jargon, even if I'm agnostic toward the idea itself.)

11:47 AM  
Blogger Clint said...

From a political/economic perspective, I think Taylor's suggestions would be disastrous for the public in general. He's essentially treating the university like a factory and trying to "free marketize" it.

Networked departments, if they complemented existing ones, could be quite beneficial though.

I wrote a longer reaction here:

6:08 PM  

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