Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Future of the University

A friend recently recommended checking out Andrew Pilsch's blog, where I found an interesting article from the the New York Times. The article by Mark C. Taylor (of Columbia's religion department), End the University as We Know It, is another article about why the university today sucks. These articles, and arguments, aren't uncommon, but it seems little is actually done - or even suggested - in the way of changing the university. This article, however, does suggest some fairly clear and constructive ways (six in fact) that the university might change in order to become a more productive institution.

Some of these solutions are fairly standard fare, such as abolishing tenure, but Taylor offers some surprisingly simple yet sensible solutions. For example, replacing tenure with 7-year contracts, which he claims "would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills." This seems to be a fantastic solution to me, as it would certainly promote research beyond the required 'amount to get tenure,' and would enable some sort of review process (which exists in pretty much any other career type position). Furthermore, as someone currently working as an adjunct, the seven-year security would be welcome, but at the same time I know that it isn't hard to renew your contract if you are doing your job well. So, for most of those professors we've had, liked, and we know are working hard, renewing their contract will be no problem whatsoever. The other half of this equation, however, would either be prompted to become more professional, or would not be offered another contract. And let's not kid ourselves, a 7-year contract would be a sweet gig (but, that's probably just the adjunct in me talking).

Taylor also offers some even more interesting solutions, however, that look less at the problems of institutional traditions, and more at the function of the university today. The two that I found really interesting were his suggestions that:
"The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network.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."
And that we should:
"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."

My earlier post about 'Film Studies as a Discipline' spoke to this first question. As a result, it is pretty clear that I readily agree with this first statement. Although I am not sure departments should be abolished (and I believe this in regards to both statements I've re-posted here), but they should has some sort of interdisciplinary focus that makes them useful beyond the self-replication of certain forms of understanding (a sort of autopoiesis that starts emerging, if the subjects within the discipline are unaware of their involvement within the discipline itself). What would this look like? The 'Film Studies' department should not only be studying the aesthetics of films, but also their historical situation, their cultural situation, and their importance for current political questions. For example: looking at how Iranian films invoke the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and illustrate particular epistemologies as a result of certain cultural constructs.

The second statement by Taylor I've re-presented here is certainly the more radical of the two. As I said above, I don't think the abolishing of departments is necessarily the answer to this question, as I think this is a recklessly regressive answer (I believe something would be lost in abolishing departments - the disciplines provide a variety of 'ways of thinking' about problems that are still potentially useful). Creating a 'problem-centered' approach to studies would be an enormous boon for the university system though. Imagine if professors, regardless of their department, would be required to address one of these university-identified problems when submitting courses. This would foster a sort of collaborative attitude amongst the different faculties, all working together on these 'problems.' It is easy to imagine a variety of different film classes that would addresses these question: a class on the circulation of films, film-festivals (see recent activity on Dr. Dina Iordanova's blog about this), and consumption of films that addresses the question of 'Money.' A class on different forms of narrative editing, philosophies of looking at duration in films, and their use in different cultures that addresses the question of 'Time.' I believe this would be a rather exciting way to structure the proposal and submission of classes, which would create a lot of excitement and forward momentum for the faculty who are really interested, and believe in, their work.

Go ahead and check out Taylor's article - while it denounces the position I am in as a PhD candidate, it simultaneously offers hope for what things could look like in the future.

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