Monday, April 27, 2009

Allow Me to Lodge A Complaint: Mark. C. Taylor on Destructuring the University

by Karl Steel

Marc C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, argues for a networked, postdisciplinary, posttenure post-university academy in an editorial in today's New York Times. I'll leave contending with Taylor's argument to others, although I have to note, first, that the Times, once again, accidentally--as it were--gave voice to management instead of the worker, and, second, that, in imagining the new academy, Taylor somehow still finds room for his own field of study. E.g., "I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight": it strikes me that in the academy Taylor pictures religion studies could be performed much more efficiently and effectively (his watchwords, not mine) by cognitive scientists and sociologists. Let that rest. Also: I'd be surprised if Eileen, who has so often promoted thinking through and in the futures of the university (for example or for example) had nothing to say against about Taylor.

As for me, finally actually speaking, I just have to point out that Taylor, not once, but twice offers medieval studies as a perfect exemplar of the creakiness of an academy he wants us to perceive as obscurantist and antiquated.
[Evidence 1] Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
[Evidence 2] Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text.
Let us just wonder: Are we coming up, perhaps, on the 500th anniversary of "Duns Scotus" as the paradigm of useless thinking? Perhaps we need a supplement to the Dictionnaire des idées reçues? And: has the footnoted medieval book (?) ever belonged to the market? And, while Taylor would have me believe that the time of the citation--a wonderful thicket of heterogenuous time, of scholarly community, of conversation, and, yes, of demonstrating seriousness of purpose--has passed, given that his editorial cites no one, I wonder if he's aware that others (e.g., here and here) have thought hard about a post-monograph academy, one that--inter alia--no longer outsources its tenure decisions to academic presses.

(image from here via a creative commons license)


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

One caveat: the divide between workers and managers isn't so clearcut in academia, especially as most universities are in theory governed by their faculty (though many faculty members choose not to exert that right to governance, and many others find themselves manipulated out of it by professional administrators).

I read Taylor's piece this morning and thought it facile and not well thought out. I think you're right to identify the ways in which it preserves his position -- in fact increases his relevance. For the proposed "Water cluster" for example I believe he could speak about how Moses was able to extract water by banging a stick on a rock. The danger is to bang twice, because then you don't get to glimpse the promised land.

Martin Foys said...

I would also recommend some stuff from here as correlative reading, especially the Holquist and the Brooks.

Christopher said...

I concur on the problem of the worker/management model in academia, but I'm not sure how you are using it. If you mean to compare academics (especially tenured academics) to industrial or service workers, then I disagree wholeheartedly.

Otherwise, I think Taylor is about 50 percent right. What gives me pause is the issue of the agency of consumers of higher education. Columbia is as case in point: it is traditionally organized, but it seems to offer products for which there is a high demand (in spite of the high price). The government and private companies buy its research, and large numbers of people buy its education (it turns away thousands). Taylor should ask himself why this is.

I might add: looking at universities from the perspective of markets will surely not unravel all the meanings of the university in modern society, if such a result were even possible.

In terms of state owned and supported institutions, I think we might as well accept the fact that states will want to have some say in how their assets are run, although sadly, some state legislatures have made deplorable decisions about their university systems. I think that mandatory retirement is a great idea, as long as it is not set too early (75?). We start our careers later in life and should not be forced out of them too early.

Let specialization flourish! But specialization versus inter-disciplinary collaboration is a false choice. Academics should be able to do both, and they should do both.

Karl Steel said...

I'll allow that my worker/management analogy (if it is an analogy) wasn't well considered. I choose it because the Times has a corporatist bias and because Marc Bousquet is a champion for contingent academic labor, whose differences of approach with Taylor can well be understood as a ground-up rather than top-down approach to social justice and scholarship. Mostly, though, I think the analogy fits because the future academy Taylor is promoting would clarify the murky division between academic management and professorial labor, to the detriment of the professoriat. E.g.,

Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed.Terminated or renewed by whom? Certainly not by tenured faculty, since they would no longer exist.

The more I reread Taylor's piece, the more appalled I am. Take this paragraph, so wonderfully thick with logical solecisms:

Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.??

What do "alternative formats" as he describes them have to do with publication, let alone the market? And is there indeed such a thing as a "traditional dissertation"? It strikes me, rather, that there are disciplinarily specific models for dissertations, and, indeed, culturally specific models. Surely a bit of, well, interdisciplinary study and empirical research could have helped Taylor's argument.

In a bit of sagesse d'escalier, I also should say that Taylor's know-nothing sneers at medieval studies have at least something in common with Republican representatives Chabot, Hostettler, and Shadegg as discussed in Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval 173-82.

Martin thanks for the link, and for the reminder: I do remember that as being a good issue.

Christopher, I just don't see that there's much of any value in the editorial. What is worth saying has been said much better elsewhere: the Waters and Holbo above, the articles Martin recommends as well. No doubt, if given the opportunity, Michael Bérubé would have produced a much sharper--and smarter, and much more logically sound--vision of the responsibilities institutions funded partially by the state.

As for mandatory retirement, my inclination, now, is to resist it, on the basis of several points ALK made in conversation about just this issue the other night. People are healthier for longer than they used to be, and I imagine the productive longevity of intellectual workers will continue to increase. My inclination, rather, is to require service (to the academy or the community) or scholarly productivity post-tenure. Contingent tenure, if you will. The least benefit of such obligations would be to clear out the pedagogy-by-mimeograph set while preserving the many senior professors who continue to be able teachers, good colleagues, and curious, productive scholars.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Sorry to beat a horse AGAIN, but can we puhleez get over the idea that tenure means you can't be fired? It only means that because we let it, and because we don't push for post-tenure review.

There are plenty of reasons a tenured faculty member can lose her job, according to AAUP standards. Tenure is there to preserve academic freedom, not (unless you work for one of the teaching unions) a job for life.

So put in post-tenure review every 5 years or so. Have senior faculty submit to student evaluations, observations, and keep up an active service and research agenda. Even if the worst thing a campus is willing to do is not grant a pay rise, that's enough for some.

At least we don't have to submit to the RAE ...

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: you made me laugh out loud with the image of Moses banging on a rock with a stick.

It gave me pause when I saw all the links Karl had assembled relative to how many times I have weighed in or written on this subject [the future of the university] at ITM, and therefore, of course, Mark Taylor's op-ed piece draws me like a [fill in your favorite simile here] . . . .

Interestingly, Christopher says pretty much exactly what I want to say, especially that Taylor is setting up both false contexts [economic--the university is not Detroit, nor a manufacturer] and choices [it's either narrow specialization or better integrated cross-disciplinary investigations, when actually you have to have both]. Also, Karl is right to be dismayed at the ways in which medieval studies [and also the Middle Ages] figure in this post [especially disconcerting coming from a scholar of religion, I might add]. Also, someone correct me if I'm wrong, but was there such a thing as footnotes in the Middle Ages, and did medieval dissertations have them? [According to Anthony Grafton, who wrote a wonderful book on the history of the footnote, glosses in medieval manuscripts were footnotes.] That's a minor quibble though--what's more distressing is how the Middle Ages just generally stand in, in Taylor's op-ed piece, as the site of encrusted, inefficient *waste* [again, see Grafton's book, which explains why the footnote, historically, matters so *much* but, um . . . never mind!].

Some of the arguments against graduate education that Taylor raises here [not enough jobs, too many PhD students, etc.] are well-worn and tired [and obvious to all--no, Prof. Taylor, these are not the "dirty little secrets" but the things we have all been talking about for years and in *public*!], and to intimate that universities have kind of been doing *nothing* about the obvious problems seems unfair. Also, to imply that most tenure-track faculty are just trying to "clone" their students and also, that once tenured, faculty stop being productive is, in some respects, a kind of libel of so many faculty who are precisely *not* guilty of either of those things. But more importantly, why do we always have to read these same sorts of op-ed pieces over and over again that keep saying the same negative things? Which is another way of me saying: however you think the university should change, can you make your argument in more positive terms without having to besmirch, in a broad public forum, so much good, hard work [scholarship, teaching, knowledge production, curatorship of historical memory/artifacts, etc.]? Base the proposed revisions of the system on their most probable beneficent outcomes for the greatest number of persons/causes and not on stupid *negative* analogies like "graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning, so how can we fix that f*%ked-up situation?" Um, I don't know, fire some people?

I am so tired of the business model of higher education--knowledge production cannot, and will never be, "efficient." The question is not about efficiency, but about sustainability of what is essentially a public trust institution [albeit one that *can* have cash influxes from private interests that depend on the continual production of new knowledges: knowledge *can* be profitable, but where it is not, it must be seen as a going concern of a state, or a nation]. Finally, you cannot have *any* kind of collaborative, cross-disciplinary scholarship without scholars who *specialize* in something bringing that specialized knowledge to the table, as it were. Cross- or inter- or whatever-disciplinary *depends* on there being multiple specialized fields of knowledge that, when brought together, can yield considerable explanatory and investigative powers.

Having said all that, there were some aspects of Turner's proposals I really liked. I like the idea of an undergraduate and even graduate curriculum that is like an adaptive, networked "web," but it would be nice to see some more concrete examples of what that would look like, and even if you create new departments based on temporary or long-standing issues and problems [an idea I myself have espoused in the past], you need to make sure that the specialists devoted to these issues and problems still have room to develop their *deep* disciplinary knowledge and a home that is more than always-temporary in which to do that. There's also this little thing called wisdom which I like think is developed and requires sustenance *over time*: whatever happened to the idea that some knowledges are built up over time [and that, corollary to this, some *persons* offer deep repositories of wisdom and expertise]? Do we want to keep pulling the rug out from under persons who are devoting their entire lives to increasing the general store of knowledge as, I might add, a public *service*? At its best, this is a virtue profession, or at least, I dare to hope to think so [we're not designing and building cars and selling them, although we *do* educate the engineers who eventually have something to do with that].

I myself have never really cared one way or the other about tenure, and it's not that difficult to point out what's wrong with it [and for me, again *personally*, I've never been persuaded by the argument that it protects academic freedom--the Constitution and my own bull-headed will take care of that for me], but to constantly argue against it on the sole basis that, supposedly, all sorts of useless, under-achieving, zombie-like faculty are abusing it is just such a tiresome argument, and might I add, *wrong* in the main. Especially in the humanities, we are in a grossly under-compensated profession and most of us are working our asses off above and beyond the pay scale and the supposed future retirement benefits and we do not grind to a halt when we get tenure. If we have any ambition or care about teaching, tenured or not, we do what we do because . . . we can't do otherwise. Tenure, or long-term job security, simply becomes our equivalent to the bonus package the AIG executive receives. We know we're never going to get rich and we're constantly suffering under various cut-backs [whether in terms of travel funding or release time for research or whathaveyou], so tenure, as I like to see it, is a kind of long-term *investment* that a university makes in faculty members who have passed through a long [7 years, typically] and rigorous process of review in order to be deemed "likely to keep returning the investment." In an age of mainly short returns, and where our recent market crash and economic woes were predicated precisely upon such "short sell/return" thinking, what good can putting all faculty on 7-year rotations do, except possibly demoralize so many persons who are already working for nothing, and often, with great anxieties and cares about the future? The tenure system can certainly be made better, relative to helping encourage faculty to continue being productive, for example, without having to be abolished. We also need a more *flexible* tenure system--one that takes into account different types of faculty-workers within the university system.

But let's look at some of the good in Taylor's suggestions--in the manner of an op-ed piece, they are too breezy and even blithe [i.e., lacking in in-depth consideration of all of the implications], but I find very appealing his idea of programs over departments and more collaboration between institutions [in some respects, it will be difficult, over the come years for *all* states to sustain and support *all* colleges and universities: in truth, do we need, say, 17 grad. programs in English within a 200-mile radius of each other?--there are regional considerations, which I understand intimately, given where I teach, but we'll save that for another day]. And I'm all for transforming what a dissertation can be and do, but I also think we've exhausted that subject quite a bit here at ITM as well in our discussions of academic publishing--I feel extremely hopeful about the future of academic publishing, especially with regard to new modes and forms of scholarship.

Karl Steel said...

Eileen, you rock. I totally owe you a drink, redeemable May 7-10, 2009.

Holly Crocker said...

wow, thanks everyone! I had no idea what my smart, funny colleague was on about this morning when he declared himself "Assistant Professor of Water." This discussion is enlightening in many more ways than I expected! cheers, h

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: I will take that drink. Cheers.

Karl Steel said...

As hoped for, MARC BOUSQUET wrote a response to Taylor. See here.A sample:
Today the Grey Lady lent the op-ed page to yet another Columbia prof with the same old faux “analysis” of graduate education.

Why golly, the problem with the university is that there aren’t enough teaching positions out there to employ all of our excess doctorates Mark C. Taylor says: “Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist).” Because there are just too many folks with Ph.D.‘s out there, “there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.”

Um, nope. Wrong. The New York Times loves this bad theory and has been pushing it for decades, but the reality is clear.

In fact, there are plenty of teaching positions to absorb all of the “excess doctorates” out there. At least 70 percent of the faculty are nontenurable. In many fields, most of the faculty don’t hold a Ph.D. and aren’t studying for one. By changing their hiring patterns over the course of a few years New York or California — either one — alone could absorb most of the “excess” doctorates in many fields.

The problem isn’t an oversupply of qualified labor. It’s a restructuring of “demand” so that work that used to be done by people with doctorates is being done by persons with a master’s or a B.A., or even by undergraduates. During the whole period of time that The New York Times has been pimping junk analysis of graduate education (that there’s an “oversupply” of doctorates), the percentage of faculty with doctorates has been dropping, not rising.

prehensel said...

Taylor needs to read the "New Times and Old, Old Stories" section of Dinshaw's introduction to Getting Medieval.
I'm tired of the Middle Ages being the whipping boy of everyone from the chairs of department at Ivy League schools to my students' papers. On the upside, at least he didn't use the term "Dark Ages."

dtkline said...

Maybe it's premature to tip my hand, but I'll be addressing some of the same issues as Taylor, but from below, as it were, at the ethics panel at K'zoo. As is my wont, I'm in a kankedort about the whole academic labor, grad student, state of the profession thing.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

My read is that he is unconsciously targeting the medieval out of a latent sense of its potentiality as past of a future we cannot conceive, a future where I have doctoral students writing poetic glosses on Scotus!

theswain said...

Karl: nice post

Eileen: as often, wow.

I think I'm actually going to ask Taylor to practice what he preaches: By my count, he'll be 65 next year: mandatory retirement. Opens up a couple of lines to hire some of those excess PhDs he's whinging about.