Tuesday, June 2. 2009
A colleague sent me a link to an op-ed from the New York Times titled "End the University As We Know It" which calls for a major overhaul of the traditional university. It is by Mark Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia University. He thinks it is time to scrap the the mass-production university model that separates disciplines, actually encourages academics to work on irrelevant topics, and produces too many graduate students.
Redefining Universities Part 2
Today I'm presenting at Seton Hall University on "Redefining:Universities, How We Teach and Learn" as part of a day on "Web 2.0 Tools for Blog, ePortfolio and Website Design - WhatÃ¢Â€Â™s Writing Got to Do With It?"Here's a site by Mary
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Maybe what really needs to be redefined (and IS being redefined, like it or not) is the act of TEACHING.
I'll assume your presentation focuses somewhat on writing (since that is your current work) - I would say that the essentials of teaching writing and reading and the standards by which we judge literacy are much the same as they were before Web 1.0. What has changed are the delivery methods and methods of reporting. A well written blog post is much like a well written essay, and would be read in the same way.
I think that there are some great ideas in the NYT piece, which I read with interest when it came out. However the university system is extremely conservative and difficult to change - precisely because of the problems that the author points out. Tenured faculty have a vested interest in not changing things. Researchers with very narrow interests who have been indoctrinated into the culture where such narrowness is a good thing, not a bad thing. And as pointed out, grad students are the slave labor that fuels a large part of it, and nobody wants to give up such a cheap and willing labor force.
The issues that you raise in your post are also interesting. The nature of what we call "knowledge" is changing quite dramatically - an this change cannot be stopped. It will affect all areas of life, including most areas of commerce. I think the challenge for universities is how to ride the wave instead of be smashed by it.
Yeah, I know, it should all mostly be shut down the way the U of Chicago shut down its education doctorate program—too many high school doctorates out there to make pay grade 11. Many Unies shuttered their philo departments because those grad students had even harder times finding teaching positions in colleges.
The English Ph.D should have a moratorium for twenty years. It would be like getting all the Hummers and SUVs off the roads.
Audio reading is reading in my book which also includes plenty of dream time. Not enough dream time that’s my big complaint. Time to do nothing, to sit and stare out windows. If you are not doing that for at least an hour a day then you are depriving your creative spirit from wandering which is essential for the soul.
I agree that programs should be practical, applicable to real issues, and interdisciplinary. I also wholeheartedly agree with Ken's call for redefining writing, class hours, literacy and publishing, etc. I would say though that many schools are taking this approach, embracing new media, methods, and topology. The boiling frog syndrome comes to mind. Those that don't adjust accordingly will likely fade, or will spastically thrash in sudden semantic, social, web 2.0 efforts at the last minute after it's clear that the rest of the world has moved on.
"Most ... programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market."
This erroneous type of statement always annoys me, particularly when used as the basis for further argument. The underlying assumption is that students are the product of higher education just as cars are the product of GM.
Higher education does not produce students. Higher edcation provides a service that students pay to access -- immersion in a learning environment with experts guiding the acquisition and mastery of content and the development of intellectual skills.
How graduates choose to apply their newly acquired skills is up to them. If they have successfully learned how to learn, they can excel in any area. A degree in a particular field does not have to doom one to a life of unemployment.
I am speaking from experience. My undergraduate degree is not highly related to my professional path, but my ability to learn is critical to my professional survival.
"Learning how to learn" - excellent!
Apprenticeships, practical experience in a real workplace, knowledge acquired through doing, not only book learning/ web-learning/or any other kind of intellectual excercise, self-education...
...These are the things I learned from that were most practical after formal education, giving me tools I never had. Can critical thinking be taught in schools? I don't see a lot of evidence of this now, though I believe it is possible.
Let's get away from the excessively liberal bias in institutions and let our students think for themselves. It's worked for me!
I do like the idea of programs that are planned to be adaptive...the mechanisms for curriculum change at the University (and k-12) levels are a bit cumbersome...and many times optional. How many college/universities have substantial program revision as part of the culture?
I also like the idea of opening up the thesis/dissertation to go beyond a printed product. The issue here is that the standards, expectations, and assessment of printed dissertations are known. We're making up the rules as we go along for other media. Some broad criteria for final graduate works would be useful...a peer review process that considered impact, relevance, peer initiatives (what's this web site/video like and was the impact of that other thing).
I am skeptical of mandatory retirements and abolishing tenure. I think faculty need to be entrepreneurs of big ideas--this can get redirected by bureaucracies. I also don't like equating age with old ideas. I think mandatory retirement is a mistake. I see more evidence against it than for it.
Check out this TED video with Bennington president Liz Coleman. She delivers a call-to-arms for radical reform in higher education. Bucking the trend to push students toward increasingly narrow areas of study, she proposes a truly cross-disciplinary education -- one that dynamically combines all areas of study to address the great problems of our day. (Recorded at TED2009, February 2009, in Long Beach, California. Duration: 18:38)
Let's face it, technology is this generations equivalent of thumbs. It is hard-wired into them, and we really do need to teach to that strength and become equally adept. As higher education goes so goeth the secondary schools. I do take issue with putting the oldsters on the ice flow. We still have some pretty good ideas and want teaching to work in the best interests of us all. It is time for a change. The educational system as a whole is still based on industrialized structure and it is not meeting the needs of our nation.
As a high school teacher, I've been implementing some of these types of changes in instruction of English/ Language Arts. I know that these types of changes are seen as radical and are not understood by everyone. At the same time, I am reminded of the period 20-30 years ago when many educators were rejecting the opening of the canon (of literature worth studying/reading) and of the period 10-15 years ago when technology was the offending idea/trend.
It's hard for people to make such big shifts in thinking -- and to do so as quickly as time requires. Admittedly, by making the changes you suggest, we might lose the richness and wealth that comes from delving deeply into a field of study. But the real question is not what do our students lose but what do they gain.
We need to ask questions -- and to engage in the dialogue that ensues. What will our students need to understand, to know, and to do? How do and must we prepare students for the world they will inherit? We must question relevance.
In today's world, students can access content knowledge via technology. Yes, we need to prepare thinkers -- and these thinkers must be able to think in ways that are suited to the world as it is, not the world as it was.
Graduates of graduate programs in technical communication are very marketable and hired quickly. Even new PhD's are hired quickly, even ABD.
This is an interesting story created by a student from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas that describes how his world crashes with what is expected of him in academia.
We need to make sure our students are ready for the challenges of the world...not hold them back.
Its really a nice article. It works for us as learner. Thanks for posting.
I thought and still think now that I've had time for reflection that that Times op-ed piece was, at best, quite impractical, and, at worst, slightly demented. As a department chair I know that this person's recommendations are simply not practical. Yet cross-disciplinary collaboration etc. is a very good thing and should be encouraged and can be done so with all kinds of incentives. As for abolishing tenure, well, it's the best system we have though it has its drawbacks. But I view tenure as a necessity for the health of a university and more broadly of a democratic and any society. If some from, say, Merck Pharmaceuticals who has gotten wind of some research project at my university, which shows that some billion-dollar drug should for health reasons be taken off the market, and that person can phone my college president to ask him to tell this researcher-professor to stop his project or Merck will stop donating money to my university, what if nothing else will prevent my president from leaning on my fellow professor researcher is TENURE, and nothing else will protect him, in the end.
Now, as to what constitutes literacy, and how can we inculcate the ability to think critically and creatively in our students, I can only say that we need to recognize what that we are doing is merely an artifact of a particular technology, such as the book, or the website, and what transcends one or another modality. The novel as a literary genre may very well not have blossomed without the book, and we need to be open to other genres or forms of expression being made possible by digital technologies. Can the same be said for the essay? Maybe. But for now I think we need to continue to teach the argumentative, expository essay, but to say this is not to say that we should not be teaching students how to make a case or an artwork using multimedia. The two have to be taught in our time.
J. Frank Dobie from Quotes of the Day:
"The average Ph.D. thesis is nothing but a transference of bones from one graveyard to another. "
I still believe there is value in academic departments and being an "expert" in a certain area of study. I admire that focus. However, I agree that some of the graduate and professional writing reaches a small audience due to that same focus.
The literacy demands on teachers and students is indeed increasing, and being able to write well may now mean that you can write in all the arenas you named. Writing a blog post is not the same as an article in a magazine. The magazine has a juried process of selection, unlike a blog post. I wonder if the reader of a magazine actually reads all the articles anyway.
Getting rid of tenure would leave teachers much to vulnerable- to politics, parents, favoritism, conformity. Having a few "senior" teachers is good, period!
Like Ken said, Taylor's suggestions are nothing new. Synthesis is inevitable, but the departments and subject areas are still important--at least for the purposes of advancing research. For the average person, not going into some narrow area of research or specialized work, the integration of knowledge for the advancement of society has been written about since at least John Dewey--see Education and Democracy.
Ken also raises all great points about literacy in the age of the Internet. Only time will tell how all of that plays out. Just as communication changed and evolved with the printing press, the same is true with the Net. Schools have not entirely caught up with the genres of reading/writing evolving out of the Internet.
The bigger questions is why does secondary education continue to follow a university model of education. The English Language Arts on the secondary level need to be completely re-evaluated. Literary canons and literary surveys are only of value to literature majors. I doubt even 4% of high school students will be English majors. So why do we design a program for high school students that has little to do with how people really write and read?
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