Tuesday, December 22, 2009

University in Ruins?

Over the summer, one of the books I read but hadn't been able to blog about yet was Bill Readings University in Ruins, a book often recommended by Eileen Joy--which is why I picked it up and gave it a read.

Readings, writing c. 1995 to have the book published after his untimely death in 1996, offers a critique of the modern American university. By American I mean specifically AMERICAN rather than US, since Readings was a Canadian. The central focus of the book argues that the modern university is no longer a conduit of culture, making new and good citizens for the nation-state, or inculcating a knowledge of a particular culture. Rather the university has become a multinational corporation. It is dominated by the "consumerist ideology"--the students as consumer, education as product, the professorate as profession measurable in student reviews or number of grants or some other measure completely divorced from the traditional reasons that the university existed. At the time the book was written the buzz word was an empty and meaningless "Excellence". I remember that well: everywhere and every place was talking about excellence but never defining just what excellence in education meant. Is an excellent educator on the university level a popular one? One who brings in grants and money to the institution? How does one measure effectiveness? Number of graduate students?

The first nine chapters of the book detail the rise of the corporate university, a process that has gained significant ground in the years since Readings' book was published. He also devotes a very informative and important chapter on the development of Cultural Studies, and how "Cultural Studies" have essentially taken over much of the Humanities. He indicts Cultural Studies as being at odds with the very things that many Cultural Studies scholars claim and works against the ideals of those who do Cultural Studies.

Readings suggests a "pragmatic" approach, one that eschews disciplinary walls, where the university does not depend on a "mission" or centralized purpose. He uses Cultural Studies as a model, in spite of his criticisms of it, to suggest a "Humanities" department that is interdisciplinary and porous. He also takes Gerald Graff's argument to teach the conflicts, to teach dissensus, as a grounding for this new approach.

There is some things to criticize here. There are multiple models of the modern university, even multiple "corporate" models, each different model invoked according to the immediate need of the administration. Sometimes administrators even eschew the corporate models altogether and talk in terms of collegiality, family, and other models. So Readings in some ways does not go far enough down this road in discussing the corporatization. And even in that corporatizing he doesn't discuss the notion of education as commodity, of student as both consumer and object (by which I mean we assembly our students whose heads are stuffed with the product and then usher them out into the lot for sale, measuring their success by test scores etc, outcomes based education). And he does altruistically assume that administrators are somehow going to become convinced of the disciplineless university.

Related to that last statement is a simple fact of human nature: were we successful in convincing administrator's of this model, the unfortunate thing is that within a decade this model and practice would become calcified as well and become a model and practice that would be in need of reformation and addressing. Ok, perhaps I'm cynical in my old age. But my observation is that when any institution, corporate or otherwise, takes a practice or model and puts it into practice, it does so in such a way as to guarantee that in the near future the status quo will be sustained, and the window dressing is all that will have changed.

Don't get me wrong. I rather like Readings idea of a "humanities" dept in which I am not restricted by disciplinary lines from teaching a theme through several centuries and tracing it in literature, history, the arts, philosophy, etc and working with classicists, modernists, etc. It is what I admire about the Babel project, what I admire about the Kalamazoo Congress, what I admire about the blogosphere where I can read and collaborate far outside my training. I just don't see such a model ever succeeding for long and becoming institutionalized on a large scale.

This doesn't mean that I advocate we give up and do nothing. The best to change things is just doing it: that is, those of us lucky enough to be in institutions should just go ahead and do our utmost to think, teach, research, and collaborate interdisciplinarily. And even those of us outside institutions can further that ideal in our own work and collaborations. Eventually, it will be a fait accompli regardless of what the institution says or what pigeon holes the institution must put on its books for the accountants and so on. And so it goes.....but let's face facts: the institution must create compartments to do accounting, and since they often have to report to higher ups, such as the state in the case of a state institution, such walls are always going to exist. I've advocated before about using marketing methods to advertise medieval studies and about working across lines and even interests in order to show the academy that our field matters. I think Readings would agree.

A few quotes I found very interesting:

"Excellence [in discussing the use of the term "excellence" in higher ed's corporate culture of the 90s] draws only one boundary: the boundary that protects the unrestricted power of the bureaucracy. And if a particular department's kind of excellece fails to conform, then that department can be eliminated without apparent risk to the system. This has been, for example, the fate of many classics departments. It is beginning to happen to philosophy....the fact that the study of classics traditionally presupposes a subject of culture: the subject that links the Greeks to nineteenth century Germany, and legitimates the nation state as the modern, rational, reconstruction of the transparent communicational community of the ancient polis." (p. 33)

"The corollary of this is that we must analyze the University as a bureaucratic system rather than as the ideological apparatus that the left has traditionally considered it." (p. 41)

"What I am calling for, then, is not a generalized interdiscinplinary space but a certain rhythm of disciplinary attachment and detachment, which is designed so as not to let the question of disciplinarity disappear, sink into routine. Rather, disciplinary structures would be forced to answer to the name of Thought, to imagine what kinds of thinking they make possible, and what kinds of thinking they exclude." (p. 176)

"Only by being constrained periodically to reinvent themselves can such groupings remain attentive to the terms of their production and reproduction." (p. 178)

Fourteen years later, there is still much to think about in this book. Thanks for the recommendation, Eileen, and I encourage anyone in academia who has not read the book to do so.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I'm back.......Blue Latitudes

Well, the semester is over, I have a few weeks to do other projects, apply for jobs, and consider the future. In the meantime, I thought that it might also be nice to catch up on some of the blogging projects I wanted to share, some extending back several months now. A few I'm not even sure what I was thinking at the time now! So we'll see if those make it into print.

A book I've mentioned here before, or at least alluded to, is a good place to begin. And guess what? It isn't even Medieval related. Now how do you like that? Back a few years ago, my favorite spouse read a book that she just *loved* and kept trying to get me to read in my copious amounts of spare time. It finally became the book to read when all was said and done and everything turned in. And so finally last May
after the diss was turned in, the semester of new preps as an adjunct was done, I finally picked up Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz.

The premise is that Horwitz, then living in Australia, his wife's native land, is interested in Capt. James Cook, European explorer and traveler of the late 18th century. So Horwitz conceives of the idea of following in Cook's footsteps, at least to a limited degree, and he enlists the aid of his friend Roger, a Yorkshire transplant to Australia.

Horwitz weaves biography, travelogue, history, and a bit of anthropology into a narrative that relates his adventures retracing Cook's footsteps. The book bounces back and forth between the past and the present, cites Cook's log books and other primary texts from the voyages, as well as relating his own experiences of meeting and interviewing people (mainly in the Pacific) about their opinions of Cook. Hailed by some as the greatest explorer in history and national hero to reviled as the first conquistador who brought to the Pacific all the ills that continue to plague the indigenous peoples there, the reactions to Cook and his legacy are legion. Some seek to revive his reputation, others would prefer to consign him to the rubbish heap.

A slight medieval connection beyond those already made in previous posts, is the rather fascinating, almost hagiographical zeal, with which Horwitz seeks to find some actual, real, physical connection with the explorer. Yes, a good part of the book is spent seeking real artifacts from the Explorer himself. And shockingly for being so recent, the search is all but vain: his ships are long gone, his homes torn down or destroyed and new buildings established in their stead. Yet, in each locale of focus (Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Alaska, Hawaii, Yorkshire), the search for some connection to the explorer occupies some time and attention. Even an attempt to find Cook's remains, possibly laid to rest among the Hawaiian kings in their pre-Christian site, is attempted though weather and terrain thwart the effort. But this minor part of the book really does resound with me as a kind of search for some connection to the saints: bones, remains, artifacts, to connect to the person and the past.

Horwitz is an entertaining writer and this book is well researched. The book clocks in at 450 pages or so, and only drags in a couple of spots. It is an engaging and interesting narrative and hits on several important issues. Well worth picking up.