Thoughts on educashun and learnin’ stuff.

I read a fascinating article in the New York Times several weeks ago, which I’m eager to write about – and not just to show-off the fact that I read the New York Times.

The op-ed “End of University as We Know It” is written by Mark Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Colombia University (Read it! It’s a fascinating piece). He argues that academia is broken, and has several recommendations for how to fix it. He states that the current arrangement of faculties creates divisions where there should be collaboration. Faculty encourage their graduate students to pursue research within narrow areas of work –subfields within subfields within subfields – ultimately robbing these students of an opportunity for a real stab at a teaching position upon graduation. These students are attempting to enter academia at a point when there is a glut of graduates and a diminishing number of openings, and they are completing doctoral work without a broad understanding of the field they’ve been studying, or the implications of their research beyond their own area of study (Taylor tells of attending 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,” he writes, “this is a significant oversight.” Uh, yeah dude. I’d say so).

Taylor calls for a radical restructuring of academia to bring renewed vitality and relevance to the research and education that take place in institutions of higher learning. A few of them really resonated with me, and touch on the kinds of issues I’ve been thinking about throughout these past two years as a graduate student. Some of the recommendations Taylor makes mirror closely my own experiences at the University of Toronto. For example, he calls for a restructuring of the curriculum, such that the traditional division of departments is replaced with a curriculum structured like a web, which fosters cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural initiatives. Bring together scholars from religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems, rather than analyzing various topics through a single lens.

Moreover, Taylor asserts the need to abolish permanent departments, and create problem-focused programs, which rise and fall with changing societal challenges and developments. Taylor sees these zones of inquiry including topics such as Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life, or Water. This recommendation is particularly salient for me – I just graduated from the Faculty of Informationa school that brings together faculty members with backgrounds in the humanities, computer science, politics and policy, library and information science, cognitive science, philosophy, and probably some others, to study Information in all its manifestations. There are some growing pains pertaining to the faculty’s move from a traditional LIS school to an Information School – Alumni worried about the place of libraries within this new faculty, concern about increased focus on business or commercial interests rather than the values upon which libraries and library schools were built, general discontent among students who feel like cash-cow casualties of these radical changes, etc. But if Taylor’s assertions are correct, it was a wise move that will eventually breakdown the barriers of departments and faculties in the Ivory Towers (and in doing so, hopefully quell the concerns of alumni, students, and faculty).

And in fact, support for this type of faculty was echoed at the 2009 CLA Annual Conference I attended in May. Joseph Janes – keynote presenter at the conference, and faculty member at the University of Washington’s Faculty of Information – asserted that “iSchools” benefit from the rich interactions and cross-disciplinary opportunities not found at a “traditional” LIS school. He said simply (and I paraphrase), “I wouldn’t teach at a school that didn’t have people studying Information beyond the traditionalLIS scope. I want to be with people who study policy, usability and other non-library topics.” So, a guy who studies traditional LIS topics, self-identifies as a librarian, and who wants to be at an Information School. Pretty sound endorsement.

But back to Mark Taylor: He identifies the need among graduate school educators to expand the range of professional options for graduate students; they need to be prepared to enter jobs in businesses or non-profit organizations, since most will not stay in academia throughout the duration of their career. They need the skills and knowledge to prepare them for the work world and it’s real-life challenges. As a student who lobbied for the last two years to get a co-op at U of T’siSchool, I couldn’t agree more. While I think I received a pretty chilly response from those in the faculty, members of academia need to recognize the rich interactions and partnerships that can occur with highly skilled graduates who appreciate both the theoretical knowledge and practical experiences they got during their education. It’s not selling-out, it’s reality, and students need venues in which to exercise the valuable lessons from classroom.

So – some thoughts on the academy. Issues I’m sure I’ll continue to ponder in my role as an academic librarian.

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4 responses to “Thoughts on educashun and learnin’ stuff.

  1. Have you read this Meg? . It’s gotten a lot of press (a LOT) and is really interesting. Of course, my approach to the question is purely theoretical – no application to my own life/ situation/identity crisis at all – none. Anyways, I’ll be interested to hear what you think. and if you want to keep looking smart and all, there was another article in the Times that might turn your crank: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/magazine/24labor-t.html.

    • Hi Bronwen,
      Thanks for the other NYT article… I’ll check it out! Where abouts have you seen coverage of the “End of University…” article? I’d be interested in reading some responses to the piece.

  2. One of the academic blogs I read pointed serious administrative problems and costs to following these suggestions (http://suburbdad.blogspot.com/2009/04/project-based-education-response-to.html).

    I would certainly agree that encouraging graduates to look at a variety of sectors is a great idea. Presuming that “tenured professor” is the only socially valuable to contribute to society after doing graduate work is no good. I also wonder if it is wise to expand graduate level enrollment figures across the board given empoyment opportunities. I’ve met quite a few people who completed humanities PhDs only to essentially abandon it and then skill up for an entirely different career.

    I’m less clear about the merits of abholishing departments. Obviously this is something of a liberal arts dream. Engineers, lawyers, physicians and other professionals need to have a defined body to knowledge to work (and, often, to pass mandatory exams to work in their field). There’s also a collective action problem in launching a reform like this. Let’s say a student graduates from a new institution (call it Project University) and has no “major”; how does he explain that to others? How would transfers (between Project U and Traditional U) work?

    The greatest potential gain for this work might be at the first year of undergraduate study.

    • Hi Bruce,

      Thanks for the comment! Indeed, the employment of graduates is something universities should take a good, hard look at.

      As for the article you linked to:

      I agree with some of the points Suburb Dad makes… Though I can’t help that think that his encouragement to consider all the administrative/bureaucratic implications of Taylor’s proposal seem like a bit of a cop-out. University administrations are gigantic and complex to be sure, but there have been pedagogical/scholarly revolutions in the past, so what’s stopping them now?
      Indeed, Taylor failed to consider some very important questions in his article regarding the employability of students with doctoral work in “water”, “networks” etc., or the problem of having ever-dissolving areas of study that require an administrative re-hashing every 7 years.

      However the most thought-proving concept (for me) came from the “Comments” on the article — one reader noted that you simply can’t have “interdisciplinary” without “disciplinary”… and how true it is. Our own faculty is a coming-together of academics from very diverse backgrounds study the social implications of Information. However they all started out in deeply-rooted academic traditions — Political Science, History, Library Science, Philosophy, Computer Science, etc., which is reflected in their work today. Without those established canons, methodologies and frameworks to guide faculty work, its hard to say whether they could perform their research at all.
      Thanks for the posting though; certainly an interesting discussion!