Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Crtiquing the Critiques of "End the University as We Know It" (Or: First, Kill All the Artists...)

In a controversial Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, Mark C. Taylor, a Professor of Religion at Columbia University has declared that the "University as we know it" should be "ended". Making an explicit critique of the model of U.S. educational institutions by comparing them to the failed American Auto industry, Taylor writes,

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans)... Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.

Like Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church, Professor Taylor offers a provocative six point plan to address what he sees as the endemic failures of the U.S university:

1) Restructure the curriculum.

2) Abolish permanent departments.

3) Increase collaboration among institutions.

4) Transform the traditional dissertation.

5) Expand the range of professional options for graduate students.

6) Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure.

... Whoo boy.

He argues that "the University" is based on models which are out of step with contemporary society, emerging educational technologies and a job market that is irrevocably changed from the one he entered as a young professor. To respond to the changing needs of students Taylor favors cross-disciplinary collaboration as an educational model: He proposes a shift away from traditional disciplinary categories toward a model of "constantly evolving... problem-based" programs that turn around the pressing problems of the new century. In order to accommodate such a sweeping reformation Taylor proposes a division of labor between institutions so departments across disciplines might co-teach classes via teleconference, an approach that would allow "strong" departments in various Universities to emerge and work across institutional boundaries while minimizing staff needs through technology. He extends this idea to the dissertation process, suggesting an evolution from its "medieval" text-based format to a new analytic model comprised of hyperlinks that takes advantages of the possibilities presented by new media.

The plight of overworked and under-prepared for the job market graduate students looms large for Taylor who writes, "Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained." And so he proposes instead to prepare grad students for opportunities outside of education, in the business and nonprofit worlds. Such a shift would effectively abolish what Taylor sees as the "cloning" of students in the images of their professors by sending them out into fields unrelated to those in which their professors "live" professionally. (And also effectively cut graduate students out of their professors extensive professional networks, a consequence he does not explore). But, in many ways the most provocative argument he makes involves ending the system of tenure, which ensures a lifetime of job security for professors who achieve it. Taylor reiterates the typical objection to the tenure system, i.e. it creates an entrenched culture where change is impossible because faculty have little impetus to develop professionally once their positions are secure.
As you can imagine the suggestion of such sweeping changes, prompted by pointed institutional critique has not been warmly met. I have my own issues with Taylor's editorial, which I'll state to get them out of the way so I can make my larger point: As in the ongoing debates against other forms of institutionalized protections from affirmative action to welfare to rent control, those who exploit the system are easy to spot and rail against but ultimately the dissolution of a system like tenure would create more problems than it solves. While impossible-to-fire tenured Professors are easy targets, the cost to students incurred by forcing their most experienced professors into retirement would be incalculable. Perhaps my judgment is colored by my arguably atypical experience, but rather than withdrawing into their academic dotage the tenured professors I studied with were dynamically involved with their students and passionate about teaching. Further, I learned a great deal from my time as a graduate assistant, running and fetching for tenured professors and I draw on that experience constantly as I teach my own classes. Taylor makes a compelling argument against the "medieval" dissertation model, however in my experience it had benefits that are not easily quantified. For me, writing a dissertation was as much about training my mind to construct academic arguments as it was a writing exercise. Despite these objections (and others, which are beyond my scope here), I think Professor Taylor's editorial, which can be accessed here in its entirety, should be considered a catalyst for further discussion rather than a point-by-point plan for educational reform.

While some of the criticisms Taylor's editorial has provoked have been thoughtful, others have contained political dog-whistles that concern me deeply. For example, it has been rightly pointed out that the problems Taylor sees as pervasive are more typical of arts and humanities study. Several professors of hard sciences countered that their graduate students have had no problems finding employment and are, in any event, already focused on the private sector. While this is an insightful argument, one which (ironically) highlights an obvious disciplinary bias on Taylor's part, it has tended to bleed into a general critique of arts and humanities disciplines as the province of a privileged class who demand time, space and money to "count angels dancing on the heads of pins." This argument, which also haunts contemporary art practice, proceeds from the assumption that the humanities have no discernible value and are therefore frivolous "extras"-- not necessary cultural functions. This point of view was deployed in the last quarter of the 20th Century with chilling effectiveness to generally devalue art that challenges dominant value systems by de-funding it, hobbling artists who'd depended on grants to live while they worked outside the mainstream. So while I can understand the objections Taylor's critique has generated, the presence of this anti-art and humanities meme in some of the arguments is troubling. Such objections, which have also been employed to justify cutting arts programs from public schools, thereby making the development of succeeding generations of artists infinitely more difficult, create a self-fulfilling prophecy as only artists from the privileged class have access to art and the wherewithal to pursue it as a career path. Significantly, academia is a safe-haven for artists in all disciplines to explore their work while maintaining such otherwise out-of-reach luxuries as health insurance. So a class-based prejudice against the humanities as the purview of cultural elites (a conservative slur regularly aimed at people who both read and vote Democrat) misses the point entirely: the University that Taylor wants to reform and his critics want to maintain, but at the expense of the humanities, is the last American refuge for culture-workers who don't have trust-funds.

But frankly, such judgments would not be possible without the underlying assumption that arts and humanities study was a pointless endeavor, no matter who was doing it.... And I can't agree with that. There are certainly humorous examples of esoteric dissertation topics, incredibly finite disciplinary focii and fundamentally exclusionary language... but so what? As a culture do we assume an insult is intended by the specialization of medical doctors or lawyers and the obscure language that accompanies these disciplines? No. And like these disciplines, arts and humanities study requires a space where even its most minute expressions can flourish for the good of the larger culture they serve. So I think focusing on easy-to-misunderstand examples obscures the anti-intellectual prejudice at the core of the objections to humanities study at the University level. The real issue is a fundamental disagreement about the value inherent in these fields of study. I agree with Taylor that the impending economic meltdown will impact the arts and humanities disproportionately-- but not necessarily, as he believes, because of institutional defects (or at least, not exclusively) but rather because we--the "we" of Taylor's title whom he calls upon to "end" the University--that is, Americans, do not value arts and humanities for their own sake. And that scares me way more than not being able to find a job.

The ever-astute Atlasien, of the excellent trans-racial adoption blog Upside Down Adoption (and regular commenter on race and related issues at Racialicious and elsewhere throughout the blogosphere) referred me to another critique of Taylor's Op-Ed that I thought should be referenced here. Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of Cultural Studies and Writing with New Media at Santa Clara University, in his Brainstorm column at the Chronicle of Higher Education writes,

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.

Bousquet's point here is that universities have essentially replaced tenured jobs with clusters of adjuncts, many of whom are not PhD.'s, let alone on the tenure-track. He writes,

As anyone actually paying attention has observed, we’ve ALREADY ended tenure. With the overwhelming majority of faculty off the tenure track, and most of teaching work being done by them, by students, and professional staff, tenured appointments are basically the privilege of a) a retiring generation b) grant-getters and c) the candidate pool for administration.

This argument refocuses the critique away from the Professoriate and on to University administration, who are responsible for this restructuring. It is also worth mentioning--although Bousquet does not go into this--that while universities are using adjuncts and graduate assistants to teach instead of creating more tenure track positions they are also simultaneously blocking efforts to unionize this cheap labor. As Atlasien points out in her comment, by "centering labor issues" we can critique Taylor's proposal in a way that does not lead to anti-intellectualism. Although I don't think that undoes my earlier point, I thought it was a significant enough contribution to the conversation to be included in the main body of the post. Thanks Atlasien.


  1. I'm a failed humanities PhD (dropped out at the ABD stage) so I have a lot of opinions on this subject! I agree with some points of the Taylor article but think he's way off base on others.

    For example, I ran across this critique of Taylor's article which really struck a chord with me.

    I don't have a problem with tenure. I have a problem with the fact that so few teachers can even dream of getting it, and that getting tenure has less to do with good teaching than with networking skills.

    So let's pretend academia really is an auto factory. But the only people allowed to join a union are the supervisors! Everyone else working the line is a temp, with no benefits, and expected to sometimes work for free out of love of the job. The system is incredibly unjust. It's not like an auto factory at all, it's more like professional football, or drug dealing... a few stars claw their way to the top while the rest live on a pathetic subsistence and burn out quickly. There's almost no space for someone in the middle... someone who just wants to learn how to be a really good teacher, and learn from and contribute to original research every now and then.

    Also, the creepiest part of academia in the humanities (and I believe this is also a problem in the sciences) is the overreliance on mentors/advisors. Underneath an egalitarian facade, things are really medieval. Your advisor can make or break you without even trying. I didn't so much have problems in this area myself, I just noticed all the unhealthy dynamics that went on, including a good friend of mine going into a state of psychotic depression because his advisor was considering dropping him as a disciple, and another friend who regularly cleaned house and did laundry for the advisor. I actually find power relationships in the corporate world healthier than in academia, because there's no pretense of equality. It's less hypocritical.

    These kind of relationships foster conformity accompanied with overspecialization. Graduate students are afraid of disagreeing too much with their mentors, so they'll take one piece of the mentor's specialty and specialize in it some more... I agree with you that specialization in and of itself can actually be good, but only if something new is being explored.

    I believe in the mission of the humanities and the importance of critical thinking skills. But the current system is completely rotten. I think anyone can reach this conclusion, without anti-intellectualism, if they're centering labor issues... that is, the value of intellectual labor.

  2. You make a really good point about looking at this through a labor issues lens--I am going to amend my post to include this point. Of course I have also heard horror stories about professors abusing their power, but I haven't ever seen this dynamic up close. So stories like these have a kind of urban legend quality for me... they are always about someone's friend. I am not doubting you at all, this just doesn't reflect my experience. Thankfully.