By J. Jack Halberstam
American universities may well produce “products for which there is no market” but the answer is not to capitulate to market logics, the answer, in part, is to use a refurbished university to re-imagine the relations between markets and ideas, teachers and students, institutions and knowledge, town and gown, community and scholar, smartness and learning. … What if motivated faculty around the country took stock of the state of the various fields to which they are attached and reorganized themselves instead of waiting for half-brained administrators to do it for them?
Mark C. Taylor’s much discussed op ed in the NYT last month, End the University as We Know It, proposed that “most American universities produce a product for which there is no market” and “develop skills for which there is a diminishing demand.” In response to the deepening crisis of the university, he proposes, among other things, that we do away with tenure, get rid of departments and turn to problem solving programs. The op ed prompted outraged responses from some (get rid of departments? But then what and who will we train?), sneering from others (interdisciplinary projects are already so shallow!), and bored indifference from a few (we already ended tenure by hiring huge numbers of adjuncts to replace expensive tenured professors). You would think this was the first time anyone had proposed getting rid of conventional disciplinary knowledge projects and the first time anyone had noticed that tenure may well phase out within a few generations thanks to the masses of underpaid PhD’s teaching adjunct around the country.
The truth is that many people, for many years, myself included have imagined an end to the version of training that passes for education in traditional departments around the country (see my The Death of English). English departments in particular (which I advocated getting rid of years ago…if only people had listened!) have quickly become an albatross to a meaner and leaner vision of the university. English departments tend to be large and unwieldy and they are quickly losing enrollments at present. While people like to say that the fall in the numbers of English majors is temporary, in fact students make clear that, if they are interested in culture, they prefer classes in communications, digital media and film to those in romantic poetry, the 18th Century Novel and Shakespeare. English departments are also increasingly fractious and home to all kinds of dreary Dickensian dramas about tenure, the future of reading and the importance of history. Such debates play out in half empty rooms of full Professors on Prozac and result in terrorized junior faculty who learn to tow the line or pack up their books. And similar scenes of territory defense can be found in other outmoded disciplines like Sociology and Political Science where the real project of the discipline is to reproduce itself.
But is the only option here to choose between either abolishing traditional departments or reinvesting in them? What if motivated faculty around the country took stock of the state of the various fields to which they are attached and reorganized themselves instead of waiting for half-brained administrators to do it for them? Problem solving programs of the kind that Taylor proposes stand to lose all kinds of knowledge projects that are not oriented towards problems and solutions so this may not be the best way to proceed; but certainly some of the “zones of inquiry” that he identifies like “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water” are promising rubrics. Taylor seems to have faith in change coming from above and he likens universities to failing banks: “if American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured.” But the university is not a bank and is not simply a corporate entity or an industry; it does not require more regulation at the top but maybe more power at the bottom. Definitely private schools need more mechanisms of oversight and accountability built into faculty governance but in many universities, change is prevented by regulation rather than authored by it. Faculty need more control and faculty with ideas about how to reorganize themselves should be given autonomy to do so.
Some of the changes so many people desire for the university might well be created by getting rid of tenure and making complacent senior faculty actually think beyond their comfort zones; but perhaps we should be careful not to get rid of tenure at the very moment when people need to take risks to change the state of the university. Tenure was always supposed to protect people making intellectually daring moves, it was about academic freedom not gate keeping and so how do we ensure that job security becomes the foundation of risk taking rather than the opportunity to dig in? Perhaps there should be mechanisms by which junior faculty judge and evaluate senior faculty as well as vice versa – perhaps everyone should COME IN with tenure and offered permanent jobs with the understanding that the job is permanent but that the balance between teaching, research and service may change later on if they do not stay current and active. Certainly one major goal should be to make the university appeal to non-traditional scholars, the non-middle class, non-white thinkers who generally find university bureaucracy off-putting long before they might be admitted to a PhD program and who, if they do make it through graduate school, quickly find themselves on the chopping block at tenure time when their work is not ‘recognizable” to their senior colleagues.
So while we can change the university in part by changing its personnel, we also have to make sure that even a different professoriate is not swallowed whole by the demands of institutional life. Professors need to be trained for sure, but then they need to retrain and as knowledge changes at the speed of light, they need to train again. In the sciences and engineering, people retrain often and need to stay current to get grants. Humanities professors –to the extent that humanities and sciences remain meaningful rubrics and hopefully they too will wither away eventually—should also retrain every 5 years or so. Perhaps, we should get “learning semesters” where we take classes from faculty in other fields or we should have the option to take one class every two years (and teach one class less every two years) in order to keep expanding our own knowledge bases.
Probably many of us can think of ways to re-imagine the university – better relations with communities; free classes for non-degree seeking students; classes in queer theory for doctors; classes in immunology for queer theorists; smaller projects done better; collaborative projects as much as single-authored ideas; experiments in writing and teaching and combining the two; more professional mobility for professors; better relations between high schools and universities; more creative rubrics for clustering (“Power, Knowledge, Children”? “Bodies, Space, Transportation”? “Gender, Food, Populations”? “Animation, Innovation, Imagination, Perspiration”? “Revolution, Disorder, Dynamite”? “Professors, Prozac, Pretension”?); training and retraining; learning and relearning; new modes of evaluating faculty; peer evaluation and abolition of junior-senior distinctions. And while we are at it, we need to seriously rethink what is meant by teaching, how we circulate (write and present) our work and how to become central to public discourse. We should invent alternative evaluation modes for faculty and rethink the classroom and the student-teacher relation.
The main thing is to make change now, make it locally and quickly; we need to think about transformation long before a Dean, who has not made a meaningful contribution to any field in 20 years, appoints his cronies to downsize your department. American universities may well produce “products for which there is no market” but the answer is not to capitulate to market logics, the answer, in part, is to use a refurbished university to re-imagine the relations between markets and ideas, teachers and students, institutions and knowledge, town and gown, community and scholar, smartness and learning. The new university is not off in the far distant future, it is just around the corner, it is outside your office, it is in the imagination of your graduate students, it is your next book if you dare to write it.