All entries for Wednesday 10 June 2009

June 10, 2009

Two New 'Two Cultures' in the Academy

Faced with the complexities of academic life today, it is easy to look back at C.P. Snow’s fifty-year-old ‘two cultures’ distinction between the arts and the sciences with a certain nostalgia. Back in Snow’s day, the difference was simply a matter of intellectual orientation that was readily traceable to the rise of specialist training on both sides of the divide. In contrast, nowadays academia is divided in ways that do not so neatly cut across disciplinary boundaries. Put bluntly, people are motivated quite differently to move in and around the precincts of higher education. And often these motives work at cross-purposes, resulting in a crisis of identity for the university.

I want to highlight two current ‘two culture’ divides that are easily spotted in and around the university.

In the University: Teachers vs. Researchers. This is a divide between types of career academics. Teachers tend to be very concerned about the welfare of students and strongly identify with their disciplines, though they also tend to take a broad view of the discipline that may verge on a world-view. The teacher imparts the discipline to the student almost in the spirit of moral instruction. In contrast, researchers tend to be quite protective of their field of research but the exact nature of that field may cross or blur disciplinary boundaries. Their interest in students mainly relates to the prospect of reproducing themselves in some hospitable environment, either in or out of the academy.

Around the University: Tenured vs. Fixed-Term Academics. This is a divide between those who are committed and not committed to a particular academic institution, or perhaps even academic institutions as such. Tenured academics describe their careers as developing lines of inquiry over many years that are related to lines of inquiry pursued by others with whom they may have had minimal personal contact (often because they are dead). Indeed, the exact audience for such inquiries are typically far from clear. In contrast, fixed-term academics present their careers as a series of posts and locations, each symbolising a node in a live network through the interaction of which they have managed to do work for a clear client base, if no one else. Whereas the tenured academic sees the university as her unique home, the fixed-term academic is open to working in a variety of organizational settings.

These two divides effectively operate as fault lines that make university increasingly difficult to manage and direct. This and other topics will figure on this blog in the coming days, in connection with Warwick’s Festival of Social Science and my new book, The Sociology of Intellectual Life: The Career of the Mind In and Around the Academy, due out with Sage in August. At the same time of the hardback, Sage will be publishing an e-book version. There has been already some discussion of the book in the Times Higher Education and Tom Abbott's blog, in connection with a podcast I did on the topic. You can also access the interview by i-TunesU.

                                                                                                                          Steve Fuller

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