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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  1. Alan Rudy

    I look forward to reports on the Festival. After our work on the Berkeley-Novartis agreement, it seems to me that there is another divide crossing the two you’ve, quite nicely, added to Snow’s. At least here in the States, there’s a real tension between those, relatively independent of age, who entered the academy intending to reinforce the public mission of public (and private) universities and colleges and those, equally independent of age, who are relatively unconcerned with the public service/open source/community of scientists realm and more focused on basic science/career success independent of sponsor or exact future control of the intellectual/scientific product.

    11 Jun 2009, 03:00

  2. Chris Land

    And also the divide between students and faculty perhaps?
    If we take a view, such as that promoted by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, that faculty and students are co-workers in the university then the divide between them is surely the most fundamental. In this sense the university is a knowledge factory, pumping out not only research papers and grant applications, but students as qualified, knowledgeable workers. Of course, it is actually the students who do most of the work in this production process, studying, experimenting, preparing papers and presentations and developing their transferable skills. As faculty we act like their managers – giving them work, assessing their performance, hierarchizing and normalizing them – but we are also working with them, alongside them. Questioning this divide seems to me the most fundamental challenge facing the university today.

    11 Jun 2009, 08:51

  3. Davydd Greenwood

    While the differences are real, dichotomies invite homogenization of the two sides. Perhaps viewing the diversity of positions within each of the sides will shed some light and also bring into view those on each side who are able to find a shared stake on changing the conditions.

    On a second matter, I think the organizational models more broadly understood are directly relevant. The aged professional-disciplinary-hierarchical Tayloristic scheme of organization immobilizes efforts at organizational change, reinforced by accreditation and quality control technologies and the very moment that flattened hierarchies, multi-skilled producers of value, and organizational agility are the centerpiece of “real” business organization as opposed to the fantasy models of business used by many academic managers and policymakers. How do these organizational models fit into the other divisions laid out in the opening blog entry?

    11 Jun 2009, 09:19

  4. Alan Rudy

    I don’t think the purpose of the cross-cutting dichotomies is to homogenize their poles – or even to suggest that they cross at some central axis point. My sense of their utility lies in their role as elements in a heuristic that facilitates understanding the overlapping, intertwined and sometimes contradictory characteristics of the many players in the academy.

    The reason we used Boltanski and Thevenot’s work to frame our efforts on Berkeley-Novartis was because their emphasis was on the many overlapping and partially developed kinds of traditions of justification/legitimation that different actors appealed to in our interviews. Ideas like “academic capitalism” or “public science in the private interest” largely failed to capture the kinds of complexity each and every individual – administrators, faculty, students, activists and journalists – introduced.

    I really like Chris’ reminder about students, though my experience as a grad student union organizer, college teacher and university researcher tells me that MA and PhD grad students in different disciplines have very different relationships with their faculty – whether as teachers or as mentors – and their departments and that undergraduate engagements with coursework reflect quite nicely the kinds of dynamics laid out in the various dichotomies listed above.

    The one thing missing from Chris’ point, it seems to me, is that colleges and universities have been legimitated – at least in the past – not only by their production of knowledge and training of workers but also by their generation of informed, educated and engaged citizens. Unlike the elite small college I attended twenty five years ago – and the character of the institution and the tenor of the times both matter a great deal – students and administrators at the Research I and Research II universities where I’ve worked have been FAR more interested in the advancement of technical knowledge and the production of reliable employees than they have been in the generation of critically engaged citizens. This is most obviously seen in the approach to critical thinking where critical is defined in terms of entrepreneurial creativity and the capacity to individually surmount problems rather than in terms of the collective interrogation of the structure of social institutions and hierarchies. In short, I’ve found that there’s a certain parallelism between the vision of the university, its purpose and mission shared by administrators and students but only unevenly reflected within the more differentiated faculty.

    11 Jun 2009, 21:02

  5. sean o nuallain

    There is a particularly egregious attempt to destroy academic tenure in Ireland, with some of the old team from Hull involved

    Check out http://academictenure.blogspot.com/

    Supreme Court case starts 29 June 2009

    12 Jun 2009, 04:21

  6. Hilary Burrage

    This is an area of fascination for me; these tensions are real, but they are also reflections of the complicated society we live in – knowledge and knowing are rarely straight roads, as we all know very well of course.
    Nonetheless, the issues above are very important on both civic and personal levels. Governments and other funders of HE and research want to know what they’re paying for, and individuals want to know what the score is, if they do the work.
    On a personal level, not only has CP Snow kept me thinking for over 40 years (I blogged on him just a few weeks ago), but I have recently started to refer to those, who like me are members of the British Sociological Association (BSA)’s ‘Sociologists Outside Academia’ group (see also my blog), as ‘Jobbing Sociologists’.
    There are indeed a lot of us Jobbing Scholars of one sort or another about – I suspect more women than men, but I’m not sure of the disciplinary breakdown – which I suppose demonstrates that the tensions identified above can be handled, somehow. The question for both institutions and individuals will then be, but is this the best way to handle things? Or is there still a case for praxis and its practitioners within the academy?

    12 Jun 2009, 16:05

  7. Hei-hang Hayes Tang

    Many thanks Professor Fuller! I am looking forward to the book on tensions and divides in the academy amidst ‘academic entrepreneurialism’.

    12 Jun 2009, 19:37


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