All entries for June 2009
June 14, 2009
It’s a commonplace to describe the functions of the modern university as the integration of teaching and research. The original idea was for this integration to take place in each professional academic, whose duty to push back the frontiers of knowledge was matched by an equal obligation to make that knowledge available to the widest audience possible. In The Sociology of Intellectual Life, I discuss these two phases as constituting the creative destruction of social capital. Here’s what I mean.
Research involves the accumulation of social capital, as academics, investors and clients create the networks needed to produce and maintain new knowledge. Most, if not all, of these people are motivated by the desire for competitive advantage in the economy, the intellectual field or society more generally. However, the Enlightenment norms of the university prescribe that this knowledge not be limited simply to those able to pay for it; hence, the pedagogical imperative. For its part, teaching requires the translation of knowledge claims into a language comprehensible by those who were not directly involved in its production or, for that matter, are likely to extend it in the directions intended by those so involved. In other words, teaching aims to destroy whatever initial competitive advantage the researchers had. This in turn triggers a new cycle of knowledge-based social capital creation, which will be itself overturned over time, etc. The overall result is a constant stream of innovation that ensures the dynamism of the social order.
Or, so that’s the theory….
The problem with this picture – which I believe is highly desirable – is that it’s becoming harder to integrate teaching and research. The contrasting demand structures and performance standards required of teaching and research pull academics in opposing directions that most universities end up resolving by segmenting the academic labour force into those who are primarily ‘teachers’ and those who are ‘researchers’. The teachers are driven to sustain courses that maximize student demand, which tends to be increasingly vocational, while researchers follow funding priorities and specialist fashions. So then where, if anywhere, can the fabled ‘integration’ of teaching and research occur?
The answer is supposed to lie in that elusive beast known as the curriculum committee, where academics bid to turn aspects of their research into course offerings. What should non-specialists know about specialist topics? Asked at the broadest level – as has been the case in many American universities – we come upon the idea of General Education, which many would consider the soul of the university. In its grandest conception, in early 19th century Germany, it was imagined that the student would be locus of integration as they selected from a variety of courses to complete their development as fully autonomous human beings.
I want to explore the idea of General Education in a subsequent blog – and what it might mean now, especially given the forces that go against integration in today’s university. How would such a curriculum be organized?
June 10, 2009
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.