Redefining Universities and How We Teach and Learn

A colleague sent me a link to an op-ed from the New York Times  titled "End the University As We Know It" which calls for a major overhaul of the traditional university. It is by Mark Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia University. He thinks it is time to scrap the the mass-production university model that separates disciplines, actually encourages academics to work on irrelevant topics, and produces too many graduate students.

"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)."

Does Taylor have any solutions? Yes, he has six suggestions, and believes we should begin with graduate programs and then the undergrad programs.

1. Getting rid of academic departments and making academic work all interdisciplinary

2. Developing interdisciplinary programs that focus on 'real' problems

3. Increasing collaboration among institutions using the Net, so that schools don't create redundant strengths

4. Moving away from traditional, citation-packed dissertations in favor of research presented in more contemporary digital formats

5. Helping grad students plan for a life beyond scholarship

6. Imposing mandatory retirement and abolishing tenure so that faculty are responsive and productive.

Though all of these have been suggested over the years, they sound pretty radical packaged this way. I think these times of a bankrupt General Motors, failing newspapers and old media like broadcast television, film and music that haven't caught up are especially ripe times for these ideas. Colleges can be seen as similar institutions that have not responded to changing technologies and economic shifts.

I would add to his list my own list of terms that we deal with in our classrooms that are being redefined - whether we agree with these new definitions or we resist changes to the definitions.

1. WRITING - What is formal writing? What is informal writing? I think we all agree that a research paper fits the former, and that student lecture notes is the latter. What about discussion board postings, blog posts, collaborative documents...?

2. READING - If a student listen to an audiobook, is that reading? Can watching a video presentation take the place of a "reading" for a class?

3. LITERACY - Digital literacy? Media literacy? Web literacy? What does it mean to be literate if reading and writing are changed?  (see "Literacy? Which One?" and "NCTE's New Literacies")

4. PUBLISHING - see #1  If I publish a blog post that is hit (read) by 50,000 people, how different is that from publishing that same text in a magazine that has 50,000 subscribers (readers)?

5. OWNERSHIP/INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY/COPYRIGHT - a huge topic. Who owns a collaborative web page? Who wrote a wiki article? How is the open everything movement changing these areas? What is copyleft? Does a Creative Commons license actually protect a work? We say we want students to collaborate (and the "real world" of employment tells us it is an essential skill), but do we encourage it, or do we fear it as a kind of cheating and plagiarism?

6. RESEARCH - Not only the way we do it, but the way we publish it and use it. If I set up RSS feeds to pull content into my reader, am I doing research? Is an RSS feed a research assistant?

7. PRIVACY, especially online, has a new meaning. How much of you is online? How much have you deliberately shared and how much is just there? How private is your classroom, your content, your students' work?

8. CLASS HOURS - The meaning of "work hours" expanded starting with the telephone and in an age of the Blackberry, virtual workspaces and more. It has also happened to "class hours."  A decade ago, the only teachers really using course management systems were those teaching at a distance to "online students." Now, every student is an online student and many teachers are using a CMS, blogs, social networks, wikis and other tools to continue the classroom discussion and activities beyond the 3 credit hours listed in the catalog.

I will be presenting in a workshop next week that is part of Seton Hall University's Teaching, Learning & Technology Summer Series and I am curious to hear how the faculty answers my questions about whether or not these things need to be redefined, or do we need to maintain traditional definitions in academia.



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