Last year, Morten Levin and Davydd Greenwood published a book whose title sufficiently indicates its broad scope and ambition: Creating a New Public University and Reviving Democracy. The subtitle, Action Research in Higher Education, indicates the authors’ preferred method for realizing their goals. The book is written in plain language and speaks at a general level to participants in American and European higher education. Berghahn Books is releasing it in paperback in 2018. It is neither an ethnographic case study, nor a global history, nor an abstract critique of higher education. Rather, it is a manifesto for what public universities might look like if they were thoroughly democratized; it is a practical guide to participatory research as a means of organizational change; and it is a general theory of why participatory democracy is inseparable from any education worth having.
I am writing to bring the work of Daniel Kontowski and his colleagues to your attention. I met Daniel when we participated in Susan Wright’s “Universities in the Knowledge Economy” EU project and I became very interested in his doctoral work at the University of Winchester. He has a diverse set of projects focused on the emergence and evaluation of liberal arts education in Europe. It was, frankly, the first I knew of this movement having arrogantly assumed that the liberal arts college is a US institution.
Susan D. Blum reviews Cathy N. Davidson’s new book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.
Out with the Old! What Students Need Now
Cathy N. Davidson has been writing about her experiments in education for years (for example here and here and here). She brings to her new book deep understanding of the context, history, successes, and shortcomings of the dominant forms of higher education—college—and highlights several dozen approaches that are more successful. These are more appropriate, she argues, than the conventional forms, which have not changed in more than a hundred years, because they respect students’ abilities, teach them to employ the affordances of not only technology but also other people, and anticipate that the content of whatever they do in college will have only limited relevance in the future—so they need to focus on learning to learn. Conventional colleges have outlived their initial purposes, which were to train managers in a newly industrializing and urbanizing society, when books were scarce and simply ingesting information was challenging enough. They selected only top students and churned them through a disciplinary mill, certified by authorities.
That’s not what we need now.
Susan D. Blum has recently published an unusually personal contribution to social research on university culture, in her wide-reaching book I Love Learning, I Hate School: An Anthropology of College (2016). Blum is an anthropology professor at Notre Dame, and the book expresses a desire to make existential sense of her own confusing experience as a college teacher. As such, it struck a particular chord with me as I was trying to make sense of my own students last year at Whittier College, when I was doing my postdoc. Blum’s book speaks mainly to fellow college and university teachers; at one point, Blum addresses her readers as “dear fellow faculty” (20). As a book for teachers by a teacher, it has the counterintuitive mission of getting us to empathize with bad students, and of making sense of bad classroom atmospheres, which it considers inevitable rather than merely unfortunate. In this sense, it is a more critical and expansive alternative to the discourse of “teaching tips” and “rubrics for best practices” that circulate in a mock-cheerful — but always to my ear vaguely threatening and technocratic — fashion in numerous “Centers for Teaching and Learning.”
A few years ago there was a special issue of LATISS about a noteworthy initiative at the University of Illinois, the Ethnography of the University Initiative (EUI), which aims to support courses based on student research about their own university. Its virtue is precisely that it is not a traditional ethnographic research project, but a collective project that supports student ethnographic research. The special issue (from 2013) is a little older than most of what I write about here, but I wanted to post some quick excerpts from the issues, in guise of an introduction to the project, and an appreciation of the admirable reflexive research that it fostered. I might also note here that this project has also yielded an important ethnographic monograph, the late Nancy Abelmann’s The Intimate University: Korean American Students and the Problems of Segregation (which I previously reviewed in LATISS).
In their 2016 “Neoliberalisation and the ‘Death of the Public University,’” Cris Shore and Susan Wright give a handy summary of how one might think about the sometimes overused term “neoliberalism”:
Neoliberalism is a problematic concept. Excessive use of the term as a portmanteau for explaining everything that is wrong with contemporary capitalist societies has rendered it an empty signifier devoid of analytical value. As a noun, it suggests something universal and ascribes uniformity and coherence to an assemblage of processes and practices that are far from uniform, consistent or coherent. Like Peck and Tickell (2002: 463), therefore, we prefer to use the term “neoliberalisation” as it highlights the multi-faceted and continually changing set of process associated with neoliberal reform agendas, which assume different forms in different countries. That said, these reforms usually bear close “family resemblances”, to paraphrase Wittgenstein. These include an emphasis on creating an institutional framework that promotes competition, entrepreneurship, commercialisation, profit making and “private good” research and the prevalence of a metanarrative about the importance of markets for promoting the virtues of freedom, choice and prosperity.
Annie Vinokur is an emerita professor of political economy who recently ran a project, FOREDUC, on “The Future of Education Systems” at the University of Paris-X. I’ve previously reviewed a 2010 journal issue that came out of the FOREDUC project, which was edited by Vinokur and Carole Sigman. I want to write a few words here about a new paper that Vinokur recently published in French, “The quality-based governance of universities,” which is a useful complement to much of the recent Anglophone literature on neoliberal policy in higher education. As a critical political economist, Vinokur’s specialty is thinking about the relationship between flows of capital and social institutions.
A brief commentary on:
“The New Political Economy of Higher Education”, Special Issue of the journal Higher Education, Editors: Johannes Angermuller, Jens Maesse, Tilman Reitz, Tobias Schulze-Cleven, Higher Education, Volume 73, Issue 6, June 2017. https://link.springer.com/journal/10734/73/6/page/1
Eli Thorkelson put me on to this special issue of the journal Higher Education. I confess I had not seen it and that I was pleasantly surprised to see the robust theoretical and empirical work coming from a group of scholars who I was unaware of. Since I read as much as I can on US and European higher education (in English and Spanish), the fact that I was unaware of this network of researchers suggests that others might gain as much as I have from learning about their work.
The geographer Alison Mountz published a remarkable paper last year, “Women on the edge: Workplace stress at universities in North America” in The Canadian Geographer (or on ResearchGate) . Based on 21 interviews and first-hand observations as a career academic, Mountz documents a series of difficult — at times impossible — working conditions and their bad consequences for the women in question. These difficult working conditions included gendered and racialized inequities, such as devalued research topics and disproportionate burdens of emotional labor. They also included more generalized bad consequences of contemporary academic work environments, such as generalized overwork, an “always on” situation exacerbated by technology, and a lack of boundaries between work and home life.
The personal consequences of these work-related stressors are multiple and, taken cumulatively, heartbreaking. They are above all psychological and affective, covering stress, burnout, anxiety, despair, isolation, fear and loss. They also extend into the human body, including weight fluctuations, problems with diet and sleep, and physical or mental illness. Mountz speaks of:
a constant aching and tiredness, coupled with insomnia—waking up alert in the middle of the night or extremely early, unable to sleep again; a yearning for sleep coupled with its elusive nature, a familiar frustration… (p. 213)
Continuing our coverage of research on university staff, the French sociologists Guy Briot and Charles Soulié have recently examined the politics of French university staff in the 1970s, in “Histoire des personnels BIATOSS de l’université de Vincennes : de l’AG permanente au règlement intérieur (1968-1980).” In English, that’s “History of administrative and service workers [personnels BIATOSS] at the University of Vincennes: From direct democracy to internal regulations (1968-1980).” Their paper is a chapter in an edited volume, De l’Université de Paris aux universités d’Île-de-France, which I haven’t read in full, but which documents the postwar expansion of public universities in the Paris region.
Briot and Soulié document an exceptionally militant political culture among the staff of an experimental university, the University of Paris 8—Vincennes-Saint-Denis, founded in 1968 after the massive protest movement of that May-June (see Un mythe à détruire, 2012). The fieldsite is close to my own interests, since my fieldwork on French higher education focused on this same university forty years later, after it had been relocated from its original site at Vincennes to a new campus in Saint-Denis. I note that Soulié has long supported my own ethnographic research on this campus, where he also teaches — the world of critical research on higher education is not so large. Briot for his part was formerly the secretary of the Paris 8 Sociology Department, which places him in the unusual category of administrative staff conducting reflexive research on their own institutions.