Thursday, May 19, 2016

The University

Almost ten years ago, I found myself proposing that we stop complaining about the demand to "publish or perish". Instead, I suggested a "more constructive" approach: we could accept that our administrators have time to take only a superficial interest in our work; then we could set ourselves to the task of addressing our readers. This morning I took the radical further step of proposing we do away with academic publishing. This raises the question of how academics should be evaluated for purposes of hiring and promotion. The role of publishing in these decisions, after all, is the main source of its power.

The system I propose is one in which candidates for positions and tenure submit hypertext CVs that link to work they have published on a personal website as well as work that cites them (published on other, also personal, websites). The CV would, ideally, have a "narrative" form, in which the candidate summarizes "the story so far", noting the engagements during which they made their most impressive contributions, acknowledged by the most prominent members of their field. This process would in fact begin with the PhD defense, which could take as its point of departure a "dissertation", also published online as a hypertext. Since post-graduate degrees, as well as academic hiring and promotion, is all done by committee anyway, all of this writing, along with the candidate's online demeanor and rhetorical posture, would be "peer-reviewed" in a highly transparent manner. I do not think any information that is relevant to finding and rewarding competent academics would be lost by removing the evidence of having survived the torture of the increasingly arbitrary process of soi-disant "peer-review" that does the gatekeeping in our for-profit journal literature at present.

"If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery," said John Henry Newman in 1852, "I do not see why a University should have students." A century and a half later, I found myself making the same point when the marketing director of a global consultancy helpfully suggested that academics need to have a "product launch". We already have one, I said: it is called "commencement". Universities do not, at least not primarily, "produce knowledge" in the form of novel ideas that can transform reality, or radical theories to guide new practices. Rather, universities produce knowledge-able students, people who are able to to know things. The graduates of the variously famous, variously "elite", schools are well-known for their relative competence in this regard, though I'm sure employers are looking at our universities with increasing concern.

We might say that "academic knowledge" is precisely the sort of thing that can be imparted to young people between the ages of, say, 17 and 25 during four more or less consecutive years of full-time study. After such a program a certain degree of ignorance (on particular subjects) should rightly be an embarrassment for the individual and a scandal for the institution that conferred a certificate of academic achievement (i.e., a university degree). The primary duty of university administrators is to arrange those four years of study in the most effective way possible.

This requires bringing the right sorts of students together with the right sorts of teachers. A university, let's say, exists at the intersection of a set admissions requirements and a set of hiring practices. This intersection is then governed by what is called "the curriculum". It is essential that the student's mind is prepared to receive the curriculum, but it is also essential that the teacher's mind is qualified to present it. We look to university administrators to make sure that the right students arrive in the right classrooms to sit before the right teachers. Though I won't belabor the point here, I am increasingly worried that administrators today see their mission more as micromanaging what happens in the classroom on the (increasingly accurate) presumption that a good many of the students and teachers don't really belong there.

Universities should be places where intelligent people satisfy their curiosity. The degree of intelligence and the intensity of curiosity simply indicate the quality of the university. The reason that university teachers should also be researchers (scholars, scientists) is that the students should be guided in the satisfaction of their curiosity by people who have made a habit of satisfying their own. They should not be guided by people who have made a habit merely of "writing for publication". Like I say, it is not difficult to imagine a system of hiring and promotion that would put the right sorts of mind in front of students. Sadly, it is also not difficult to see that we are a far cry from it.


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