more youniversity

A couple weeks ago I wrote about Henry Jenkins’ "youniversity" talk. As you may have seen, he has an article in Chronicle by the same name, which also appears on his blog. The article goes in a slightly different direction and offers more insight into what a youniversity might look like, drawing some on Jenkins’ work at MIT. In a nutshell, Jenkins is asking what would happen if the "bottom-up," wisdom of the crowds, folksonomic qualities of networked media (or Web 2.0 or smart mobs or whatever you want to call it) informed the university. Jenkins employs Cory Doctorow’s term "adhocracies" and writes:

An adhocracy is a form of social and political organization with few
fixed structures or established relationships between players and with
minimum hierarchy and maximum diversity. In other words, an adhocracy
is more or less the polar opposite of the contemporary university
(which preserves often rigid borders between disciplines and
departments and even constructs a series of legal obstacles that make
it difficult to collaborate even within the same organization). Now try
to imagine what would happen if academic departments operated more like
YouTube or Wikipedia, allowing for the rapid deployment of scattered
expertise and the dynamic reconfiguration of fields. Let’s call this
new form of academic unit a "YouNiversity."

As a commenter on Jenkins’ blog laments "I’d say that what you have described is the future irrelevance of most
higher education – it’s hard to imagine the change you describe
surviving the institutional antibodies of the modern university. Of course the institution will survive for a long time, but it may face
the prospect of becoming a vestigial appendage." I agree, in that I imagine that what would happen is that many departments couldn’t function this way, that they will choose to go down with the ship (In English, I think it’s the author-ship, sorry couldn’t resist).

However, I’m honestly not too worried about the parts of higher education that will sink. The history of the university indicates that academic practices, fields, disciplines, and so on rise and fall (all you natural philosophy majors out there raise your hands). Like everything else, changes that in the past happened over centuries or decades now take place in years or months. Just like it used to be that your life would be much like your parents’ life, it used to be that the academic department & college you retired from would look much like the one you graduated from.

Not so much anymore.

I would be more concerned that other institutional structures will not be able to adapt to our more fluid context. Can the university really manage to give up its self-delusion of control? Hierarchy has never really been about control, even "quality control." You can get these things now in a more dynamic and participatory way through adhocracies. Instead, it’s always been about slowing the rate of change.

What happens if you allow a dozen or so faculty to form an adhocracy across disciplines and build an educational program without filling out a hundred forms, getting approval from half a dozen faculty committees, and getting signatures from every administrator from chair to provost? Well, for one thing, change would happen probably five times faster. That is, you could accomplish in two years what now takes a decade. More importantly you could accomplish in less than a semester, what now takes two years to make happen. For example, let’s say right now I realized that we needed to add a new course to our curriculum. I could put it together and offer it next semester. As it is structured now, that would take years.

Now someone might complain that the result would be chaos, a total lack of coordination. However that person would probably also be under the mistaken apprehension that there’s any coordination going on right now. Such a person would also likely believe that order was a top-down phenomenon rather than an emergent one. Clearly, moving to a "youniversity" model would require changes in administrative procedures and oversight; it would require some top-down functionality. But it would hardly be chaotic.

Remember we’re talking about academics here. Despite claims about our politics, intellectual conservatism is deeply ingrained in most faculty. They’re plodders. It’s what makes them good at undertaking the close study of their disciplinary object. The faculty are the control rods in the intellectual reactions of the university. You don’t need anything else.

2 thoughts on “more youniversity

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  1. Excellent post. Though, I would question one statement: “Can the university really manage to give up its self-delusion of control? Hierarchy has never really been about control, even ‘quality control.'” Conservatism and control would seem to go hand-in-hand, wouldn’t they? Born of the same impulse to micro-manage the educational process, no?
    “Clearly, moving to a ‘youniversity’ model would require changes in administrative procedures and oversight; it would require some top-down functionality. But it would hardly be chaotic.”
    Assuming that administrators would be willing to relinquish control and power … since, as you go on to say, conservatism is ingrained in the academic psyche, and how can such changes come about without disrupting that universal psyche — let alone at least a few pocketbooks? It seems to me that phenonomens such as wikipedia and youtube work from the outside inwards because their appeal begins at the base root of desire/hunger for learning, education and entertainment — the base, populist root of what innately appeals to both the intellect and the senses outside of systemized, over-disciplined, over-administered education. Referencing the unconscious, one might even say such virtual phenomenons as represented by wikipedia and youtube stand for nearly everything that the control impulse that underwrites the managed university seeks to repress. Dueling, polar-opposite impulses and a deeply-ingrained conflict between desire/compulsion and discipline/control that underwrite the educational process … only now, technology is lending an upper-hand to the former, even as the degree-granting, corporate-acculturating function of universities continues to lend an upper-hand to the latter insofar as universities provide valuable cultural capital in the form of degrees.
    Anyway, your entire post reminded me of this visionary passage from a certain chapter called, “The Way in Is The Way Out,” circa 1994 [13 years now!], from a book that I have cited way too many times:
    “Remodeling the institution of criticism is common; rebuilding it is rare. But rebuilding, or, more accurately, rewriting, the institution is possible. University structures over the years have been entirely revamped, though in almost imperceptible accessions. Within the next decade or two, the university as we now know it will likely disappear. It probably will be replaced by an ‘electronic educational environment.’ This change will take place, as did the changes that brought about the preprofessional university into the age of disciplinarity, in small increments in ad hoc and uneven ways over a period of years as the result of socioeconomic pressures. The pattern is ‘evolutionary’ not ‘revolutionary.’ Even though some changes may be best described as ‘catastrophes,’ or ‘disruptions,’ their ad hoc incremental chatarcter persists because the changes are not planned (Woodstock). … [p] At the same time, as we learn from chaos theory, small changes have ripple effects which during a long period of time can spread over astonishingly broad areas (Gleick) …” (Token Professionals 212-213).
    “Within the next decade or two” … well, the clock is certainly ticking on Sosnoski’s vision, suggesting that conservatism runs deep into the academic psyche even as the technological tools for reform are at hand.
    Again, excellent post.

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  2. Ironically — and to briefly add here — this relevant Times article on wikipedia just crossed my radar this afternoon:

    “Jason Mittell, an assistant professor of American studies and film and media culture at Middlebury, said he planned to take the pro-Wikipedia side in the campus debate. ‘The message that is being sent is that ultimately they see it as a threat to traditional knowledge,’ he said. ‘I see it as an opportunity. What does that mean for traditional scholarship? Does traditional scholarship lose value?’
    “For his course ‘Media Technology and Cultural Change,’ which began this month, Professor Mittell said he would require his students to create a Wikipedia entry as well as post a video on YouTube, create a podcast and produce a blog for the course.”

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