Higher Education

universities as "mobilizing networks"?

Cathy Davidson and others at HASTAC are working collaboratively (as the C in HASTAC suggests) on an article over at the Future of the Book webiste. There they refer to the university as a "mobilizing network"

as a way to rethink the limits of what an institution is or potentially

could be. We want to ask whether and to what extent using digital
capacities to transcend the walls (literally and figuratively) of
institutions will enable us to transform institutions of learning that,
at present, pose obstacles to the free flow of thinking and
collaborative knowledge-formation almost as formidable as the obstacles
being imposed by corporations and by governments.

Sounds good. Sounds like a project to put some genuine, non-cynical effort into. So here goes.

First thing, I see the gesture of redefinition, the mobilizing network, as an attempt to describe the activity of the institution. I do not believe it is cynical to say that at least one of the explicit categories of activities higher education supports is the prevention of "the free flow of thinking and collaborative knowledge." That is to say that there is a vast array of practices from grading and assignments to curriculum committees and program assessment to tenure review that are specifically designed to curb the flow of thought and collaboration.

However, I’m really trying not to be cynical (I already had to delete two, uber-cynical paragraphs). So I will be generous and point out that there will always be a role for the certification of knowledge and that certification is necessary for the effective flow of information. As such, I might revise "moblizing networks" to describe the academic activities of the university as the production, certification, and dissemination of information/media.  I offer this bifurcation at the end b/c I know that many would balk at my saying simply media, and I don’t want to say just "information" because information can really only be disseminated through media.

The media thing is important for where I’m going b/c the specific media at work has always shaped the general activities of the institution. For example, the university begins in a medieval period when books were scarce. Lecture was the most effective media in many instances. Of course lectures require spatio-temporal coordination (everyone has to be in the same room at the same time). The whole "sequestered semester" experience of college is a product of this necessity, though clearly by this point a plethora of other activities and values have insinuated themselves into this institutional practice.

Add into that the industrial age of print. This brings us the library research paper, the rhythms of scholarly publication, and, of course, the marketplace fictions of authorship. All familiar stuff at this point I would hope.

So let’s begin with just dumping the entire university culture. Click. Drag. OK, done.

Now you’re going to build a new institution. Let’s just say for the moment that we’ll stick with existing disciplinary specializations and the idea of having a major. I’ll just give an example, now.

No courses. But as a professor I am responsible for participating in the production, certification, and dissemination of knowledge within certain disciplinary spaces, as well as for some areas of general education. So I might be responsible, with others, for Composition, and for Professional Writing, though specifically within that for new media and technical writing.

Students develop online portfolios that demonstrate their learning. These portfolios might include exams, compositions, performances, and so on. When students select a program of study, they are required to provide certain types of documentation. So, for example, maybe they need to be able to pass a history exam. To do this, they need to participate in the university community preparing for that exam.

In Professional Writing, we have five or six different faculty participating in a community. There we have several projects going on. Students can enlist in various projects that will result in products that will meet specific requirements in their portfolios. However we also look to have students participate in community discourses. The reputation system that evaluates their participation is an important aspect of how they are ultimately certified. So there is still a temporal element (b/c work gets done over a period of time) but it is not tied to semesters.

Also one could imagine a mechanism by which graduates would come back and participate in the community to keep current and such.

The same model could hypothetically work for faculty research as well on a national level. Faculty working in a particular area could collaborate to identify projects and compile their thoughts, research, and observations. In a sense, this is what academic journals and conferences already do, but in a far more atomized way and largely after the fact of composition. While I think it would be important to retain a fair degree of independence from the tyranny of community consensus, there would be some value to working together. I hope.


One reply on “universities as "mobilizing networks"?”

Alex, while I wholeheartedly endorse your new institutional vision, I really can’t name more than five (of the hundreds of faculty I know and work with) capable of making the mental leap this vision requires.
This includes both senior faculty and the newest PhDs.
Do you have colleagues that can see a different university?
Any impetus for change will have to come from outside academe.
Sort of like the homeschooling network has crept/merged into (sort of) mainstream thought.
Keep up the good work! You always provide lots of things to think about.


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