Higher Education

Attachments to university life: some institutional thoughts on Latour's AIME

I haven’t posted here recently because I made a bargain with myself that I would finish Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. It was slow-going, but I’ve also been involved in my university’s efforts to reform our 20+ year-old general education program. Those efforts are still ongoing, so I don’t really want to talk about the particulars of that here. However, I do want to think through the end of Latour’s book and the light it sheds on the complexities of connecting disciplinary knowledge to pedagogy and further still to a market conception of the university that attracts and impassions students.

Very briefly, Latour groups most of his “modes” into the following categories:

Modes that precede and create conditions for the production of quasi-subject and quasi objects:

  • REProduction
  • METamorphosis
  • HABit

Those that produce and link together quasi-objects:

  • REFerence
  • TEChnology
  • FICtion

Those that produce and link together quasi-subjects:

  • POLitics
  • RELigion
  • LAW

Those that link quasi-subjects with quasi-objects:

  • ORGanization
  • ATTachment
  • MORality

Those that govern linking:

  • NETwork
  • PREposition
  • Double Click (DC)

I know that doesn’t tell you much, except maybe that this is a complex system of modes. However, what you might glean is that Latour is beginning with abolishing the ontological distinction of Subject and Object, developing a different ontological process, and then investigating how subject-like and object-like things emerge and interconnect.  Thankfully, I’ll just take up a couple of these things here.

Academic disciplines are primarily interested in the mode of Reference, which is the mode that establishes chains that connect what is known with the quasi-objects that are being known. This is familiar Latourian territory I think. It’s the sciences construct knowledge about the natural world. Of course, they also require the modes of technology and fiction; these modes must operate in conjunction with one another. For disciplines that do not study the natural world, the mode of reference does not work so smoothly, and yet I would argue that the Modern world has pushed the humanities and social sciences in this direction.

The university, of course, is an organization, and increasingly we say it must be driven by economic considerations. This is the prevailing complaint from all the “stakeholders.” The politicians talk about the rising cost of education. Students and parents want degrees that lead to jobs. Administrations and boards seek new revenue streams and investments. Professors worry that economic calculations supersede the paradigms of their disciplines. For Latour, the modes of organization, attachment, and morality, which comprise the final section of the book, are an effort to displace the Economy as a kind of “second Nature” established by the Moderns. Briefly, organization refers to the many scripts by which quasi-subjects live their lives. Attachments are the passions that drive those scripts. And morality is the obligation to never be satisfied by the economic calculations we make. Latour is attempting to do away with the pseudo-rationality of economics that tries to operate as those it were a science.

So I want to think through how this all plays out in the movement from discipline/research to pedagogy to brand. The scholar has her methods for establishing chains of reference, her own disciplinary uses of technologies and fictions, organizing scripts, scholarly attachments or passions, and ongoing moral questions about the calculations she makes. But how do these translate to pedagogy? The old (but still active) method says the professor must only express her own passions, her own attachments, and introduce students to her scripts. It is the classic mini-me pedagogy. As the university has expanded its purposes and its students, the mini-me pedagogy as lost whatever credibility it might have ever possessed. Even in the professional schools one knows that the aspiring engineer is not made in the model of the engineering professor, and certainly in the old Arts and Sciences, we know that only the smallest percentage of our students will ever follow in our professional footsteps. Just as the diner’s attachment to the meal is different than the chef’s, the moviegoer’s attachment to the film is different from the director’s, and gamer’s attachment to the console is different from the designer’s, the student’s attachment to the curriculum and the discipline is different from the professor’s. Of course the immediate complaint with all those analogies is that the student is being cast as a consumer. This is what sickens the academy! This is the making-economic of university life. However, to follow Latour’s argument and dispense with the monolithic second Nature of the Economy, instead we might say that students have different scripts, different passions, and different calculations in their organizational relationship with university and discipline.

Pedagogy is the key mediator here. It remains a candidate to serve as another mode in my view. And here I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari in What is Philosophy? 

The post-Kantians concentrated on a universal encyclopedia of the concept that attributed concept creation to a pure subjectivity rather than taking on the more modest task of a pedagogy of the concept, which would have to analyze the conditions of creation as factors of always singular moments. If the three ages of the concept are the encyclopedia, pedagogy, and commercial professional training, only the second can safeguard us from falling from the heights of the first into the disaster of the third.

To put this in my own terms, “training” would be the wrong way to think about teaching, a concept that put pedagogy fully within the realm of the Economy. The encyclopedia as the height of reference represents disciplinarity but perhaps also the error that mistakes reference for reproduction. Pedagogy then is about a different set of scripts, attachments and calculations. And some of us already know this at least. To think rhetorically about the audience of students does not require folding to some spectral economic demand to treat students as consumers. That our students are an audience does not make professors into entertainers.

The more difficult translation is the one from the classroom and the curriculum to the university brand, the way universities communicate their programs to attract students and excite them about the possibilities of enrolling. When education is swallowed by the Economy, it quickly becomes a commodity. The Ivies and elite liberal arts colleges may generate some value-added appeal (or they may just be conspicuous consumption), but in the end there appears an economic calculation about optimal results related to university ranking, programs and career opportunities, and cost of attendance. Latour suggests this is a mistake. Not that we “shouldn’t” make such decisions but that we don’t. University admissions departments understand this, as is revealed in the smiling, multicultural faces on their brochures. Investments in new dorms, student life facilities, and athletics are part of this as well. But it is harder to make this work for curriculum because the discipline is connected on the other end to research.

I have been thinking about this in terms of general education. We know that students don’t like general education because it doesn’t reflect their attachments to a profession and a major as a route into that profession. And most faculty don’t care to teach general education either: partly because the students don’t want to be there, but also because the premise of mini-me pedagogy clearly doesn’t operate there. There is a branding/rhetorical problem here of making general education appealing in both of these directions (and appealing to the administrators who must commit to invest in it). However if we think about general education as building new organizational scripts and attachments then it becomes a mechanism for reorienting the university away from the Modern error of the encyclopedic Natural/Social distinction while avoiding the Economic university of commodified training.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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