The #futureEd Coursera course has moved from the history of education onto the future, onto imagining future versions of higher education. As I’ve discussed in my last few posts, there are a slew of problems connected to higher education in the US in terms of access, cost, and outcomes (i.e. good jobs for graduates). Though these problems manifest themselves on campuses, and these institutions can act in response to them, they are really problems caused elsewhere. Higher education does not control the rapidly increasing demand for degrees, nor does it control the job marketplace its graduates enter. As for costs, so much of that is a factor of state/public support, the role of student loans, and the strength of the overall economy.
However, I do think we can change how education functions on campuses, but to do that we need to alter the operation of research. Research drives the activity of faculty and forms the basis for curriculum. While it varies from campus to campus, I doubt there are many four-year colleges that wouldn’t value research activity as being at least equal to teaching in terms of how tenure-track faculty are evaluated. And, of course, faculty have pursued their careers for the purpose of doing research. It’s easy and obvious to see that higher education is built around these disciplinary-research paradigms. For example, examine the upper-division courses in an English department and you can get a sense of the specializations within the discipline (literary-historical periods of Anglo-American literature, various post-colonial and ethnic literatures, creative writing, journalism, rhetoric, and so on, depending on the particular mix of faculty at that institution). Examine the more customized descriptions of graduate seminars offered in a given semester and you can see the particular kinds of research being done within those specializations by the faculty. But the shaping power of research paradigms doesn’t end there. In English, and many other humanities disciplines, the most-valued research product is a single-author book. The most common is the single-author journal article. Humanities research is, at its base, a solitary activity. The result of this is a kind of hyper-specialization, which I’ve discussed many times on this blog. Perhaps hyper-specialization is necessary for the sciences; I can’t speak to that. In English Studies though, it just seems like we are creating hothouse flowers. Though undergraduates don’t become hyper-specialists, their curricular experience is shaped by that hyper-specialization not only in the sense of how their individual courses connect but how their curriculum intersects with other disciplines.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s say that instead of spending a good chunk of 3-5 years writing a monograph on a highly specialized topic for an audience of a few hundred readers, to get tenure at a research institution, an English professor needed to collaborate on an interdisciplinary project that published research (though maybe not a book), communicated with the general public, and developed curriculum. What might that look like? It might look like what Anne Balsamo has described (which I discussed here). There are a whole range of topics, including: ecological studies, disability, social justice, literacy, education, cultural preservation, and so on. I am fairly certain that most humanities professors believe their work is culturally relevant, so this would simply be a matter of stepping more fully into that role.
In my own case, I could see being in a community of artists, engineers, architects, business faculty, health professionals, social scientists, education researchers, scientists, and other humanists who were investigating digital media communication. How does digital media operate in the workplace? What are its social and cultural effects? What are its impacts on the human body? How does it interact with physical spaces? How do we learn with it? How do we learn to use it? How do we communicate with it? How do we design better technologies? What are the artistic/aesthetic possibilities? What are the ethical and legal issues? And so on. It’s easy to imagine several dozen faculty on a campus working collaboratively on a group of research questions/projects. I could see myself working on a question such as designing hardware and applications to facilitate digital communication and learning in an educational space.
Doing this wouldn’t eliminate our current departmental structures. Those would remain, especially at the graduate level. You need at least two ways to slice the university to get interdisciplinarity. But a student could major in engineering or business or the humanities but also follow a path through one of these research communities that would connect their disciplinary education with its operation in an interdisciplinary problem.
Right now though, it would be professionally unwise for me to do that kind of work. I need to publish my single-author monograph to get my promotion to full professor. Really any work that I do, including what I am doing right now writing this blog, comes with a financial penalty. The smart, efficient professor is the one who organizes his/her teaching and other activities around publication. Everything the university tells us to do insists that we act myopically, regardless of what the university PR machine says.
Change that and you’ll change the university. You’ll change the daily work of faculty. You’ll change the kind of faculty we hire and promote. You’ll change the way graduate students get trained. And you’ll change undergraduate education. You might even change the cultural role of higher education in our society.