On Getting Scooped : TEOTUAWKI*

They closed the comments on Mark Taylor’s OpEd “End the University as We Know It” before I could get one in, so I’m posting it here. I often tell my students it’s a good thing when you find out that your favorite idea has already been written down by some famous philosopher since that means you were on the right track. I am telling myself today that seeing something you have been thinking about show up on the NYT oped page is similar.

Like many of the other comments, mine amounts to a mixed review. Taylor, to my mind, conflates several issues relevant to the state of today’s universities and thereby reduces the punch of the piece. I’m with him on the university as an enterprise in which it is far too easy to continue business as usual. But he may be overgeneralizing from his experience in a religion department in some of his other criticisms.

The point with which I resonate most strongly is that our course/major offerings are too department/discipline-bound and insufficiently dynamic and responsive to the needs of the world around us. In this blog and elsewhere I’ve argued for uncoupling undergraduate majors and departments as a solution. His suggestion that departments be abolished and programs reformulated around topics and then “sunsetted” every seven years is provocative and worth thinking about. I think, though, that it’s not quite the right approach. Why seven years? How worthwhile to rebuild the administrative apparatus on a regular basis?

I think something more dynamic and dialectical is called for: Maybe keep departments, but abolish majors (or maybe leave the majors but create set of collaborative and cross-disciplinary majors on the fly). We faculty should have to reformulate “majors.” We might, for example, cook up a program in sustainability or in institutional disruption or innovation. We’d have to really think about what portfolio of the courses we currently offer could be mixed with courses we ought to be offering to put together an educational curriculum that would have both currency and staying power. We’d force ourselves to get beyond the usual departmentally-self-serving horse-trading (I’ll require one of your courses if you require one of mine). We’d stop thinking of requirements in terms of the education we wish we could have had 20 years ago and start thinking about what insights are likely to be the building blocks of how people are thinking and solving problems 20 years from now.

Most importantly, we would have to “sell” these programs to undergraduates on the basis of evidence and argument about why a particular curriculum constitutes good preparation for the world to come. And we’d develop the majors with knowing that would be our ongoing task. We would have to be not only inventors of new majors, but innovators who learned from what we were doing to make the operation a going concern in a dynamic structure that was not protected from change by decades of disciplinary convention. In short, we’d build curricular R&D into the very fabric of the university, bringing to higher education a function it’s really never had.

*A variation on one of my favorite acronyms “TEOTWAWKI” = the end of the world as we know it.

Majors and Departments

Why are something like 90% or more of our majors bound to departments and disciplines?

Answer: lots of reasons, some of them good ones. But the biggest one is probably the simplest one: because that’s the way it’s been for a long time.

But is this list of concentrations built around disciplines really the optimal menu for the students we are training for the coming century? Should I, as a professor at a liberal arts college, design my undergraduate curriculum around the question of how I best train a sociologist? Only a tiny percentage of the students who major in sociology will become sociologists. And few who do will be trained in rigorous graduate programs in which they’ll more or less repeat every discipline based course they’ll take while studying with me.

Of course, a student can always put together a “custom major” of her own design. But are we really producing the best product we can if we leave it up to the least experienced members of our community to come up with new ideas about majors? Shouldn’t I be thinking about that? All the time?