This past week, I’ve been preparing to teach P. Novick’s That Noble Dream (Cambridge 1988) and P. Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas (New York 2010). Both these books foreground the process of professionalization in a university context. In a recent spat over the character of academic offices, I argued that we ought to model our offices on the creative space of highly flexible technology start up companies rather than the antiseptic space of anonymous, highly bureaucratized companies (some of which are now faltering). This idea did not meet with much acceptance especially as the link between university culture and corporate culture is well-known.
This brings me to what academics should wear. Over my time as teacher I’ve found myself increasingly adopting a more and more professional dress code especially on the days that I teach in the classroom. When I am writing in my office, I tend to dress more casually and comfortably. In this way, I publicly divide creative time (writing) from corporate time (teaching). (This is not to suggest that these two do not overlap).
I also have another professional persona and that is as a field archaeologist. In the media, at least, archaeologists are known for distinctive clothing, but even Indiana Jones dressed in a more professional “corporate” way when in the classroom (bow tie and the requisite tweed). C. Holtorf has written on this very topic in some interesting ways here and here.
I prefer to “rock the neck beard” in the field to mark out my departure from “corporate” world of classroom. I typically imagine my rather unkempt appearance as an reference to the archaeologist as artisan. The neck beard represents the both a layer of additional protection against the sun, the unpleasant nature of shaving and then sweating, and distracted air of someone deeply engaged in their work.
The boundaries between my various professional identities or avatars (casual creative writer, stuffy company man teacher, and archaeologist as artisan) can be fairly rigid. I will occasionally wear a NASCAR hat while walking across campus in my teaching attire, but never in the classroom. I will also sometimes wear my teaching clothes on days when I have a series of “important” committee meetings or other responsibilities. The one thing that I almost always wear (at least from October to April) are my boots.
Boots are the most vital component of an archaeologist wardrobe. Without a rugged pair of boots, an archaeologist is, at best, another weekend warrior whose engagement with the realities of the out-of-doors stops at the well-groomed trail or the end of a manicured lawn. Boots make the archaeology.
My wife introduced my to Blundstone boots almost 10 years ago and since then, I have never been without a pair. I wear them on campus, in teaching clothes, in my creative clothes, while walking home and while doing anything outdoors. (Ironically, I don’t always wear them while doing actual archaeology. I prefer low-top boots and nylon to the traditional Blundstone, hightop, leather.) I have found that my boots last about 3 years, but I don’t care for them properly. The walks home through the freezing snow and the super dry environment in campus buildings tend to make the leather dry out. I shuffle my feet and walk incautiously scuffing the tips on obstacles. I have a pronation in one of my feet and that stretches the leather in an unnatural way usually resulting in it pulling a bit away from the sole. A few times a year, after considerable harassment, I will polish the boots and put some leather treatment on them. If I pass through the Minneapolis airport, I’ll stop at the shoe shine place, but that’s mostly to banter about the Timberwolves and, as they say, to pass the time. (The men at the shoeshine stand can always identify the Blundstone’s and usually chide me for not taking better care of them!).
This past week, I got my new pair of Blundstone’s! They replace my old pair as the link between my professional avatar as a teacher and my professional avatar as an archaeologist. The old boots get retired into more rugged duty and less high profile tasks (shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, et c.) and the new boots make their debut this morning on a casual writing day. The old boots are inscribed with three years of activities from long walks with the wife through our small town to cold winter mornings spent shoveling out the car. They also preserve the marks of innumerable professional lectures, classroom successes and failures, and afternoons in the library, archives, or hunched over my lap top. Coats of water, snow, polish, and conditioner have changed their color. My idiosyncratic stride has etched deep wrinkles across the soft leather.
The new boots are stiff and unforgiving at present undoubtedly aware of the fate of their predecessors and hoping to hold off the inevitable.
My wife works in marketing and external relations at The Graduate School here at the University of North Dakota, and we regularly discuss the ways that universities sell themselves both to a local and global community. This happens to coincide with some of my own research interests which explore the tension between institutions with universalizing aspirations (the emperor or, better still, the church) and local practices and traditions. A local saint for example represents a hyper local manifestation of the power of the universal church. For a university, a local class or tradition is the manifestation of global expectations of what a "university" education means. Schools have always sought to maintain an identity that made them both access to longstanding "stakeholders" and, at the same time, appealing to people who will only acquire familiarity with the place and its traditions when they arrive there.
With the expansion of online and distance teaching the relationship between local (and spatial) sense of community and the wider world becomes even more attenuated. A recent group of University of Phoenix commercials, for example, students show students in the most generic of locations (non-spaces, in fact) airports, on trains, at home, or in commuter traffic rather than surrounded by iconic buildings (the intensely local and ubiquitous "old main"), the stadium or other campus scenes.
All this is a long introduction of a billboard that I walk by almost every day on my way home:
The billboard advertises Park University, which has a "campus" at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. From what I can gather Park has an agreement with the Air Force to provide college courses on base which they also open to the wider community. Other than Park being competition for local tuition dollars, I don't know of anything wrong with them and they certainly do not have the reputation of a for-profit university like the University of Phoenix. In fact, I am pretty sure that Park is non-profit university.
Back to local knowledge, Park clearly endeavored to show its "local" nature by featuring in a prominent way what would appear to be a local phone number on its billboard. The number looks local because it does not have an area code or the dreaded 1-800 in front of it (which every American knows to be the area code for "outsourced to India"). Unfortunately, local numbers here in the Grand Cities (like other major metropolitan areas (e.g. New York City)) always feature an area code. Since we are on the North Dakota – Minnesota border local numbers typically are typically proceeded by a 701 or 218 area code. A "local" will almost always starts their number with their area code.
Non-local universities are not a particularly jarring feature of the American higher education landscape these days, they only become jarring when they try to be local and fail.
UPDATE: By the way, I corresponded a bit with the Park University folks and one of them kindly pointed out that John Gillette of our Gillette Hall (and widely regarded as one of the founders of rural sociology) was a Park University graduate in 1895.
A couple of weeks ago I sketched out a proposal for an “institute of open learning” at the University of North Dakota. I pitched it to some of the “power-that-be”, and I think that I have some basic start up funds to make it happen.
Now the proposal has to make its way through the administrative hierarchy here on campus. In the meantime, I’ll make a draft of the proposal available here. Everything included in the proposal is tentative right now including prospects for funding and collaborative relationships on campus, and I expect this might all change if and when we get down to brass tacks (e.g. cost of implementation, et c.).
But for now, here it is:
So, my tenure application is almost done. And this is more or less what it looks like. In other words, my career in its most radically material form.
It hardly looks impressive. I’ve seen some tenure files spill over three large binders. But this is what it is.
As readers of this blog know, I get pretty excited about various projects that seek to open up research and teaching to the general public. I have a naive faith that the public is interested in what we as scholars do and a commitment to trying to meet them half-way in explaining my research, interests, and discipline. I am not always sure that I succeed in making my research accessible, but, as I hope this blog testifies, I certainly try.
As part of this commitment, I’ve been mulling over a way to offer my classes to the public for free. It’s easy enough to make content available; I post my podcasts and usually syllabi here, list the books and topics of my classes, and even report on my pedagogical successes and failures. These efforts, however, are a one way window into my courses. With the exception of the occasional blog post from loyal readers or past students, I don’t get much feedback from students because the media that I have used to communicate my course material is not designed to foster the kind of dynamic interaction that a full-featured online course, for example, or a classroom discussion requires.
A recent notice in the Chronicle of Higher Education and a quick read of Mark Taylor’s new book, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (New York 2010), once again rekindled my interest in imagining a different way to teach. In a moment of excitement, I sent an email to one of the “powers-that-be” on campus and pitched an idea that the University of North Dakota offer some free classes on-line, open to anyone who signs up (for no credit) as well as paying students (for credit). I pitched the idea to some of my trusted interlocutors here and got some good responses, and now have a meeting set up with some folks on the technical side of developing this idea as well as folks on the administrative side.
I even have imagined a name for this venture: The Institute for Open Learning at the University of North Dakota.
The programs would look for intellectual and technical support from folks with existing expertise on campus and seek to build alliances that encourage the development of contemporary, sophisticated, and varied course material for large scale online teaching opportunities on the web. As I have argued in an earlier blog post, teaching an open online class with for-credit students enrolled will offer unique opportunities for students to simultaneously experience life within and outside the university classroom. As Taylor and others have suggested, bridging the gap between the life within the academy and life outside the academy is a vital way to keep what we do here relevant and, at the same time, communicate and reinforce core academic values to a broader audience. I remain optimistic that if more people saw what goes on in a university classroom, they would be more able to understand the value in a university education.
And, unlike most of flights of fancy, I even have something of a funding model: At present the university splits funds collected from an online instruction fee with the college who then usually passes some of these funds onto individual departments. In effect, departments have a financial incentive to teach online classes. What I’d want to do is to capture a sliver of the funding that the University collects from these online classes and use that to offer incentives to faculty to develop and teach open classes.
Ok. That’s not a great plan, but there’s more. My idea of an Institute for Open Learning is mostly altruistic, but part of it imagines that these open classes can serve as marketing vehicles for both various programs as well as the university’s efforts at online teaching in general. In fact, I’d go so far to say that these classes could come to represent the University’s commitment to the local and global community as well as showcase the truly exceptional teachers on campus. In order to make the link between the universities outreach and marketing goals and the course content clear, the courses would be available for advertising. These advertisement would have to adhere to certain standards of taste and would have to come from approved sources (mostly, I suspect in house, but it could extend to various approved groups like the local art museum or the local visitor bureau). For example, each page might have a banner type advertisement for the Graduate School or for The College of Business and Public Administration. In addition, there could be simple introductions to each podcast or video lecture which feature a brief advertisement much in the same way that NPR introduces segments of its programing with a plug for the title sponsor. These advertisement could be relatively inexpensive since our overhead would be relatively low. And a significant percentage of the revenue could go toward course development, faculty recruitment, and advertising for the Institute.
Over time, I could imagine offering 4-6 class a year over the spring, fall, and summer semesters. If the Institute is successful, these course could develop a following and a significant group of engaged and interested learners. This group of learners could also be an audience for various other programs at the university – some of them, like local and visiting lectures, conferences and colloquia (like the Writers Conference), and events would be free – while others like new certificate programs or distance programs in allied fields would be for credit and involve a fee.
I have a meeting tomorrow the begin the process of pitching this idea. Like most of my great ideas (ahem), I suspect that my excitement has led me to overlook some kind of fatal flaw in my plan, but until then I am going to just enjoy the excitement of a new idea.
Three things have made me think about disciplines lately. First, some colleagues and I got a substantial amount of money to create a laboratory for a Working Group in Digital and New Media. Next, I've been invited to give a talk next week at our library here that would animate in some way the work of the Working Group. And finally, I've been reading Louis Menand's new book of essays called The Marketplace of Ideas , and it has two chapters that deal with various issues facing the disciplines. All of this is topped off by a buzz on campus about synergistic activities.
I have three thoughts on the role of disciplines within the academy:
1. Menand has caused me to think through the origins of disciplines again and their link to the professionalization of the university and academic professions at the turn of the century. He pointed out, quite rightly, that the creation of professional disciplines from fields of study depended in part on an industrialized view of knowledge production. In particular, he tied professionalization and the emergence of disciplines to the division of labor within market economies (as well as toward the university's role in creating a more democratic society). In this way, Menand has argued little different from P. Novick in his work, That Noble Dream. Menand goes on to emphasize how these professionalized disciplines then created complex and exclusionary systems designed to provide credentials for participants in these emerging professional disciplines; the most obvious credential even today is the Ph.D., but there are a whole series of less obvious mechanisms that also exert control over access to academic life.
2. Menand also points out — and he's not unique here — that over the last 40 years activity within the disciplinary themselves have challenged the foundation of disciplinary integrity. Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and scholars throughout the social sciences and humanities have increasingly come to rely on epistemologies that increasingly reject an industrial view of knowledge production. In its place, scholars like Michael Herzfeld have looked to craft production and the practice of artisans to understand how embodied knowledge is passed down from scholars to students. Such distinctly pre-modern modes of production have traditionally produced highly integrated systems of embodied knowledge that, while every bit as specialized, are far less fragmented and discourage the division of labor. This epistemological disjunction between the methods and goals of the academy and the methods and goals of the individual disciplines has pushed some area of study into a kind of post-disciplinary status where eclectic, post-modern, and extensive systems of knowledge within traditional disciplinary fields challenge of the overarching model of the modern university.
3. The result of this is a kind of hybrid academy which relies upon both disciplinary and post-disciplinary approaches to function. As so many hybrids, this is an especially destabilizing state of affairs. Pressure to be inter/trans/cross disciplinary is, in effect, pressure to undermine the traditional boundaries established to preserve the professional integrity of disciplinary authority. In other words, it asks us to conceive of authority in the academy in a different way. The cynic in me recognizes that undermining disciplinary authority plays into the hands of administrators who increasingly assert the privilege of speaking for the Institution of Higher Learning. As we undermine the foundation of the disciplines within the university, our authority will increasingly come to rest not on professional expertise but on the strength of the institution as the source of authority. This is bad because it puts more power in the hands of local administrators and takes it away from the broader community of professionals. The less cynical side of me, however, sees the break down of traditional disciplinary barriers as a step toward a more democratized form of knowledge. As with all processes of democratization, this will involve ceding authority and this will inevitably involve the sacrificing of some kind of privilege. This is never an easy pill to swallow for any group, and it might even be harder from academics in traditional humanities fields who feel that they have already sacrificed so much and do what they do for so little (money, respect, authority, et c.).
Ok, back to work on my paper for this afternoon!