I owe regular readers an explanation for the lengthy hiatus on this blog.
As I had predicted would happen back in the summer, this semester turned into an extremely busy one for me.
Directing the Environmental Studies program at the University of Vermont is a large part of that busyness: it’s a large, interdisciplinary and cross-college program of nearly 500 undergraduate majors, which has seen its student numbers climb consistently over several years while faculty and staff numbers have actually declined. This has led to a barely sustainable staffing situation, though we are far from unique in that respect. Directing it involves a lot of advising (those 500 students) and overseeing of a somewhat complicated and highly individualized curriculum, reading and signing off on paperwork, organizing, leading and/or attending various kinds of meetings (in three different Schools and Colleges), overseeing the teaching of courses including our Students-Teaching-Students courses, putting out little fires as these arise on a somewhat regular basis, and so on.
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Philosopher of religion and Derridean “atheologian” Mark Taylor’s recent NY Times op-ed End the University as We Know It has generated a lot of discussion in academic circles and blogs. Reading the article reminded me of a situation my institution, the University of Vermont, went through recently, after being approached by a foundation interested in dropping a truckload of money into curricular restructuring toward a more problem-based and “solutions-oriented” model of a “green university.” Our president had committed himself to making UVM “the environmental university,” and so the group that initiated this restructuring felt it was well positioned to make a case for some kind of wholesale restructuring. Much time was spent debating what this might entail and whether it should involve institution-wide restructuring or just a grafting-on of a new “meta-college” that would facilitate cross-institutional and extra-institutional collaboration, but wouldn’t essentially alter the existing structure of the university. But in the end, the initiators seem to have misjudged the extent of resistance to systemic change, and the foundation lost interest, for reasons external to the process itself.
But there’s something I think they missed in that “resistance” which Taylor’s critics have been quick to identify. Taylor’s op-ed succeeded in what it set out to accomplish, which was to generate discussion, and it did include some generally smart (if not original) ideas, like restructuring the curriculum so it’s more “like a web or complex adaptive network” (that sounds good, doesn’t it?), increasing collaboration among institutions, transforming the traditional doctoral dissertation, and expanding the range of professional options for grad students outside the “pyramid scheme” structure that exists now. Even the proposal to “impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure,” substituting the latter with renewable (or terminable) seven-year contracts, has its virtues which those of us who defend tenure would willingly acknowledge.
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