02 March 2014

The Paradigm Shift Behind the Paywall

When Cathy Davidson urges me on Twitter to read "Why Higher Education Demands a Paradigm Shift," I hop to it.  And like many snarky commentators on Twitter, I immediately discover that it's in a Duke University publication, behind a paywall.  No problem there! Adjuncts may not get 21st-century wifi or tech support, but they do get 19th-century library privileges, and my privileged library subscribes to Public Culture.  Like every 21st century knowledge worker, I have my own laptop and home internet, so I'm in.  Of course, I can't hyperlink to this article, so note that the quotes below are from Cathy Davidson, "Why Higher Education Demands a Paradigm Shift," Public Culture 26:1 (Winter 2014): 3 - 11.

So why does higher ed need a paradigm shift?  According to Davidson (and this sounds right) it's because the old paradigm of the research university was already giving short shrift to the humanities:
I see liberal arts and the humanistic mode of analysis as at least part of what the management apparatus of the research university was designed to minimize. Once liberal arts or general education becomes something to pass through on the way to the goal of specialized, professional expertise, it morphs from eternal verity to general point of entry.

Also, that old paradigm (which is still in play) no longer reflects how knowledge gets made and passed along: 
The university we have now is a monument to the industrial age and Taylorism. We are still educating students as if they participated in a broadcast model of the world where knowledge flowed from experts to everyone else. Yet today our students participate in a knowledge ecology that is dispersed, disorganized, crowd-sourced, participatory, and yet also hypercommercialized.
What should the new paradigm look like?  Here things get fuzzier.  "We should be massively remodeling our institutions for contributive, connected, participatory learning."  Not MOOCs!  At least, not MOOCs as presently conceives, which, as Davidson points out, only transpose the old paradigm to new forms of broadcasting lectures and threaten to become a new way of exploiting knowledge workers.  MOOCs may, however help help us to find the new paradigm:  
With MOOCs, we are just beginning to explore new possibilities for online learning. If MOOCs push academics to rethink what we mean by learning and what we want from a university, they have the potential to help us truly transform higher education for the digital age as dramatically as the research university transformed it for the industrial era. 
I'm not sure how MOOCs end up as the online drivers of change here, beyond the fact that Davidson herself has been active in exploring their potential and creating opportunities for others to do so.  The Open University in the UK and community colleges and regional university throughout the US have were exploring other formats for online learning long before Coursera and EdX billed themselves as the future of education.  Without grant funding, with no capacity for technological innovation beyond limited interactions with the vendors of course-management systems, within institutional imperatives over which they have little control, faculty have been finding ways to deliver education online and still sleep at night.   

The fixation on MOOCS is the symptom of a larger problem: the marginalization of the faculty who are, in whatever paradigm we are currently living, charged with equipping students to take part in a "knowledge economy that is dispersed, disorganized, crowd-sourced, participatory."  Ann Larson's recent essay, "Rhetoric and Composition's Dead" has produced some controversy, but it's mostly having to do with whether the patient is terminal or already long corpsified.  There seems to be general agreement that composition and rhetoric teaching is in the hands of various kinds of contingent laborers (grad students, part-time adjuncts, full-time non-tenure-stream faculty) supervised by the new managerial class that Marc Bousquet described in 2003.  

Important work takes place in FYC classes every day, at the hands of innovative and dedicated instructors, but institutional structures consistently devalue it.  Though learning for the new knowledge economy takes place beyond entry-level composition courses, FYC is where students take on board the expectations for college-level learning, acquire the research skills they'll be using in their discipline-specific course work, and get some of the most intensive individualized instruction they're likely to receive in college.  For the entering cohorts of students coached by increasingly test-driven high-school curricula, FYC is their introduction to alternative models of learning: open-ended, inquiry-based interaction with primary sources that haven't been culled or sorted for them.  Whatever Davidson envisions as an ideal "new paradigm," some of the least-valued and most poorly remunerated faculty in academia are inching towards it, to varying degrees.  Institutional inequalities determine which students get to benefit from educational innovation.  Faculty with offices, job security, and a manageable teaching load have more capacity to identify, act on, and innovate around best practices than do part-time faculty teaching out of their cars. 

Davidson is mindful of the structural economic issues in play when she points out that "the radical decline in funding for public education...exacerbates the income disparity that grows ever more extreme in this country," but her solution is incomplete.  It's true that a paradigm that's not only new but desirable will require faculty to "see their role in the structural and intellectual issues of higher education today.... to think seriously and with new data, insights, and goals, about the
university we want and want to be part of."  But which faculty, and how is such evidence-based rethinking likely to take place?  Davidson's #FutureEd initiative is a step in the right direction, and her upcoming move away from private Duke University to the public CUNY system may bring an even broader and more diverse group of voices into her advocacy.  The paywalls are real that separate conversations about the future of higher ed from the marginalized faculty who may already be living that future

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