Friday, January 22, 2021

Requiem for Universities: A Historical Cycle is Over

 

After some 10 centuries of existence, universities have arrived to the end of their historical cycle. It is the way things are: it is the great cycle of life. The universities will be gone, something else will come that will help people who want to learn and people who love to teach to find each other. And the cycle of life will continue. Even Simba the Lion knew that. 

Here, Sinéad Murphy has kindly given me the permission to reproduce her recent post "Requiem for Universities" on "Cassandra's Legacy." Her conclusions are similar to mine, as expressed in the post I wrote with the title of "The Fall of the Citadels of Science."

 

Requiem For Universities

Published 21 January 2021 on "Lockdown Sceptics"

by Sinéad Murphy

Universities have been dying for some time. As their prospectuses have grown glossier, their gateway buildings more spectacular and their accommodation for students more stunningly luxurious, the Humanities subjects have been gradually hollowed out.

Academics’ intellectual work has been streamlined by the auditing procedures of the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ and by growing pressure to bid for outside funding, which is distributed to projects that address a narrow range of approved themes – Sustainability, Ageing, Energy, Inequality…

Student achievement has been dumbed down by the inculcation of a thoughtless relativism – Everybody’s different; That’s just my interpretation – and by the annual inflation of grades.

The curriculum has begun to be tamed by continual revision – never broad enough, never representative enough – and by the drive for ‘equality and diversity’.And teaching has been marginalized by the heavy requirements that it represent itself on ever proliferating platforms and review itself in endless feedback loops.

Universities, in short, have been gradually transforming into what they proudly trumpet as a Safe Space, a space that has been cleared at greatest expense to Humanities subjects, a space in which the slightest risk – that a thought might lead nowhere, that a student might be uninterested, that an idea might offend or that a teacher might really persuade – has been mitigated by so many layers of bureaucratic procedure that most of everyone’s time is spent in wading through them.

Safe Space universities have been divesting themselves of real educational content, their plush marketing ploys concealing the decline – of their Humanities subjects at least – into little more than holding patterns for directionless youths.

But up until March of last year, there was still some space and time to act as if. To attempt, in the midst of the decline, to teach, to learn, to think, as if it were really possible to do so.

Because you could still meet your students, and use the small chance you had to teach them to introduce ideas which they might just be taken by and which you, in the process, might deepen your understanding of. And because students could still meet each other, form friendships, gather together, lift themselves out of the lives they grew up with, if only as a temporary reprieve.

It was not much, that is true. And acting as if can too easily collapse into the corruption of an all-out cynicism – quoting Heidegger in the original German to students who are visibly disengaged.

But acting as if can also, sometimes, work; the pretence can actually catch on. Two centuries and a half ago, Kant urged us to act as if human beings are rational, convinced that that would eventually make us so; and it did seem to work… for a while, at least.

But even the pretence is over now; even acting as if, no longer an option. Safe Space universities have come to their culmination. No space is safer than an empty space. And universities are empty at last. The shell has cracked and fallen away. The university is no more.


A couple of weeks ago, following a year’s leave, I stood in a tiny office on the tenth floor of a university tower.

From here, all teaching for the coming semester was to be done.

Lectures were to be given into the void, recorded for access in a space and at a time of students’ choosing. Hour-long tirades, with only your Panopto reflection for your guide, without even commonplace reference points to scaffold the event – the time of day, the weather outside, the furnishings, quirks in the technology: no experience shared, nothing to bind you to your crowd.

Seminars were to be run from here too. These, at least, were to be ‘live’; when it was morning for you, it would be morning for everyone else too. But – open and earnest discussion with students locked up in their family home, sitting on the bed they tossed in as a child? I am told that they turn off their video, sometimes their audio too, attending the class in name only, suspended in a box on the screen.

A brand new desktop computer blighted the tiny office on the tenth floor. Its oversized screen: the black hole into which teaching and learning were set to disappear.

For how long? Long enough, I am sure, for the sheer implausibility of the prospect to lose its edge. Long enough for what is now deemed necessary – the remote university – to begin, at last, to seem possible.

But it is not possible. Philosophy, at least, cannot be taught by giving a speech to yourself in a room on the tenth floor. Philosophy cannot be taught by orchestrating a grid of nametags. Philosophy cannot be taught on a screen.

The classic model of Western Philosophy is Socrates, who wandered about asking questions of those who would listen, inviting his fellow citizens to discussion of the good life. The gadfly method, it is called – meant to get under your skin. Exactly the opposite of Covid-compliant.

Philosophy does have other models – the grand treatise, or, most suitable now, the solitary meditation. But for teaching Philosophy, dialogue has never been bettered. And dialogue is live, up close, and between bodies.

In any dialogue, most of what is communicated is non-verbal, even if the dialogue is formal, even if it is aimed at instruction. You pause for effect, your muscles stilled. You raise your eyebrows in scepticism. You circle your hands in approximation. You deepen your tone for emphasis. You move from side to side to keep your thoughts in train. You repeat yourself at the sight of a furrowed brow. You re-energise at slumped shoulders. You play for laughs. You stop for hands in the air.

And philosophical dialogue goes even deeper, making your stomach churn with existential abandon, your heart beat at the reason of humanity, your head throb at the nature of the sublime.

Add to this the surface body-language of dialogue generally – the still muscles, the raised eyebrows, the circling hands and the rest ­– and the room in which Philosophy is taught should be a theatre of bodied intensity, a far cry from the tenth floor with its grotesque blank screen.

In the tiny office on the tenth floor, you cannot begin your lecture with a question, or an accusation, or a taunt, or anything else that might get your students involved. There is no one there and you cannot be a gadfly alone. You must speak instead as if from the podium, body hemmed in, a talking head. Except that, from the podium, you might still at least feel your audience there, and what you say might still have a chance of sinking in.

In the tiny office on the tenth floor, you cannot act as if. There is no one to play to, nothing to get the show on the road.

And what must it be like, to sit on your bed in a room in your parents’ house and switch on a tirade-from-nowhere? With your social life (or what passes for it) pulsing through competing portals, does the window to your Philosophy class let in any light at all?

Real learning is done by our bodies – by heart, it used to be said, though the phrase is out of favour. An argument should be grasped, rhetoric should be savoured, and metaphysical truths should make our hairs stand on end. Anything else is just words.

And just words are not only lifeless and cold; they suck the life from you, they leave you cold. Remote teaching and learning actually do you harm.

The university now continually directs its students to its twenty-four-hour support service, in implicit acknowledgement of the harmful effects of its remote provision, which does not merely fall short of the mark but imposes the kind of out-of-body experience that most students find disheartening and many cannot cope with at all.

We are told that it is necessary, the Safe Space university of just words – to save lives. (Our union has just invited us all to an event called “Saving Lives At Work”.) But that something is deemed necessary does not suffice to make it possible – of all lessons, that is the one we ought most to learn from this past year.

We are told also that it is temporary. But we will only ensure that it is temporary if we do not act as if it is possible. We should refuse to carry out their exceptional arrangements, or their exceptional arrangements have a chance of becoming the rule.

The Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, as early as May of last year, wrote what he titled a “Requiem For Students”, in which he described very well the impossibly corrupted character of the Covid university, whose technological barbarism he called out for what it is, and whose students he exhorted to refuse to enroll.

As educators, we are supposed to lead forth. We should go first, and refuse to teach on screens.

It is time to stop acting as if.

_________________________________________________________________________

 


Sinéad Murphy teaches philosophy at Newcastle University. She is the author of "Zombie University

 



9 comments:

  1. So, we should "stop acting 'as if'," lest this interval become permanent. But what should we do during the pandemic interval, until we can safely mix it up again, mano a mano?

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  2. Excellent.

    I would say that Cambridge University has effectively now ceased to exist: the foundation stone of teaching was always not the lecture or seminar, but the 'supervision' -always one to one with an academic, not a graduate student. Certainly not Covid-compliant!

    Kicked out summarily in March last year, the students were allowed back in October (with a warning that they might be ordered to leave within 24hrs due to any outbreak) but with no live lectures or supervisions - the lecturers claim they are too scared to teach anymore.

    They have not been permitted to return this Term, and it looks as if lock-down may continue until the summer. A hollow shell of beautiful old buildings, nothing more.

    A dead University, in a dead city.

    This is what Big Tech wants for us: Death, the anti-human....

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  3. This slow death has been going on for decades. I have been teaching in higher education since 1997, I have observed these death notices being regularly announced by disgruntled academics. And I think it is all true. However, the idea that this seems to come from 'outside' by the philistine forces of corporations and governments is only part of the story. My view of academics is very dim here, they did not protest, the vast majority are careerists and most of the actual academic output is pretty lame. The biggest achievement of humanities is the spread of relativism into public policy due to the obsession with postmodernist philosophy at universities. Now, as Weberian rationalization swallows up universities - we witness some panicked reactions...'death, the anti-human'...Well you should have pushed back way back, you should have seen the writing on the wall and done something...nope, most were just desperate for tenure at any cost. Anecdote - I was very active in the anti-Iraq war movement while working as a lecturer...NONE of my colleagues from humanities or social sciences joined in any activism at all - I even ended up mixing with outraged colleagues from Engineering or Business faculties on the streets. The rest watched from their ivory towers...they still do, charting the demise of something they never really bothered to defend.

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  4. I have a long experience with universities too, it ceased to be socrate's idea long ago. Time to reinvent, i wouldnt complain about finally learning something about energy and the environment, getting urgent.

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    Replies
    1. See what I mean about the gringos?
      Universities didn't exist not even dreamed of in Socrate's time.
      The gringos don't know anything about European history, culture and if they are British they are not even taught their own history.
      You don't believe me?
      Give a gringo graduate a pencil and paper and ask him to divide 123456 / 12.
      They can't.

      Delete
  5. Why not give live lectures? I teach at a university in Hong Kong; I have been teaching online since last Feb. Sixty to 70% of my teaching hours are live; I assign readings and questions prior to the class; ask students to chat in small groups and report on their discussions during live class. There is still space for thought-provoking questions and occasional jokes. True, student response doesn't comfort my teaching ego as it did in face-2-face, but keen students find ways to communicate with me - by voice or more often through direct private chat, which was not possible in a regular class. In a good online class, I am engaging with the whole group by voice and with each student through the chat box at the same time. Building rapport and routine in the new mode of T&L takes time and shakes up the teacher's insecurities, but it pays off, and I can honestly say that, in some ways, teaching and learning has in fact benefited. This said, I am lucky to have small-size groups.

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  6. I've been teaching my classes on Zoom this year like so many others, but we have deep conversations in the classroom. We acknowledge together what we're all going through. The classroom has become a place to process the profound societal changes we're going through, create community, and support one another. This absolutely CAN be done online in a synchronous format. I believe it can also be done asynchronously with the right reflection prompts and attention to the here and now. It's challenging but I think that it's an opportunity for professors and instructors to up our game.

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  7. Most universities, most places in the world even with problems are doing a good job.
    It is the failed societies in USA and UK, and the failures among them, who say this things.
    In USA they turned teaching and studying into a scam, look at the university of Trump, and there are many like that, there are private U. in UK that sell you a title in a year, mostly to foreigners, UK has some of the worst U. in the world.
    Please, don't put the U. of the USA and UK as examples, some are good, very good, some are the worst in the world, you can not make an average from that.
    The good European U. if maybe not counted the best in the world, in France, in Italy, in Germany, in Ireland etc are doing excellent teaching and research.
    I never take the gringos at their word, liars, swindlers, ignorants, scammers they always have an ax to grind.

    ReplyDelete

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)