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End of Universities April 28, 2009

Posted by Andre Vellino in Citation.
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nyt-opedYesterday’s NYTimes Op. Ed. “The End of the University as We Know It” by professor Mark C. Taylor is quickly making the rounds in academic circles.  

There are two elements in this article that concerned me.  One is the dismissive criticism of one of his colleague’s student thesis topic as trivial:

Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

Presumably professor Taylor is not bothered that a Ph.D. student in a religion department is studying Duns Scotus – one of the most important philosophers of the middle ages.  It must be, then, that he thinks it is not important to be studying how Scotus is using citations.

I know enough about citation analysis to be confident that professor Taylor is being dismissive too hastily. I wish this graduate student well in his or her use of a 21st century tool to discover new things about Scotus that were heretofore unknown about his thinking. 

The other remark which I thought was ill conceived is the argument that Universities should:

Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Professor Taylor appears not to have headed the advice about categories in David Weinberger’s book Everything is Miscellaneous. It is indeed possible to imagine not just a “broad range” of topics, but a virtually infinite range of “zones of inquiry”, each equally worthy of consideration.

Furthermore, getting academics to agree on even on one set of such topics within which to fit their work would be an interminable excercise. Take the citation analysis of Duns Scotus’ work, for instance.  It  arguably belongs equally to “Information” or “Networks” or “Language” or, in categories not yet mentioned, such as the more traditional “Mathematics” or “Philosophy” or “Library Science”.  

Besides, who would decide which categories are the relavent ones?  The government of the day? In that case would professor Taylor have wanted to apply for grant funding under the topic “Anti-Terrorism” in the past 8 years?

Comments»

1. End the University as We Know It: My Commentary - April 28, 2009

[…] reading: See Vellino’s commentary and Mitzenmacher’s […]

2. gawp - April 29, 2009

It’s pretty easy to dismiss any area of research that one does not have familiarity with, a-la Sarah Palin rubbishing “fruit fly research”
http://www.salon.com/env/feature/2008/10/27/sarah_palin_fruit_flies/

The idea of refreshing things on a 7 year cycle is intriguing, but I can just imagine the maneuvering that would take place to define these categories, with everyone trying to create a definition that would place their research or pet problems squarely in the middle. Categories will always be frustrating, like the 1970s style categories in NSERC research, with much of molecular biology, bioinformatics and computational biology being compressed into single category of “genetics”

Regarding his comments on “cross-disciplinary” research, I thought of this rather nice essay on “ante-disciplinary” research that was recently recommended to me:
http://www.ploscompbiol.org/article/info:doi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pcbi.0010006
by Sean Eddy, a guy with serious ante and interdisciplinary cred.
The idea of interdisciplinary teams keeps being brought up, but progress is more often driven by ante-disciplinary individuals: as he says in the essay:
“But when I think of new fields in science that have been opened, I don’t think of interdisciplinary teams combining existing skills to solve a defined problem—I think of single interdisciplinary people inventing new ways to look at the world.”

3. Unless you have nothing left to lose of course « Khannea – Suntzu’s WebBlog - May 21, 2009

[…] I’d regard such statements as pretty outdated in the post-YouTube era. “Short-circuiting this type of learning results in shallow knowledge that may not become integrated into long-term memory” – in ten years most human beings (or the ones that matter) will have magically aquired the capacity to aquire and retainpractical and functional  knowledge from 30 minutes watching  it being done on some poser animation.  Maybe not to the exacting standards of shaolin masters, but “good enough” or “JIT”.  I suppose that kind of knowledge isn’t the real thing, would contribute to the collapse of civilization and the degeneracy of morals?   […]


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