Repair, Repatriate, Realign the University

Thinking about the university and how silly it is that we maintain the arrangement of course to professor to knowledge centered around terms and ideas that are generated independently from anyone involved in the course.

Sometimes a professor says to herself, "It would be really great if we offered a course on X." And she develops and offers the course. But where did that idea come from? What is the genesis of that course and the need and the desire to design it and teach it? 

It's a lot more complex than a simple need-satisfaction lever or a binary of let's have this important thing we don't have. In a perfect situation I like to imagine faculty using a version of Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca's Universal Audience in order to check back pandering or the use of power to generate and create student decisions on things like this. I do think faculty are trying to offer something of value when they do this.

But more often than not, courses are offered and taught because they are required or it's time to offer them, but who has initiated this demand? The students register, show up, the professor too, everyone teaches/is taught, but who feels the satisfaction of this interaction? What makes you feel that it was a good class; who are you pleasing when you think to yourself, "This was a good class, I did a good job teaching it," or "I got a lot out of that class?"

I feel like the desire to have classes of a particular kind or a particular nature comes from the desire to offer and take college classes. That might be it. There is a need or a desire to please a model of the university that is out there, like a demand that comes from no one but everyone feels like they need to address. 

This week there were large student protests at my university about two or maybe three students who were targeted with racist, threatening messages on social media by a group of other students, some of which came from other universities. The protest spontaneously formed and then moved to the President's office. Since the President was not in, other University officials decided to move the protesters into a theater space to have a discussion. During the course of this conversation it was suggested that the women who were threatened should receive some compensation or refund on tuition. This idea quickly became amplified to the idea of reparations for the negative treatment that minority students believe they have endured.

I wasn't there; I'm representing what I heard so it might be wrong. But I really do like the idea of reparations as a frame for changing the traditional model. The idea of courses, required and selected, as meeting the needs of students throughout their collegiate experience is certainly weird. 

Students are going to change based on experience, what they are exposed to, and what happens. The model of university education should incorporate this. I don't think it's much of a stretch. But strangely (maybe not so strangely) the demand to have classes in a particular order that are meant to teach particular skills at a fixed time and point to a body of students that is dynamic even within itself, person by person. 

Instead, let's have the university provide reparations for a state system, or state/institutional model of education that assumes a particular subject's existence that must be fractured and then mended. The whole philosophy of institutional education is like breaking bones and setting them to make the organism "normal." Why not go the other way? Break and set the courses to fit the altering body of the students. 

This could have many forms. What I am playing with in my mind is one where tuition provides a set of resources to the student who can use them how they will. If they would like to meet with a professor and read a book that's a certain cost (not real dollars obviously). They can also join in with others who have made agreements to meet with professors and do some reading and talking. Professors can also offer "courses" per se based not on a curriculum that meets the abstract, unpresent demand of a "field" and conforms more to what is happening around them and around the students - nationally, locally, what have you. This also eliminates the problem of the "yellow paged" professor who teaches out of the same notes and books for 20 years. They have to keep current in order to make connections to principles they feel are timeless, something that has to defend itself under the reparation system rather than be in the position of presumption. 

Students and faculty would no longer deal in grades, but in production of texts that communicate to broader audiences what it is they now are. They can convey an ability, a thought, or a process of thinking and crafting to those who have a look at the projects. This is student-driven and professor guided. More than the mark of completion of the course, this would be something that is a marker of the changing mind and thought and abilities of the student; a demonstration of trajectory into something to come. 

I wonder how much longer the traditional university system will hold up. As satisfying it is to the faceless demander of the form, and as good as we give the narrative of what we are doing and accomplishing, the tensions and gaps do mount up. And eventually it won't be enough that we have followed what we are supposed to do. We'll want an answer: Who says this is learning? The learners should interrogate the offerings, and the faculty should consider what they offer in the terms of the students and the context they find themselves in. There is no neutral or proper place for curriculum outside of this.