Re: [xmca] University & Conformity

From: Michalis Kontopodis <michalis.kontopodis who-is-at>
Date: Sun May 25 2008 - 02:52:14 PDT

Dear Mike, thank you very much for your thorough investigation. Your
account turned alive memories from my student years, which I have
forgotten--given the fact that I have the luxury to temporally teach
at a very small department--which is rather 'elite' and not
representative of the 'mass' or 'middle class' university.

Taking the given historicity of the observed phenomena under
consideration, but also their dynamical features (there are always new
policies, protests, reforms etc.) I ask myself how critical academics
may intervene or act in regard to teaching, learning, raising research
funds, producing publications etc.

I would suggest that the university should be linked to the parts of
the society which are the most innovative or critical at a given
historical moment: this may be feminists, no-border movements,
critical students, anti-war protests, ecologists, migrants, artists
etc. Pioneer research and pioneer teaching should be linked to pioneer
social practices--not of course reproducing dogmas or just leading
social movements, but much more being 'in a dialogue with the future',
posing open questions and looking for ways to answer them (here
Vygotsky could be very relevant).

This is however a difficult endeavor: it embodies the tension between
being reflective and being active or practice-oriented; it implies the
tension between being subjective and being collective;
it also requires participation in 'non-academic' activities,
translation of theory in the languages of the radical social
subjectivities, sometimes even risking one's position in the
university (even just because of lower productivity rates).

This discussion has already taken place in a lot of contexts (e.g.
cultural-historical research, critical psychology, performance
studies, political anthropology). Nor have I however solved the
problem for myself, neither do I know academics or academic
collectives that have managed to deal with these issues, in a way that
transgresses the geographical limits of particular projects or in a
way which establishes some kind of sustainability (usually when a
critical professor dies, no project or academic school survives, think
of the German Critical Psychology at the Freie Universität Berlin).

PS: Eric, even if I did not answer directly, I hope you can find an
answer above or at least understand more the background of my previous
commends. Thank you!

Michalis Kontopodis

research associate
humboldt university berlin
tel.: +49 (0) 30 2093 3716
fax.: +49 (0) 30 2093 3739

On May 24, 2008, at 7:25 PM, Mike Cole wrote:

> Modern UniversitieS and their Problems
> Here is a small contribution to the enormous topic introduced by
> Erik and
> commented on by Michalis. Just a couple of preliminary comments for
> historical context and some observations about typical educational
> interactions in my university.
> When I attended the University of California in the late 1950's the
> university was open to the top
> 10% or so of high school graduates as measured by grades and was
> essentially
> free; no tuition, minimal feels. A high percentage of the University
> budget
> (I am not sure of the exact amount) was paid for by the state from
> taxes
> including property taxes and state income tax which was relatively
> progressive. Families had to be wealthy enough for their kids not to
> work
> and many students lived at home and commuted; many worked part time.
> But
> economics played a *relatively* small role in affordability of
> university
> (inequalities, of course, existed in quality of education that got
> students
> into the top 10%).
> At present 12% of the budget of UC is covered by state funds.
> Property taxes
> have been severely
> capped. The degree of progression in income taxes is flattened;
> sales taxes
> and lottery money are a larger part of the state budget. Students
> pay high
> fees that make attendance almost impossible for
> many and hours of work while attending so high that serious study is
> difficult to achieve for all but the most academically talented and
> determined. I worked about 20-25 hours a week to be able to
> attend University. Many students are working 3-40 hours.
> Observation #1: Courses are a mixture of large lecture classes that
> now are
> conducted primarily using power point presentations and large
> textbooks,
> middle size (40-60 student classes) that may use a text or original
> readings, and seminars, that rely on original readings. This
> observation is
> devoted to large lecture classes that dominate the social sciences.
> Many
> lectures are now available as podcasts and technologies linking
> power point
> and podcast are being tried out.
> In the social sciences (I am speaking here from direct experience,
> practices
> in other parts of the university differ according to subjects matter)
> multiple-choice questions, often using scantrons for rapid machine
> grading
> are the norm. It is almost always the case that students will ask,
> in class,
> if material presented before the mid term will also be included on
> the final
> exam – the implication being that they consider the material to be
> non-cumulative.
> As co-author of a textbook in human development I was REQUIRED to
> permit the
> company to create a multiple-choice test bank, in computerized form,
> that
> included "hard, medium, and easy" questions on every point tested
> on. (This
> work was done by academics in relatively low ranking universities
> who needed
> the extra money and, in principle, monitored by my co-authors and me).
> The result of this kind of educational regime is the production of
> students
> who are expert at reading texts for the multiple choice questions
> they will
> generate. Students in a seminar I conducted while
> revising the text, who were asked to criticize the text and look into
> contemporary research on the materials contained in the existing
> edition
> routinely criticized those passages in the text designed to explain
> why an
> issue was important or to provide historical context for a line of
> theorizing or empirical study. As seniors, the entire focus of my
> teaching
> was on seeking to re-orient them to meaning making and critical
> inquiry.
> As a result of this kind of experience I have instituted a number of
> interventions to break up the
> memorize-and-forget orientation of the students. This is a topic of
> its own
> which we can get into
> if there is interest.
> Observation #2. In the Communication Department there is a senior
> seminar to
> insure that students get at least one "small" class (up to 25). On
> the first
> day of this seminar I ask students to write down the courses they
> have taken
> previously as they approach graduation, the name of the instructor,
> and the
> main topic of the course (They have quite variable course histories
> that I
> try to take into account in organizing instruction). Routinely,
> students
> are unable to remember either the names of instructors or the
> content of
> their prior courses. But they remember the Catalogue numbers of the
> courses.
> Why? Because their interactions with staff about graduation
> requirements are
> coded by those course numbers and they are filling in the blank
> numbers,
> waiting for their list of graduation requirements to be filled.
> Observation #3. I am currently teaching a middle size class (40) in
> which
> students are required to present the readings to the class.
> Routinely, they
> use powerpoint to organize their presentation. They then read from
> the power
> point. The power point slides are a combination of bullet points
> that are
> "copy matches" of lines of the text and quotations from the text,
> sometimes
> with what they consider key points in red or some attention-grabbing
> format.
> Students sitting the class, who I have insured have read the text by
> asking
> a simple question about its main idea at the start of every class,
> sit and
> listen as if they understood. But neither the presenters nor the
> students
> (nor I) can understand the presentation because it is entirely a
> surface
> level repetition in which relevant and irrelevant facts and words the
> student do not understand are mixed in a jumble. They do not
> recognize when
> the word
> "university" is substituted for the term "universal" which is key to a
> reading. They cannot explain what possible relationship the words
> "universal" and "university" might bear, one to the other.
> There is much more to what follows in this class as I seek to get
> students
> to interrogate the article and their own power point presentations, to
> explore the meanings of key terms they have copied from the text but
> cannot
> use in a meaningful sentence, and to help them link what they are
> reading to
> their own prior experiences. Again, a topic in its own right.
> Provisional conclusion: At the level of classroom teaching/learning
> activity
> students in the social sciences at my university are being
> socialized into a
> form of alienated, mystified discourse that they are certain has
> nothing
> whatsoever to do with the realities of their everyday lives or
> anything
> outside of the mystified discourse itself. This form of education
> is not
> the result of intellectual limitations of the student body. It is the
> manifestation, at the level of classroom teaching/learning, of the
> same
> sorts of phenomena that Erik and Michalis have discussed at the
> level of the
> university system as an institution. I do not believe the problems are
> restricted to UCSD, or UC.
> mike
> PS—In my view, ideally, the university should represent a form of
> social
> intelligence for society. This implies both the need for autonomy a la
> Bologna and for critical engagement with society, e.g. a theory/
> practice
> methodology as a macro-social practice.
> On Sat, May 24, 2008 at 4:15 AM, E. Knutsson
> <> wrote:
>> Dear Michalis,
>> Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You refer to the neo-liberal
>> educational
>> reforms in Europe, in which the 'dysfunctionality' of the
>> university is the
>> main argument used by neo-liberal politicians in order to "convince
>> the
>> public
>> opinion that competition between universities and evaluation, free
>> market
>> of
>> knowledge, commercialization of education etc. are the only existing
>> possibilities towards broader national development, progress, etc."
>> You seem to prefer or emphasize a (Marxist?) class perspective, but
>> I doubt
>> that Marxist(oid) explanatory models can illuminate the problem of
>> (subcultural) conformism.
>> Historical experience seems to suggest that universities could gain
>> from
>> keeping more distance to the political field. The University of
>> Naples was
>> never very distinguished; the University of the Roman Couria was
>> worst of
>> all,
>> because it was too close to the pope. The "provincial" Bologna
>> epitomized
>> the
>> extreme vitality of twelfth- and early-thirteenth-century European
>> society
>> – a
>> rapid rate of demographic and economic growth coupled with
>> considerable
>> political dislocation and disorganization.
>> As summarized by Le Goff, "Academics . . . sought to define
>> themselves as
>> an
>> intellectual aristocracy, endowed with . . . [a] specific morality
>> and code
>> of
>> values". For this intellectual "nobility", nothing was more
>> important than
>> autonomy.
>> Eric.
>> On 2008-05-23, at 13:02, Michalis Kontopodis wrote:
>>> Dear Eric,
>>> I cannot resist commending your ideas: at the moment a neo-liberal
>>> educational reform is taking place in Europe--which I experience at
>>> two different sites: Germany (centre, where I work) and Greece
>>> (european periphery, where I come from).
>>> The 'dysfunctionality' of the (public) university is the main
>>> argument, which neo-liberal politicians use, in order to convince
>>> the
>>> public opinion that competition between universities and evaluation,
>>> free market of knowledge, commercialization of education etc. are
>>> the
>>> only existing possibilities towards broader national development,
>>> progress, etc.
>>> In this context, the upper classes of Greece & Germany which are
>>> mainly represented in the university (as well as in other state
>>> institutions) seem to lose their privileges and turn into either
>>> normal workers (short term contracts, less security etc.) or into
>>> managers of research centers (much more profit, than ever before).
>>> At the same time, students mainly from middle social classes (not
>>> legal or illegal migrants, not workers) protest for maintaining the
>>> free public educational system, academic freedom etc.
>>> The university in (West) Germany and in Greece has never been indeed
>>> revolutionary. In its best times it represented the development of
>>> middle class and supported its establishment by means of state
>>> politics, funds, long-term working contracts etc. Exams, notes,
>>> certificates etc. have been the tools that supported this
>>> establishment and attributed a lot of authority to university as an
>>> institution. The division of theory & praxis, the disciplinary
>>> knowledge and the abstract and universal way science views the world
>>> as a meaningful whole have also been important characteristics of
>>> this
>>> development.
>>> Taking under consideration that no university existed in the
>>> medieval
>>> mediterranean space, and the particular character the university has
>>> gained after the French Revolution, I would argue that: from the
>>> very
>>> beginning of capitalism or of modernity the European university had
>>> the above-mentioned internal contradictions which are expressed in a
>>> very particular way in the context of contemporary neo-liberalism,
>>> globalisation etc.
>>> I would be very happy if the university would be re-territorialized
>>> and connected to pioneer social praxis and am sure that educational
>>> cooperations between schools and universities, community education
>>> and
>>> other programs (see: Cole, Hedegaard & Chaiklin, M. Gibson etc.),
>>> social and political anthropological projects etc. can be seen as
>>> examples of how such a social praxis would look like.
>>> Michalis Kontopodis
>>> research associate
>>> humboldt university berlin
>>> tel.: +49 (0) 30 2093 3716
>>> fax.: +49 (0) 30 2093 3739
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Received on Sun May 25 02:54 PDT 2008

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