An Assessment, and a Small Intervention: On Pedagogy and Intellectual Community

By and on October 16th, 2013 0 Comments »

 

We initially drafted this piece as a series of propositions and reflections to circulate to the group in advance of the workshop/roundtable discussion, in response to a set of prompts. We decided to preserve that form in the final version, which also reflects our response to that day’s discussion. It is by no means an exhaustive treatment of any of these topics.

 

I. Conditions

At present there is a broad and sustained assault upon forms of critical education and scholarship.  As a result, wide swaths of the humanities, social sciences and even the theoretical sciences are in danger of becoming the rarefied pursuits of a tiny, economically privileged elite or vanishing altogether. This is not due to lack of interest or to the transformation or exhaustion of these disciplines. Students and faculty alike are encouraged to pursue “practical” or “applied” fields at the expense of a liberal arts education in the humanities and social sciences, or even some of the theoretical areas within the highly touted “STEM” fields.  This shift accompanies the growing trend towards the internalization of diffuse corporate ideologies within universities, in the “re-engineering” of the labor force as well as the increasingly prevalent view of students as “consumers” in the market of higher education. 1

We understand this phenomenon within the context of broader economic trends. The transformation of many formerly stable sectors of economic life into modes of precarious labor is by no means confined to academia. But American higher education represents a fairly dramatic example of this trend. In 1975, nearly 60% of faculty at American colleges and universities had full-time, stable employment. 2 Today, approximately 76% of the academic workforce is made up of contingent, undercompensated, and part-time workers who lack job security. 3 This transformation is not only disastrous for the livelihood and well-being of this workforce, but also has significant repercussions for the state of the academy, as it drastically constrains possibilities for research and writing and adversely affects the quality of students’ education.

These phenomena are unfolding within a political and administrative climate that is antagonistic to critical education and research. The past decade provides copious examples. In 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott threatened the elimination of all state funding for anthropology. At the national level, the Senate recently adopted new rules limiting National Science Foundation funding and support in political science to projects that demonstrably promote “the national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The American Political Science Association aptly summarized the new rules: “While political science research is most immediately affected, at risk is any and all research in any and all disciplines funded by the NSF.  The amendment makes all scientific research vulnerable to the whims of political pressure.” 4 Indeed, the House of Representatives has already confirmed this fear by taking up the “High Quality Research Act,” which, “in effect, would replace peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a set of funding criteria chosen by Congress. For good measure, it would also set in motion a process to determine whether the same criteria should be adopted by every other federal science agency.” 5 Here in New York City, administrations have attempted to strong-arm or even eliminate entire academic programs to conform to new administrative policies deemed educationally deficient by faculty, as in the case of the Queensborough Community College English department. 6 City officials and well-funded private organizations have applied pressure to universities in the attempt to affect hiring or tenure processes, as in the cases of Professor Nadia Abu el-Haj at Barnard College and Professor Joseph Massad at Columbia University. 7 Such pressures not only stifle new, challenging, or politically “sensitive” research on the part of the faculty; they can also engender stultifying classroom environments that work directly against the free exchange of ideas.

The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research constitutes a small but, we hope, meaningful intervention in these conditions.

II. Ideology

We have no formal collective ideology. No doubt there are scholars who work and teach with us who would not agree with parts of this analysis.  We are an independent, interdisciplinary institute, unattached to any party or movement. That said, it is possible to discern something of an emergent ideology based on the various practices we engage in as Institute faculty, especially our pedagogical mission. This lack of a formal ideology does not reflect an adherence to any form of “practicism,” action or activism for its own sake. Nor does it mean that we conceive of our work as apolitical. Our faculty and their courses are not required to directly address what might be typically considered “social” questions. But in our commitment to teaching, to integrating pedagogical and research interests, to working in social spaces throughout the city, and to genuine interdisciplinarity and scholarly collaboration, we nonetheless place modes of sociality at the center of our work. Unsurprisingly, given these commitments, many of our projects do share a common thread of attunement to and concern for material and social conditions.

III. Pedagogy

Teaching has been our core practice from day one.  We teach rigorous seminar-style courses drawn from recognizable models within the university and the liberal arts college. We utilize formal syllabi with primary and secondary literature, preserve a classroom hierarchy with an instructor and students, and do not simplify or water down course material. We maintain the distinction between faculty and student because we value the expertise and depth of knowledge that our faculty members bring to their classes and their ability to generate and guide productive discussions.  This expertise includes both the command of basic material facts and the kind of scholarly understanding and intuition acquired from years of immersion in the literature and technical language of a specific discipline. We cap our classes at twenty students to ensure that our classrooms are spaces that encourage genuinely open-ended and impassioned conversation.

Although we employ many such trappings of traditional higher education, they are accompanied by other, less established pedagogical practices. All of our classes take place outside of traditional classrooms, in bars, bookstores, and cultural centers. There are no exams. The duration of the courses (six two-hour meetings over six weeks) and the lengths of reading assignments (no more than 100 pages/week) are tailored to the schedules and material needs of working adults. We hold classes in the evenings and encourage students to eat and drink during class. Although we conduct classes in a structured and thoughtful manner, we also encourage a convivial atmosphere during and (especially) after class, when we invite all present to continue the conversation informally over drinks or food, such that the boundary between when class ends and “regular” conversation starts is porous. This may seem like a trivial intervention, but we have found that it goes a long way in countering a wide range of tacit assumptions, most obviously the artificial separation of intellectual life and critical thought from the so-called “real world.”  Some of our pedagogical practices overlap with other aspects of our mission, such as our commitment to interdisciplinary research. We always have at least one other faculty member from a different discipline sitting in on each course. In this way, we have faculty and students learning together. Students hear scholars from different disciplines and perspectives engage with the same subject matter, and our faculty constantly learn from one another, both in terms of pedagogical techniques and disciplinary languages, methods, and literatures.  We believe that this kind of literacy and ongoing, in-person conversation must be part of the foundation of any truly interdisciplinary research.

We hope that our approach to the classroom inherits many of the benefits of traditional academic rigor, minus the posturing and the anxiety that often accompany academic discussion and evaluation. And we hope, too, that our experiments with more unorthodox and socially-embedded educational practices engender truly open spaces for discourse and inquiry and foster a general sense of freedom to express ignorance and confusion without fear or expectation of judgment.  Without the goal of a degree, a grade, the promise of career advancement, or allegiance to any specific political movement or ideological project, such practices can open up a space that is not merely about education for its own sake but rather one that helps to foster some kind of critical consciousness. We do not consider this a utopian goal; we harbor no illusions that we can simply will away the myriad social and economic conditions that inform the daily lives of our students and faculty. But we are committed to exploring the possibilities for such spaces in the here and now, however liminal or transient they may be.

IV. Constituency

While we have had students as young as 18 and several well into their 80s, the vast majority of our students are working adults in the 20-50 age range, a group often overlooked in discussions driven by instrumental conceptions of education. Our students come from a wide range of educational backgrounds. Some have a few years of high school; others have advanced degrees; some are simultaneously enrolled in degree-granting programs. This diversity of educational backgrounds informs how we design and teach our courses, and we frequently struggle with the question of how to balance the needs of students who are totally new to a given field or topic with the interests of those with considerable background. We do not view this struggle as a chore, but rather as an opportunity for truly unexpected and engaging conversation. We have also had remarkable success in attracting a diverse student body in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, and religion.  At the same time, we are well aware that our students are drawn almost entirely from the middle and upper classes. Although we attempt to keep our fees as low as possible, we realize that we are, in essence, pricing some people out of our classes. We address this issue below in section VI.

That said, we conjecture that some of our success in attracting a diverse student body is linked to our experiments with course design and use of space. We believe that our use of physical space is particularly important in this respect. We utilize a wide variety of non-traditional spaces for our classes, from bookstores to the back rooms of bars to a variety of spaces donated by New York City cultural institutions. This strategy has obvious pragmatic advantages for us; the Institute can remain afloat in large part because there is no physical Brooklyn Institute. But there are other benefits. We repurpose space that is under-utilized or not in use at the time of our classes in ways that are mindful of monetary and natural resources and mutually beneficial for everyone involved. We also have students who would never set foot on a college campus, particularly as adults, who feel at ease in a bar or a restaurant; others are more comfortable in a cultural institution or a commercial space like a bookstore. By teaching in all these spaces, we reach out to a diverse group of people. What’s more, we can simultaneously foster intellectual engagement within pre-existing communities and connect our various constituencies into a larger community through the loose network of the Brooklyn Institute itself.

V. Collaborators

Most of what we do would not be possible without the support of our partner organizations and collaborators.  We work with a wide variety of organizations and businesses and we try to do so on a basis of mutual benefit and support. This can be as simple as bringing a little extra business to a bar or restaurant on an “off” night in exchange for the use of space, or it can involve intricate collaborations with organizations on other projects. We are currently working or have recently worked with (in chronological order) the Center for Jewish History; Dissent Magazine; the Singularity&Co. bookstore; 61 Local; the Barnard Center for Research on Women; the Goethe-Institut; the Bruce High Quality Foundation University; and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. The terms of each collaboration depend on our mutual needs; they are organic, evolving partnerships.

VI. Education, Labor, Value

One of the primary conditions that prompted the formation of the Institute is the systemic devaluation of academic labor. Although this devaluation also operates ideologically, it is most immediately visible in terms of inadequate financial compensation and lack of job security and support. 76% of faculty currently teaching at American universities represent some form of contingent labor, whether they are designated as adjuncts, lecturers, or graduate students. Contingent faculty, if they are lucky—such as graduate students on full fellowships—might earn something like a living wage. The vast majority, however, are adjunct faculty, who frequently cobble together a “living” teaching classes at multiple schools and often skirt the federal poverty line. 8 This devaluation of the labor of the vast majority of university instructors nationwide is particularly ironic as the costs of a university education and levels of student debt continue to soar.

There are far too many factors involved in this situation to adequately address it here. As such, we will only discuss our response as an organization to the situation. We charge tuition that is generally $315 for each six-week course. At present, the faculty member who teaches the course receives 80% of this fee and the Institute receives the remaining 20%. This means that a faculty member in a course with 12 students (our median per class enrollment for 2013 9) would earn  $3024 for that course. The remaining $756 goes to the Institute to cover overhead such as advertising, occasional room fees, supplies like books and dry erase boards, hosting, legal, and accounting fees, and compensating our staff. While $3024 is still not a staggering amount of money for teaching a university-level course, it is nonetheless considerably more than an adjunct professor earns at most universities for a fourteen- or fifteen-week class which might also contain many more students. Furthermore, as our courses are usually designed by individual faculty members, they often reflect some part of a research program for a particular project. Thus academic scholarship—which is typically produced, written, and edited entirely for free—becomes part of a teaching program, and in doing so becomes paid labor.  We hope, too, that this practice can broaden interest in and engagement with academic scholarship beyond the confines of the university.

It is by no means a perfect or complete solution. As it stands, although the Institute pays better than adjuncting, it would still be difficult for our faculty to live on their Brooklyn Institute income alone. But even as we (a non-profit organization) explore other avenues for revenue, we would like to consider the following possibilities. First, if our model is successful and reproducible as a viable form of alternative employment for academics, it could put pressure on the existing academic labor market to redress the precarious conditions to which contingent faculty are currently subject. Second, if our model is successful and reproducible as an effort to integrate critical learning and scholarly practices into communities beyond the walls of the university, it could help, slowly and incrementally, to transform some of the political conditions and purely market-based assumptions discussed earlier. Third, if our model is successful and reproducible as a viable alternative to producing serious, rigorous scholarship—particularly if our efforts at genuinely interdisciplinary work (which are only in their infancy at present) bear fruit—we will have demonstrated, albeit on a very small scale, that the existing monopolies in academic publishing are outdated and unnecessary and challenged the status of the university as the only site for the production of rigorous scholarship.

The key word here is challenged, not displaced, supplanted, or destroyed. We do not view ourselves as part of any kind of movement to abolish or replace the modern university. We are all academics. Most of us work at colleges and universities and care deeply about these institutions. We do seek to challenge university administrations, political leaders, and economic elites on the grounds of currently unsustainable conditions of faculty employment and the damaging social, economic, and political limitations to education and scholarship currently in place. We do not propose some magical market-based solution to the current academic crisis; rather, we help demonstrate that the academic crisis is partially the result of the exclusive ascendency of market-based systems, solutions, and evaluations.

Even if we succeed in any of the ways described above, we will still have demonstrated the limitations of a purely market-based solution. In charging fees for our courses, we recognize that we have in effect excluded a wide array of working-class, poor, and under- or unemployed people.  As such, although the continued existence of the Institute currently requires fees, we are also exploring other forms of funding to create scholarships and lower fees, as well as considering more creative solutions to lowering this particular barrier to entry. Some have suggested that the solution to this problem is not to charge fees at all, to participate in some kind of alternative, altruistic barter economy within late capitalism. But this solution is the anarchistic reflection of the existing neoliberal devaluation of intellectual labor. Without the conditions of a vastly more just society—including, for example, guaranteed minimum incomes and true universal healthcare—such an attempt would undermine much of what our project does accomplish in terms of better compensation and opportunities for young scholars, educational opportunities for local communities, and innovations in interdisciplinary pedagogical and scholarly techniques. Others have suggested that all these problems can and will be solved through technological innovation, such as the now seemingly omnipresent massively open online course (MOOC). While we are open to the possibility of many kinds of learning experiences and situations, we seek to leverage technology in order to foster embodied interaction and critical conversation.

VII. Historical Antecedents

We do not view what we are doing now as wholly new or unique, nor do we see the contemporary university as monolithic or unchanging. There is no more reason to assume that the configuration of the modern university that took shape in the United States after the second World War is any less transient than the Aristotelian universities of medieval Europe, Plato’s Academy in Athens, the Bayt al-Hikma of ninth century Baghdad, or the Nalanda of fifth century Bihar. That said, there is also no need to posit some sort of teleological progress of history in order to find many of the ideas and practices of the modern university well worth pursuing. But there is also a long history of extra- or para- institutional education and academic inquiry. Our own economic model, for example—dependent upon universities for the recognition of some measure of expertise, and yet economically independent of them—bears some resemblance to the 19th century German Privatdozent system, in which universities recognized instructors’ qualifications, but did not pay them; rather, they earned money directly from the students who chose to attend their lectures. Kant spent fifteen years working as a Privatdozent; Hegel, four. Indeed, some of the most significant contributions to “classic” academic literature were developed largely outside the university. Consider the members of the Scottish Enlightenment and their groundbreaking empiricism, which was developed in independent intellectual societies, local Scottish universities—and yes, even taverns—explicitly as a challenge to what they perceived as the reigning Thomistic-Aristotelian dogma that dominated the universities of mainland Europe. Or Nietzsche, who spent a full twenty-four years as a professor of philology before leaving the university to produce his most famous philosophical treatises.  Indeed, images of the independent scholar abound, from Spinoza grinding lenses to Einstein in the patent office. Our point is certainly not to compare ourselves to these lofty figures, but simply to shake off the ahistorical notion that the university has always been the sole site for intellectual production and to draw attention to the many historical antecedents for academic work to flourish in para-university contexts, in multiple simultaneous configurations of the sites and organizations of education and scholarship. Some have been fully independent of the recognized universities of the day, others closer to ancillary branches of them. Others were somewhere in between, including the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, from which we draw many of our ideas about the possibilities of an independent, interdisciplinary institution (and, of course, our name).

VIII. Utility and Uselessness

To understand education and research as purely instrumental is to undermine the unforeseeable productive possibilities that can emerge from in-person interaction and conversation. This critique applies to a wide variety of arguments about the purpose of education, including the propositions that education and scholarship ought to be either 1) understood in terms of economic efficiency and use; 2) conceived primarily in terms of good citizenship; 3) somehow apolitical; or 4) subordinated to a political or social movement. This is not, of course, to deny that education or scholarship can or ought to be economically, politically, or socially useful. Nor is it to claim for education a kind of pure autonomy that is heedless of the world around it, i.e. education purely for its own sake. It is rather to recognize the necessity for what we might call a kind of engaged autonomy. If education and scholarship are not allowed to unfold in some meaningful sense according to their own internal logics, the space for the unfolding of critical consciousness is eclipsed in favor of a type of inquiry whose content is preordained. In this sense we seek to recognize the utility in uselessness.

IX. Knowledge Production

Any concern with critical education requires the recognition of the necessity for continuing production of autonomous scholarship. Although we describe our central mission as a pedagogical one, we believe that one of the most productive ways to address this need is to collapse some of the distinctions between critical education and scholarship. As such, we are committed to multiple forms of interdisciplinary academic work. Our podcast series—which began before we taught our first Institute class, and which brings together scholars from a variety of fields in conversation—is our first foray in this direction. In addition, we have already begun to lay the groundwork for an experimental, peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary e-journal that will leverage the digital form to make the strengths and weaknesses of peer-review that are so critical to scholars more transparent to any reader, and to encourage creative new forms of scholarly interaction in and around the journal itself. Our “~Archive” project is already underway, a digital humanities collection which will eventually become an open-access repository for rare and out-of-print scholarly work. And of course, we are committed to traditional writing projects in the forms of individually and collectively authored books and articles. Through our insistence on in-person interdisciplinary collaboration, the intimate relationship of pedagogy and scholarship, the inseparability of intellectual activity and daily life, and the conviction that academic labor is work worth doing, we hope to play a meaningful role in creating and sustaining new intellectual communities.

Notes:

  1. A partial list of recent publications on this subject includes Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, New York: Fordham UP, 2008; Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2011; Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2012; The Adjunct Project (edited by Josh Boldt) at the Chronicle of Higher Education; Sarah Kendzior’s columns in Al Jazeera; and many more.
  2. US Department of Education via the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Annual Report 2011: http://www.aaup.org/NR/rdonlyres/7C3039DD-EF79-4E75-A20D-6F75BA01BE84/0/Trends.pdf
  3. AAUP Annual Report 2012-2013, p. 8
  4. American Political Science Association, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/senate-delivers-a-devastating-blow-to-the-integrity-of-the-scientific-process-at-the-national-science-foundation-199221111.html
  5. Jeffery Mervis, “U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants,” Science, April 28, 2013. “http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2013/04/us-lawmaker-proposes-new-criteri-1.html. The proposed new legislation itself: http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/HQRA13_001_xml.pdf
  6. http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/cuny-colleges-english-department-faces-big-cuts-in-dispute-over-credit-hours/48904. For more information on faculty objections to the new “Pathways” program for CUNY, please see Massimo Pigliucci’s “City University of New York to Turn into Glorified High School,” http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2011/11/city-university-of-new-york-to-turn.html
  7. Please see Jane Kramer, “The Petition,” The New Yorker, April 14, 2008.
  8. The federal poverty level for a household of one is currently $11,490 per year (see US Department of Health and Human Services, “2013 Poverty Guidelines” http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/13poverty.cfm.) An adjunct earning the median $2700 per course would need to find and teach 4-5 such courses a year to reach that level. An adjunct teaching 8 courses a year (a heavy teaching load) would earn an annual income of $21,800 with no benefits or job security.
  9. Since the start of 2013 – our second full year of operation – our median class enrollment has been 12 students (average 12.625, mode 12, std dev. 3.7).




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