Last Wednesday, I attended a lecture entitled, Why Ethnography Matters, Intimate Detail in Political Process, at U of Melbourne by Dr. Michael Hertzfeld of Harvard's Anthropology Dept. The thesis of his talk was how anthropology has an important role to play in salvaging/improving "what the University is intended to be--a place of argument, discussion, exploration, and opening up new possibilities" through its focus on gaining "intimate knowledge." It is the process of gaining this intimate knowledge through a long term and deep understanding of, for example, kinship, local language, and gesture (i.e. ethnography) that the University can be saved from becoming factories.
He started with a description of the modern University. He posited that, under the guise of neo-liberal efficiency, the University's role as a place of "dialogue, discussion, and mediation" is being eroded by systems of (1) simplification, where in the positivist fashion fewer data is considered better data and thus "plurality of fact" is ignored; (2) accounting, where metric based monitoring of performance through the quantity of knowledge outputs mismeasures that you are actually trying to measure: the quality of knowledge, which could be accomplished through one "earth-shattering" paper; and (3) hegemony and representation, by which the University is seeking to gain the power attached to business by pretending it is a business, but it is by nature something else.
In terms of simplication, he tied it to the way politics are done in the media and how faculty promotion evaluation is done in the Academy. In both cases, there is a bias toward the simplifiction of information, which unfortunately leads to a reduction in knowledge. The U.S. Healthcare discussion gets reduced to the simple facts of "reducing customer choice." The promotion of a faculty member gets based on whether he or she has published 10 articles in tier one peer review journals and two books over a period of 6-7 years, regardless of the actual quality of the content. He demonstrated how at Harvard the process is different, or at least was different. They would ask 25 leading experts in the person's field to describe the quality of the person's body of work (i.e. the content), not just the enumeration of stuff done.
I found most immediately useful his discussion of what Marilyn Strathern describes as "audit culture" inside and outside of the Academy. He started with the origins of accounting based on the "confessional" practices of the Catholic Church as described by James Aho's Confession and Bookkeeping. The movement of audit from a term in the financial accounting sector to other professional sectors in the 1980s is addressed in Strathern's edited volume. The concept has come to me at a crucial time as I am ramping up on my position as Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching, and therefore am encountering first-hand the artifacts, processes, and outcomes of Swinburne's own audit culture. Each faculty member has to complete a workplan, which is a glorified timesheet. There is then a professional development audit and course evaluations from students. All this auditing does provide greater transparency into the expectations for the University; but it also as Foucault states a "relationship of power between the scrutinzer and observed: the latter are rendered objects of information, never subjects of communication." This makes very clear to me the core of my new role: take these technologies of auditing and make sure they are being used to enable faculty and students to be rich subjects of communication.
In terms of hegemony, Hertzfeld discusses how Universities are racing to become "nationalized centers for closed minds" because they have accepted the discourse of business (which holds the seat of power) without realizing that they function quite differently. For example, business needs the systems of auditing because the profit motive incentivizes dishonesty in relationships. Here he mentioned the Madoff scandal. Although there are examples of academic fraud (for which the academic citation system is the auditing mechanism), the "open secrets" of the University system tend to be less grave. We don't aways teach as well everyday. Our meetings are not always productive. These need to be monitored so that we can offer support for learning and teaching as responsible and accountable educators. But one would have that if one had knowledge about the people in the faculty. This is where the grow, grow, grow model of education (as factory) is a significant problem. He mentioned that while anthropology teaches many popular classes at UMelb, they are "rewarded" with higher student/teacher ratios instead of more faculty positions. They are "rewarded" with having to teach two units of the same course instead of a larger lecture hall to accomodate all the students. There are indications of the same issues in my faculty at Swinburne.
There is one interesting blind spot in Hertzfeld's reading of what is going on the Academy related to the University as Factory model. It is also the "democratization" of the University that has resulted in this phenomenon. Meaning, when Universities were the domain of elite cultures, they were places of discussion, debate, and contemplation among gentlemen scholars who had shaped the University as an extention of the private luxury for the intellectual leisure described in the novels of E.M. Forster. If the modern education system for everyone else (who was not elite) was to prepare/discipline subjects for life in factories, then it makes sense that when Universities began to cater to the non-elite, they probably had both internal/external pressures to transform the culture to become more businesslike. It is the parents of the middle and lower classes that demand that their investment in their children's educations pay off in high status employability. If you are an elite, you already have high status and your family wealth protects you from the necessity of employability. From the perspective of faculty, the elite University culture of contemplation and discussion was "the ole boy network." It was and remains extremely hostile to women and people of color because of the assumptions of sameness and priviledge that is not shared by the transmodern teaching staff. The emancipatory part of the mechanization of the Factory is the fact that these auditing systems have a greater chance at being neutral and thus allowing those outside of the elite group to advance through the system.
So now what do we do? The purposes of the university in terms of places for "dialogue, discussion, and mediation" should not be lost in the conversion of the University to a Factory. The price of dehumanization is too high and if education is about the transmissions of knowledge (i.e. information contextually embedded in individuals, time, and space) across time and space; it is very distinct from an ethos of information transmission. Yet, we do require that the large education systems that exists have a means of monitoring the effectiveness, fairness, justice, as well as humanness of the system. Perhaps as an anthropologist in a role of Associate Dean of teaching and learning, can help develop monitoring systems that are not coercive, but rather springboards to deeper intimacy of knowledge witiin the academy.