Cathy Davidson, the author of a new book, The New Education, visited Georgetown today. In a conversation about the book, she reviewed the historical roots of many of the practices of the modern university, many lying with Charles Eliot at Harvard in the late 19th century. These include the organization into departments, fields that separated the humanities and sciences, testing, grading systems, faculty career lines, tenure, and the devotion to research activities among faculty. Her thesis is that this organization was appropriate for the dawn of important industrial developments and global financial systems at the time. It seems less well suited, she argued, for a world in which communication across the world is available to all with an internet connection, when much of human knowledge is digitally documented, and when technology is redefining how different pieces of knowledge might be combined.
Much of the message is not new to those in higher education. Indeed, we at Georgetown are thickly in the discussion of alternative ways forward. (We’re proud that part of her book describes pedagogical innovations led by some of our own colleagues.) The linking to the historical roots of the current organization of universities was new to me and provoked many thoughts about what has enduring value in what we now do and what is acting as a drag on the impact that higher education has on the world.
The discussion and questions were rich in how an elite institution can contribute to social mobility in today’s world. Professor Davidson made the point that a self-acknowledgement of the privileges we enjoy at Georgetown is a good starting point. From that self-awareness, we might focus more consistent attention on how we can do our institution’s part at building a better, more equitable world. How we teach is part of that solution.
She herself moved in her career from Duke to CUNY, two very different institutions. She reported a newly-learned sense of humility with regard to how universities can contribute to social mobility. One unforgettable vignette described a faculty member who noted that one student performed much better with in-class writing than writing assignments performed out of class. This was a puzzle until the instructor learned that the student was a full-time EMT, writing out essays on a cell phone in-between runs to provide emergency medical care. Dr. Davidson said that the discipline and hunger for learning she sees in these students are an ever-present reminder that CUNY is, indeed, changing lives as an engine for social and economic mobility. Elite institutions have the privilege of fully immersive education, with the proportion of a student’s life devoted to their studies being much higher.
Part of her message was to each of us individually. Change in higher education sometimes seems an overwhelmingly complex task, requiring the undoing of old structures, rules, and practices. Taking on the whole project at once is so complex that it is easy for each of us to convince ourselves that we’re not responsible for innovation and change that we ourselves think would be useful. She flatly rejected this posture.
In a short exercise, she illustrated a technique of exchange of ideas within a group setting that assured that each member of the group would have a voice – even the shy, even those who felt marginalized, even those who display very different cognitive styles. It was a simple writing down of key issues by each member of the group, a discussion in dyads of each other’s comments, and a reporting out. The goal: feedback to the instructor about what content was being absorbed and truly uniform participation. Gone was the domination of the class by a small number of members.
Her point – this is the type of change that each faculty member can introduce without any alteration of the rules, without any review by curriculum committees. It was just an illustration of how each of us have opportunities to introduce innovation in our teaching, towards ends of greater involvement of students.