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Illustration: Linnea McNally

Linnea McNally: Otherwise Other Worlds
Illustration: Linnea McNally

A Post-Script from Crisis & Chaos: A letter to whom it may concern, on the crisis of the university


            The other day, one of my professors (whom we will call “JD”), sent out an email to the rest of the English department titled “apocalypse online?” The email included a link to the website of a new organization called Academic Earth. Academic Earth (AE) offers anyone and everyone free university lectures (from Yale, Harvard, et al.) over the internet. If you are ‘connected,’ you can learn. The ongoing responses in my inbox have varied: one professor, “SM”, thinks this is “amazing” and perhaps “the model of public access we should encourage.” “SZ” believes that the three business-school “wankers” behind AE are likely only doing this for their own profit. Furthermore, he believes that by convincing people who cannot afford to attend university that they can succeed in the business world if they just watch these lectures and ‘try their best,’ AE is reinforcing unfair meritocratic messages: “if you fail, it’s your own fault for not being talented or smart enough.” In his response, JD questions the wanker-ness of AE: not only do they offer entrepreneurship lectures, they offer full courses from Yale on Milton, the American novel, and Dante’s Inferno. To JD, Academic Earth is a serious threat: “If they can find a way to make money, and inject their service somehow into the degree-granting activity of universities, then perhaps they can put us all out of work -- or at least into less of it.”

            AE is only one of several ‘edupunk’ engines on the web – organizations that seek to rethink the current structure and system of education. The transformations edupunk groups offer, however, are rarely polyphonic. On the iTunes U website, customers are given one more reason to pledge sole allegiance to the Apple:

Now [you] can learn anytime and anywhere, too. As educators all over the world are discovering, mobile learning works. Students devour engaging, customized curricula when it’s delivered on the iPod or iPhone. It’s a familiar and essential part of their lives. Audio and video podcasts let students study at their own pace, wherever and whenever they want” (

iTunes U ‘works’ – it is the answer. However, what is left out of the conversation is the problem, or the crisis. What corporations like Apple are quickly learning is that the crisis of the university, of the ongoing struggle to make education relevant, is best left unmentioned if you are going to suggest yet another monologici solution. Rather than suggest that the crisis must be solved polyphonically, iTunes U catalyses the belief in the ‘one’ solution: it works so well that students, hungry for the comfort of something that ‘works’ to solve a malaise produced by an always-present but soon undiagnosable crisis, cannot help but ‘devour’ whatever Apple puts before them.

            However, as my professors have acknowledged, while projects like Academic Earth and iTunes U provide open-source learning to those who cannot logistically attend university because of financial, time, and geographic restraints, they do not in reality offer the same opportunities to everyone. If you are poor, work several jobs, and live in the projects, you might not have high-speed Internet or even a laptop on which you can watch your free lectures. Nevertheless, if one must choose between a university education and making a one-off purchase of a $300 iPod that can connect to the internet over a weekly cup of coffee at Starbucks, the second choice – while it cannot yet earn you a degree – is clearly the more affordable option, and the option which several of my friends, becoming more disillusioned with the ‘purpose’ of a university degree, have elected.

            I confess that I too have an iPod and that I am looking forward to watching some of these lectures; however, I want to clearly lay out what I see as the danger of the online open-source university. In The University of Ruins, Bill Readings alludes to this problem:

[the polis has not been realized] because of technical success. That is to say, the development of technologies capable of processing and transmitting information (of “informationalizing” the world) has expanded so that the speed and range of information exchange exceeds the capacities of the subject who had been destined to master such information. (Readings 190)

While iTunes U wants its customers to see its offerings as “engaging,” my fear is that its model, as a sole model, will have stultifying side-effects: as technology moves faster, we will not be able to keep up, and will instead become frazzled, passive observers of our own culture, left with little opportunity to exchange or to thicken our social bond. Some may argue that the world wide web is itself a polyphonic arena – that blog comments and ‘tags’ allow us to interact; and yet, we are hidden when we perform all these functions, most often behind pseudonyms, so that we are not held accountable to one another, not caught up in a web of obligations. Rather, wholly virtual communities permit us to retreat into enclaves, just as the field-coverage modelii has done in the university, while the rest of the world evolves.

            Finally, what I believe we will allow, through the dissolution of the traditional model of the university, is the homogenization of one of the most essential and polyphonic components of the education experience: our sensual experiences. Although I can barely remember the days before email, I cannot help but feel that something has been lost in my repertoire of interpersonal relations. After a friend recently showed me several inches of rubbed-raw welts on her wrists, a result of her laptop’s constant grating against her arms, it occurred to me how little physical contact I have had in the last several months: I have been too ‘busy’ typing emails and watching YouTube clips. Another of my friends at university has had the opportunities to participate in archeological digs around the world because of her studies; but an online university might only allow her the semblance of participation – a type of pornographic experience in which she watches as others touch. If we move to an online environment, not only are we relieving ourselves from responsible relations with one another, we are reducing the polyphonic, multidimensional human experience to a mono- or at best two-dimensional sphere. In time, will the only sensation students know be the smooth, warm skin of a keyboard and the consoling glow of a flatscreen?


            While corporations and their exclusive solutions offer to soothe chafing in an atomised and frenetic world, the university today can offer an excuse to slow down and gather. Only once we are able to stop thinking of education as a dissemination of knowledge, and rather as a reason to commune, will we see that whichever way we choose to address the crisis of the university must rest upon the necessity of heterogeneity. Just as the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” and just as the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” the different departments of the university, the different pedagogical approaches to learning, and the different and often lonely voices shouting out at one another across the campus courtyard cannot say, “I don’t need you!” We cannot go back to the days before the internet, or the days before neoliberalismiii. However, we can argue for the necessity of different parts and different experiences, including the hands-on, face-to-face experience. We must fight for these opportunities to see one another, to hear one another, to behold one another, face to face, even when this confrontation is troubling or challenging or discomforting, for polyphonic exchange not only means the survival of the university – it is how we ‘come to terms’ with our otherwise alienated experience.

            I want to close, finally, with a passage from The University in Ruins, which I hope will inspire us as we mark out our path, through crisis, and into chaotic but enriching polyphony:

We are, bluntly speaking, addicted to others, and no amount of twelve-stepping will allow us to overcome that dependency, to make it the object of a fully autonomous subjective consciousness. The social bond is thus a name for the incalculable attention that the heteronomous instance of the Other (the fact of others) demands. There is no freeing ourselves from the sense of the social bond, precisely because we do not come to the end of it; we can never totally know, finally and exhaustively judge, the others to which we are bound.
(Readings 190)

iThe terms I am using–monologism and polyphony–are borrowed from Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussion of Dostoevsky’s poetics, the former meaning “of one” and the latter being, “of many.”

iihe field-coverage model of education is one in which scholars and instructors are expected to specialize in a narrow sliver of knowledge; consequently, these individuals rarely have direct influence on one another’s work.

iiiAn economic and political philosophy describing the privileging of the aims of the corporation over those of the individual citizen or the state.


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