The Future of the University: Writing Conventions August 24, 2010
It is somewhat confounding to me that while one of the most important images and charges of the university is that it represents the freedom to experiment and think, privileged and enabled by a separation from society, it appears in some respects to be among the most conservative and protective of societal institutions. Much of the scientific research has already given over to being contracted by business and government. The humanities however seem to be in a plodding phase where research is conducted on models established decades, if not centuries, ago. And teaching methods have changed little.
As Marshall McLuhan and others have shown, there is a strong interplay between medium and message. As futurists and educators evaluate the powerful shift toward electronic media, there is an accompanying discussion of the future of education. My readings of this discussion indicate that when electronic media are considered, everything in education turns to information. The assumption is that what e-media deliver is information. I suppose this is conditioned by the Google and Wikipedia and Facebook mentality that allows us to find out something about most anything we run across. I totally love this aspect of the Information Age. However, having information does not an education make. The university, in my experience, has over the last twenty years steadily drifted towards the understanding that education is information processing. This is not a healthy direction for it supplants an information portal for a school. Back to that in a later writing.
At the moment I want to think about the standard writing conventions that are expected in most universities. While I think there is a shift to simply using writing to “report” on information gathered, there remains that standard linear narrative: thesis, argument, conclusion. The disembodied posture (enough said) places this narrative as some object in the world that can and should stand alone. This academic writing convention is, in some sense, the hallmark of the university as it has been for a very long time. The accompanying qualities of these writing conventions—disinterested, disembodied, objective, unemotional—have far-reaching implications for us. While the university seems uninterested in even budging on its writing conventions, its own research findings have proven the error of the human qualities so strongly engrained in the university’s most cherished gesture, its writing convention.
From my perspective the reluctance to experiment with, reinvent, play with, try out alternative writing conventions is, along with the limitations of the furniture and architecture, the most oppressive and limiting features in the contemporary university humanities programs. Thomas
Frey introduced an interesting situation that I’d like to extend beyond his use as an analogy for how our writing conventions limit our research and world. He noted that the ancient Romans were highly limited by their number system—Roman Numerals. While this system works satisfactorily for tracking some things—I suppose keeping track of years is the main example, since we actually continue to do so—it clearly doesn’t work well for keeping one’s bank statement or for the calculations necessary for rocket science. While the Romans understood their number system as wholly adequate, they had no idea of the limitation this system imposed on their world. It is rather, as Frey suggests, like asking a fish to understand the limitations of the water in which they swim. I think also here of that fascinating book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, the 1884 satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott , in which we, by analogy understand the possible limitations of a three dimensional world.
The analogy I’d make is that our current writing conventions, especially when their limitations and determinations are not even acknowledged, function similar to the way the Roman numeral number system did for the Romans; it limited their universe and experience in ways they couldn’t even detect. Academic writing conventions simply limit the world we are able to see and experience and investigate and they do so in ways that we cannot even see or know. It follows then that what we need is a revolution in academic writing conventions. In the midst of this far-reaching electronic media revolution, this effort may well be the only way that university humanities programs will survive, that the idea that education is anything more than information processing may survive, that the very idea of the liberal arts educated human being is important might survive.
How can this revolution in writing conventions be achieved? How can a fish even “know” about “air” much less appreciate its importance (the parallel to evolutionary history might well be of interest here)? I suppose there are a number of strategies (and I’ll want to write more before long on creativity, play, hypothetic inference) but there are a couple obvious directions. First, we might simply ignore the conventions while continuing to write and see what emerges. Second, we might take a Janus perspective and look back that we might see forward. Here, we’d need to ask what is writing. Why do we write? What does it matter whether we write or not? When did we start writing? How does writing relate to identity? To agency? Third, we may already have some hints, indeed some very strong indicators, about who we are as human beings and what actually matters to us: passions, feelings, emotions, movement. We may already understand that these qualities and values function even hidden behind the standard academic writing conventions. We may recognize that these qualities are inseparable from being embodied human beings and that being bodied is an essential aspect of our identity and agency.
“New writing,” if writing at all, must be shaped by who we understand ourselves to be as human beings, as academic beings, as valued human beings and also by who we want to become, by how we want to impact the world in which we live, by how we want the world in which we live to look. “New writing” must be seen as agency and action as creation as personal as powerful, not simply as some passive mechanism by which to connect information sources with information demands.
“New writing” is not, in the rapidly emerging e-world, some nice little experiment in cleverness initiated by idle academics bored being removed from the real productive world. “New writing” is, as I see it, an essential task to save the humanity in a world that is hell bent on transforming everything into information and every being into an information processor. Not only do we lose something important of our humanity in this process (like our humanity), we also truncate our human potential. We even lose the point of information: Why information? Through “new writing” we may realize ourselves; we may recreate ourselves to be powerful and creative in the new world that is arising around us.
As a teacher of writing I am at the point of admitting that I am a fish in water, but that, through analogy and imagination, I have begun to imagine that the water in which I swim may be depriving me of a type of oxygen, a vitality, whereas I thought it was the source of life. I can imagine breaking through surfaces and finding new, now unimagined, vitality and richness, yet, I am confined in some ways (how can I even know?) by the gestures and postures that comprise me. While I’ll do my best to realize “new writing” as fully as I can, I think of my students more as the tadpoles with legs who are about to rise to the surface and walk out on new lands into new atmospheres. My students are the ones that have the greater potential to explore and create new heretofore unimagined worlds through their creation of new writing systems. I’ll nip their heels to force them forward.