From Here: MOOCs and Higher Education

What follows is my contribution to a debate organized as part of “Open UBC,” itself the university’s contribution to “Open Access Week”. In the discussion that followed, another contributor to the debate characterized my talk as a series of “ad hominems” lacking substance and “besmirching” those who “stay up late to balance the university’s budget” and so ensure I am paid. I leave it to the reader to decide whether any of the argument is ad hominem, what substance it may have, and whether anyone is “besmirched.” But I do find it worrisome that disagreement and debate should be stifled in the name of civility or respect for senior administration.

UBC From Here

“From Here: MOOCs and Higher Education”

Let me begin by setting one thing straight. In the publicity for this debate, I am described as “a vocal critic of the current model of learning and assessment common in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), especially for the Humanities.” But I want to emphasize that I have nothing against MOOCs per se. More particularly, I have nothing against courses that are massive, open, and/or online. Most of the courses that I myself teach are both open and have a large online component, and some of them are also massive: Arts One Open, for instance, a course that I helped to pioneer (along with Christina Hendricks and others) has had over 65,000 views of its videos on YouTube alone. And we have achieved that kind of reach, let me add, without spending a single dollar of the many hundreds of thousands that UBC has lavished on MOOCs and the like as part of its so-called “flexible learning initiative.” We have shown, indeed, that something very much like a MOOC can be built and achieve enormous success by leveraging the talents and commitments of ordinary faculty even in the face of official indifference or outright discouragement.

So I am not someone who fears MOOCs. In fact, quite the reverse. This is true even when it comes to the mostly corporate, often for-profit ventures such as Coursera, EdX that have hi-jacked both the concept and the name of the MOOC from its home-grown, democratic, and open origins. While I have no doubts that the university (this university, the North American university, the university in general) has a thousand and one problems, as far as I am concerned the MOOC phenomenon doesn’t register even in the top hundred. Here of course (but not only here) is where I part company from much of this university’s senior administration. A year or so ago, as part of an extraordinarily fulsome introduction to a presentation by Daphe Koller, co-founder of Coursera, UBC Provost David Farrar declared that “this fundamentally challenges the university’s business model.” Again, the university can, and should, be challenged in many ways. But in itself the challenge of the MOOC is relatively insignificant. So why, then, talk and think about MOOCs at all? Well, in the first place, because any challenge to the university and its business model is welcome, even if the point of the challenge that I myself would want to make is quite different from that presented by Koller and her venture-capitalist partners. And second, because the university’s reaction to the MOOCs is so very revealing. It shows us how much is rotten in the institution and how far we still have to go before we achieve the vision of a truly open education.

Read more… (.pdf document)

Higher Education, Technology, and the Corporate University

Saskatchewan

A few pointers to some more or less recent articles on contemporary higher education:

  • The bottom line of the neoliberal assault on the universities is the increasing power of management and the undermining of faculty self-governance. The real story behind MOOCs may be the ways in which they assist management restructuring efforts of core university practices, under the smiley-faced banner of “open access” and assisted in some cases by their “superstar”, camera-ready professors. Meanwhile, all those adjunct faculty are far more subject to managerial control and regulation than are tenured professors. Aside from their low cost, that is one of the principal reasons why they are so attractive to university managers. (Tarak Barkawi, “The Neoliberal Assault on Academia”. Al Jazeera America. April 25, 2013.)
  • Prioritizing is what you get when you hire administrators who can’t distinguish a university from a Walmart. Each department is to be evaluated as a profit centre. The knowledge factory that the university is currently running under the rubric of basic research will remain untouched (and probably augmented), for there is no aspect of its present operations that can be so easily and so profitably commercialized. Generally, however, the priority that each department receives will depend upon the revenues it can generate from research grants and from selling classes to its customers. The insistence on evidence-based evaluation is critical, lest some of the woolly-headed intellectuals retained to do the teaching should have derived some values through reading something other than the Globe and Mail Report on Business. (Jay Cowsill, “There’s a New Sheriff in Town: Cracking the Whip at the University of Saskatchewan”. October 10, 2013.)
  • The problem is not that the Open Movement is wrong. The problem is that the need for reform goes far deeper than simply making papers and data available under CC-By or CC-Zero. Exploitative publishing regimes are symptomatic of larger problems in the distribution of wealth and power. The concentration of wealth that warps so much of our political and economic life will inevitably warp the Open Movement toward unintended and unwanted outcomes. (Eric Kanza, “It’s the Neoliberalism, Stupid: Why Instrumentalist Arguments for Open Access, Open Data, and Open Science are not Enough”. The Impact Blog. LSE. January 27, 2014.)
  • I can’t express adequately just how pissed off I am about MOOCs – not the concept, but all the hubris and nonsense that’s been talked and written about them. At a personal level, it was as if 45 years of work was for nothing. All the research and study I and many others had done on what makes for successful learning online were totally ignored, with truly disastrous consequences in terms of effective learning for the vast majority of participants who took MOOCs from the Ivy League universities. Having ignored online learning for nearly 20 years, Stanford, MIT and Harvard had to re-invent online learning in their own image to maintain their perceived superiority in all things higher educational. And the media fell for it, hook, line and sinker. (Tony Bates, “Time to Retire from Online Learning?” April 15, 2014.)
  • The threat that plans like TransformUS holds are both serious and ubiquitous. As it goes, the TransformUS brand is so deeply ironic that it offers an indication of what lies ahead. TransformUS is, at once, an incantation for complacency, as though self-transformation is impossible or inefficient (i.e. Please, Transform US!), and an unacknowledged reference to the transformations that helped to engineer America’s system of higher education. Indeed, TransformUS intones the rise of the market as a transformative agent, and the University as a key site in the manufacture of consent and consumption. (Eric Newstadt, “Why Buckingham’s Tenure is Small Stakes in a Big Game”. Impact Ethics. May 16, 2014.)
  • Arts Squared: A Virtual Square for the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta.
  • A technology that allows for limitless reproduction of knowledge resources, instantaneous global sharing and cooperation, and all the powerful benefits of digital manipulation, recombination, and computation must be a “bag of gold”36 for scholarship and for learning. It is well within the power of educators to play a decisive role in the battle for the future of the web. Doing so will require the courage to buck prevailing trends. It will require an at-times inconvenient commitment to the fundamental principles of openness, ownership, and participation. It will require hard work, creativity, and a spirit of fun. It will require reclaiming innovation. Our choice. (Jim Groom and Brian Lamb, “Reclaiming Innovation”. Educause Review 49.3. May/June 2014.)
  • “I wouldn’t buy a used car from a university president,” said Vedder. “They’ll say, ‘We’re making moves to cut costs,’ and mention something about energy-efficient lightbulbs, and ignore the new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost they just hired.” (Jon Marcus, “New Analysis Shows Problematic Boom In Higher Ed Administrators”. The Huffington Post. June 2, 2014.)
  • Derrida

    Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography

    “Does a philosopher have a life? Can you write a philosopher’s biography?” So opens Benoît Peeters’s book on Jacques Derrida, a figure about whom a biographer has particular reason to be circumspect, not least because of all the ways in which Derrida’s work problematizes our notions of the relationship between writing and experience, or between language and being. Peeters answers his own questions in the affirmative by proceeding to give us almost six hundred pages on Derrida’s journey from Algerian childhood as the son of a travelling salesman to his death in Paris as perhaps the most famous (and the most controversial) thinker of the past fifty years. He also, however, finds solace in his task from some of Derrida’s own comments on the importance of “put[ting] philosophers’ biographies back in the picture” (qtd. 1). Indeed, this is probably as close to an “authorized” biography of Derrida as we are likely to get: Peeters thanks Derrida’s widow, Marguerite, for “placing her confidence” in him, and has talked to many members of the philosopher’s family as well as to schoolfriends, colleagues, collaborators, and others who knew him well. So while this is far from being a “Derridean” biography, for Peeters argues that “mimicry, in this respect as in many others, does not seem the best way of serving him today” (6), and while it is not exactly devoid of criticism, it is undoubtedly a work that aims to “serve” Derrida. So then the question becomes: how well does this biography serve him?

    Derrida: A Biography does little to explain very well why its subject was important. It is particularly uneven when it comes to explicating the key points of his thought, or their contribution to the philosophical tradition. Peeters avers that he “will not be seeking to provide an introduction to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida” (3). But absent that, and given that (frankly) the life of a philosopher is not all that interesting in itself, what we are left with are what can otherwise seem to be rather petty struggles for advancement within the academic institution and/or rather excessive, even fawning, expressions of loyalty and partisanship. We are left, in short, with friendships and enmities whose basis or whose stakes are almost impossible to determine or judge. Derrida comes to seem important simply because others thought that he was–although it also becomes clear that there is nobody who has a higher regard for his work than Derrida himself. In one of his few critical moments, Peeters notes the consensus, even among the man’s friends, about his narcissism, adding the peculiar comment that “Derrida practiced it to excess, thereby questioning the boundaries of narcissism and turning it into a philosophical gesture” (421). But what were the terms of this gesture? On what grounds, if any, was it made? On this Peeters is, almost stubbornly, silent.

    Meanwhile, about the life itself: I have said that it was not all that interesting, but it was not completely uneventful, either. This is a tale of quite dramatic social mobility in the context of one of the more violent episodes of twentieth-century decolonization. It is also the story of a quite unconventional family life, including an illegitimate son whom Derrida officially recognized but essentially never met, and who was adopted by a man who went on to be Prime Minister of France. Yet, perhaps because of the semi-authorized nature of this biography, Peeters shows no great desire to probe: he indulges in neither gossip nor speculation, instead allowing Derrida’s own, often exceedingly elliptical, words to stand almost on their own. For instance, on paternity: “The father is someone who recognizes his child; the mother recognizes her child. And not only in a legal sense. The obscurity of the question lies entirely in this ‘experience’ that is so hastily called ‘recognition’” (qtd. 357). In similar fashion, Peeters repeatedly calls attention to Derrida’s profound sense of anxiety, and though this was presumably in part the other face of the too-obvious narcissism, he never really describes or stops to ponder these anxieties at any length. The biography thus falls between several stools: it is far from being a rigorous account of its subject’s intellectual development and theoretical work; but it also stops short of either titillation on the one hand or anything resembling an analysis of the psyche on the other.

    If anything, this is then a political biography, in the rather limited sense (drawn from Carl Schmitt) of the political as founded on the distinction between friend and enemy. This is true as much of the academic politics (the blocked career advancements; the quarrels and reconciliations with colleagues and competitors) as of the increasingly evident commitments to political causes such as human rights or anti-racism. Perhaps particularly for Parisian intellectuals, these two forms of the political go almost hand in glove: Derrida is repeatedly moving between publishers or journals, for instance, based on his assessment of their political line, or theirs of his. Moreover, the same themes (as Peeters puts it, “justice, witness, hospitality, forgiveness, lying” [486]) loom large in both arenas. And though he often portrayed himself (sometimes justifiably) as a victim, especially of the official French university system, it becomes clear that Derrida himself was fully invested in the complex maneuvers that are often described in alarmingly martial manner. Here, for instance, is Jean-Luc Nancy’s take on Derrida in the USA: “He always saw battles to be fought, fortresses to be taken and alliances to be made or consolidated. [. . .] It was important for him to maintain links with certain potential allies, even if they weren’t intellectually all of the first order. He knew he needed a lot of people to pass on the torch for deconstruction” (459-60). Nancy is a friend–one of Derrida’s oldest and most loyal–but his is a surprisingly cynical account of deconstruction’s transatlantic success. True, Nancy may equally be aiming a swipe at America and Americans, but for one Frenchman to call another “a kind of Prussian general” (qtd. 459) is hardly a compliment at the best of times.

    Above all, the impression we get from this biography is of Derrida’s remarkable energy. In the first place, the man was a writing machine, producing endless books, essays, and talks. And the talks themselves were increasingly of almost frightening length: two hours, three hours, or more; of a paper in July 1997, he himself reports “I inflicted a twelve-hour lecture on them!” (qtd. 484). At the same time, he was perpetually teaching (the concept of a sabbatical seems to have been foreign to him), not just in his home institution but also at up to three others each year. He jetted in and out of conferences and speaking engagements around the globe. And apparently he was still available to students and others for casual conversation, as well as having time to keep up a prolix personal correspondence and running up what must have been a formidable international phone bill. No wonder Peeters should make the otherwise odd observation that “he had the heart rate of a sports cyclist or marathon runner, less than fifty beats per minute” (420). Again, however, I wonder how much this truly “serves” Derrida. After all, one of the criticisms of deconstruction is the way in which, among Derrida’s followers if not for the man himself, it too soon became the almost robotic application of a voracious new set of techniques for reading. Or to put this another way: if Peeters’s aim is to humanize Jacques Derrida, I’m not sure he’s done such a good job.

    But perhaps, on the contrary, the problem here is that Peeters hasn’t gone far enough in giving us a truly inhuman or posthuman Derrida. He provides glimpses of the machine, without really showing us its workings. For it may be that a philosopher doesn’t have a life so much as he or she puts together (and becomes part of) a machinic apparatus. What we’re really waiting for, then, is less a biography than a machinography of an always excessive system, which encompassed but went beyond the proper names of (to take Peeters’s section titles) “Jackie,” “Derrida,” and “Jacques Derrida,” to recast and reformulate many of the fundamental propositions of academic writing and conduct, beyond the pseudo-hegemonic (and frankly banal) campaigns of alliance and filiation to which this book too often reduces its subject.

    Adrianne Wadewitz

    Adrianne Wadewitz

    “Awadewit hates us,” murmured one of a small group of students as they shuffled into my office. I was teaching a course on the Latin American dictator novel, a course that I had given the title “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem.” One of the assignments asked students to write or edit Wikipedia articles. And as part of this project, we had come into contact with numerous Wikipedia editors, who often went by strange monikers such as EyeSerene, Wrad, Karanacs, and Geometry Guy. One of the editors who stood out and had helped the most went by the name of Awadewit. And Awadewit had bad news for my students: large parts of their contributions to the article they were editing, about the classic nineteenth-century text Facundo, were plagiarized. Hence this meeting to discuss what felt like a crisis.

    Awadewit was firm but absolutely fair with my students. There was no tolerance for plagiarism, and the relevant sections were cut from the article forthwith. But there was no demonization, either. The students were well-intentioned, but hazy as to how to deal properly with sources. This was a wake-up call, and a sharp but surely effective way to learn what plagiarism was and why it was significant. This was a lesson they were not going to forget. Where they were fortunate was in that there was still time to fix the problem. And indeed, after plenty more work from the students as well as other Wikipedia volunteers, “Facundo” went on to pass peer review and be declared one of the very few (0.5%) of the online encyclopedia’s entries that are deemed “good articles.”

    What was extraordinary, however, was the effort and care with which Awadewit had reviewed the article and my students’ contributions. Tracking down the plagiarism, for instance, had required reading some of the relevant books and scholarly articles that the students had used as sources. This effort was well above and beyond what was expected of these pseudonymous and anonymous editors we had been learning to work with in this assignment. It was no wonder that Awadewit had won deserved renown on Wikipedia not only as a prolific writer of so-called “featured articles” (the 0.01% of entries that are a cut above even “good articles”), particularly in the field of British Romanticism, but also as a careful and conscientious, but very supportive, copy-editor and mentor to other editors whatever their interests or expertise.

    At some point, Awadewit and I started exchanging emails, from which I discovered that behind the moniker was Adrianne Wadewitz, a PhD student in English at Indiana University. We had a series of conversations I consistently found illuminating and inspiring, not least because this was someone from a similar background with similar goals. But she was much more familiar with Wikipedia than I was, and had been thinking longer about some of the issues involved in using it in the classroom. She was above all passionate about opening up scholarship beyond the Ivory Tower, and about writing articles on (particularly) women authors such as the eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Wikipedia offered space and scope for introducing such figures to a new audience, while retaining scholarly standards and rigor. At the same time, she and I were dissatisfied in similar ways with the current state of the encyclopedia, not least the limited and constricting ways in which (particularly) literary topics were treated. She was unsure about how exactly to bridge the gap between Wikipedia and the academy, or how to calm the mutual suspicions on both sides, which was in part why she still adopted a pseudonym online, albeit one that retrospectively seems relatively transparent.

    As time went on, and as academic or pedagogical use of Wikipedia and other online digital resources came to seem more respectable, if still often experimental and cutting edge, Adrianne felt more comfortable with her dual role, and even began assuming a leadership role. She changed her Wikipedia username to Wadewitz, and organized or was invited to seminars and workshops in the burgeoning field of the “Digital Humanities” around the country. A few years ago, she invited me to participate in a panel she organized in Bloomington for a conference on “Writing Across the Curriculum,” and at last I had the chance to meet her in person. It was a delight. She was as smart, charming yet serious, thoughtful but good humoured, as I had expected; if anything, more so. We chatted about her work (she was on the job market by then) and it was clear she had a bright future.

    Over the years, we have sporadically been in touch via email and Facebook, as well as on Wikipedia. In the wake of the Bloomington conference we co-wrote an article. Adrianne moved to Los Angeles, where she had a postdoctoral fellowship at Occidental College, learned to drive (in LA, quite a feat), and took up a new activity, rock-climbing, about which she began writing articles (especially about women climbers) on Wikipedia. She became involved in HASTAC, the pioneering “Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory,” and she asked me to write the Wikipedia article on FemTechNet, a feminist project to rectify online bias, not least on sites such as Wikipedia. She wrote frequent and insightful blog posts on issues such as gender representation online, and reflections on pedagogy and teaching. All in all, Adrianne was becoming an authority, and also an inspiration and mentor to others. She was interviewed and quoted by the Huffington Post and the BBC.

    Most recently, she and I had been discussing the Wiki Education Foundation, a new entity spun off by the Wikimedia Foundation to run their educational programs in the US and Canada. I had proposed that Adrianne join their board, and I was happy when the WEF took up the suggestion with some alacrity. She was a perfect match for them, and I hoped that she would help reinvigorate and give direction to the fledgling organization. At the end of February, I happened to be going to LA for a talk, and got in touch to see if she had time for a coffee or the like. In the end, she drove across town to have lunch with me, and on a beautiful Southern California spring day, we spent an hour or so chatting about the WEF but also about the next chapter of her life: her recent job interviews, and the prospect of perhaps moving across the country to the East Coast. Again, it was lovely to see her, and it was good to see her happy and excited about the future.

    Last week came the dreadful news that Adrianne had died, following a climbing accident in Joshua Tree National Park.

    Adrianne’s death is a profound loss. She was a leader in Digital Humanities and in Open Education, and one of the most insightful and knowledgeable commenters on Wikipedia, pedagogy, and gender. She affected many lives, perhaps more than she herself would have suspected, such as those of my students whom she guided and inspired. A couple of times in the past few years, Adrianne suggested that we co-write an article that she proposed calling something like “The Professor and the Wikipedian.” The sad thing is that now she will never take up her rightful place as professor herself. But on the other hand, she already played both roles for so many people. Indeed, she was professor, Wikipedian, activist, feminist, critic, writer, editor, scholar, as well as pianist, climber, daughter, and so on. Awadewit, Wadewitz, Adrianne had so much impact on so many people. Her memory and her legacy will endure.

    Demanding Deconstruction

    A position paper that is my contribution to the conference “The Marrano Spirit: Derrida and Hispanism” at the University of Southern California…

    Jacques Derrida, Rogues (cover)

    “Demanding Deconstruction: A Rogue’s Take or Offering”

    What does deconstruction offer? Does it–should it–offer anything at all? Is this very question impertinent, unduly utilitarian? Or to put this another way: what can or should we ask or even demand of deconstruction? And how does this relate to whatever deconstruction might, in turn, ask of us? What can or should deconstruction demand of us? What do we have to offer, if indeed we should think of ourselves as offering anything at all? What can we take from it? What does it take from us? What do we have to offer to this conference, to deconstruction, to Hispanism, or to any other party, interested or otherwise: for instance the people, the subaltern, or the state? What, in turn, do we have the right to demand of Hispanism or of the people, the subaltern, and so on, and what do they have the right to demand of us? How much are we, or should we, be accountable to them? And how might deconstruction contribute to our offering, help us to respond to whatever demands are made of us, or help us think differently about the very notion of demand?

    Read more… (.pdf file)

    Warwick University Ltd

    Warwick University Ltd coverE P Thompson was well-known as one of Britain’s foremost twentieth-century historians, certainly (alongside Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and perhaps Raphael Samuel) one of the country’s foremost radical historians. He was a mainstay of the New Left in the 1950s (and a founder of the New Left Review) and also a major figure in the rise of cultural studies: his classic study The Making of the English Working Class is usually cited as one of the field’s seminal texts, along with Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy.

    In the 1970s, however, Thompson took issue with the turn within cultural studies towards structuralist and post-structuralist theory: his essay on “The Poverty of Theory” is an empassioned attack on Louis Althusser and a defence of socialist humanism. At the same time, he found himself increasingly uncomfortable within a university system whose priorities seemed to him to put profits over people, and to favor managerial control over democracy and intellectual debate. He therefore spent the last two decades of his career as a freelance writer (and peace activist), unaffiliated with any particular institution.

    The nature of Thompson’s discontent with the university is best seen in a short and rather odd book, Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management, and the Universities, which was written (in a week!) and published in 1970, in a climate of student protest and public outrage.

    The facts of the matter are simple enough. In the late 1960s, Warwick was still a very young university: it had been established in 1965 as a state institution but with strong input and influence from the leaders of the manufacturing industries in near-by Coventry. Their plan was to seek ways in which academic expertise could feed in to industrial research and development. Fully twenty per cent of the students were to be in Engineering, and among the problems they were set to tackle (and the firms they were designed to benefit) were “metal fatigue (Massey-Ferguson), fuel injection system (Rover Company), vehicle instrumentation (Rootes and Ford Motor Company), fatigue in tyres (Dunlop)” (72) and so on. But the issues to be resolved were not merely technical: money was also supplied to set up an Institute of Directors’ Professorship of Business Studies, a Pressed Steel Professorship of Industrial Relations, and a Clarkson Professorship of Marketing, etc., all of which were to be housed in a “School of Industrial and Business Studies” whose “austere academic concerns” (as Thompson sardonically puts it) were to include “the choice of finance, the new issue market, institutional leaders, leasing, capital gearing and the cost of capital, taxation and company policies, take-overs, long-term financial planning” (75).

    But the industrialists didn’t have everything their own way. Not enough engineers or would-be plutocrats applied, and the Arts and Social Studies “took up the slack and expanded more rapidly than had been intended” (71). Among those hired in these disciplines was Thompson himself (who had previously worked at the margins of academia, teaching adults in “extra-mural” classes at Leeds). And as the university expanded, the question of new building became a point of contention. The students wanted a Students’ Union, with a bar and space to socialize on what was a rural campus some distance from any major town. The Administration preferred to allocate space to staff and to come up with real estate that could be easily rented out for conferences during the vacations. The matter bounced around various committees for some time until, fed up, the students decided to occupy the University Registry. It was what they accidentally found while they were there that led to the subsequent storm:

    At about eight o’clock that evening, one of the students (in an office next to the Vice-Chancellor’s) began thumbing through a file marked “Student-University Relations,” which had not been locked away. Amongst other things the file contained a report from a certain Mr Catchpole on a meeting addressed by Dr David Montgomery, an American Labour Historian who had been visiting the University the previous year. The student thought that perhaps Edward Thompson, who had been a colleague of Montgomery’s, might be interested in hearing the contents of the report. (51)

    And interested E P Thompson indeed was. In the specific case of David Montgomery, the Director of Legal Affairs from Rootes Motors had been sent to a Labour Party meeting at which the visiting lecturer had been invited to talk, to see if there were grounds for his “prosecution under the 1919 Aliens Restriction Act” (107). Finding no such evidence, a Director from Rootes wrote to the Warwick Vice-Chancellor in any case, to report back. But this was the tip of an iceberg: for what was revealed (as students then steadily worked their way through the files available to them) was systematic collusion between the university and political and industrial interests to spy and report on student and staff activities outside the university. Essentially, the co-penetration of industrial with academic interests had corrupted the university, whose officials all too eagerly cooperated in petty policing and willful obstruction of free thought and discussion.

    What follows is much careful consideration of what are often the minutiae of dissatisfaction at this one particular institution, though there is plenty to learn from even now. For one, the book is beautifully written, and often rather funny. Thompson takes a historian’s delight in this peek into the archives of the present. As he says,

    It is my trade to open files, but the authors of the correspondence have always been long dead. One of the difficulties in writing “contemporary history” is that, until the files have been opened, the actual thoughts and the motives of the actors may be difficult to determine because of their public image. But here, for a moment, the actuality and the image co-existed, giving a sense of double vision; and even when the inertia of institutional routine reasserted itself, there lingered the sense of a new dimension to its reality–what the institution wished to be taken for set alongside one’s new knowledge of what it actually was. (157)

    He admits that this double vision may be uncomfortable for those concerned: “Of course no correspondent likes the idea of militant youth going through his confidential letters” (157). But it is in this generalized crisis that the university finally gets to grip with what it could be, as well as with what it is. As Thompson says of a mass meeting called to discuss the concerns that arose from the occupation, “If ever there was a moment of birth of Warwick University, it was at that meeting. A University is not born when the Privy Council grants it a charter; it is born when its members come to realize that they have common interests and a common identity” (53).

    Or as he puts it later, the scandal and the revealed corruption enabled a new sense of the university’s values. For beyond the details of who did and said what to whom, “The students began to realize that these were not the real issues at all, but were merely symptoms. What was wrong was the whole concept and structure of the university. The ideals of academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge had to be reasserted over the aims of the ‘Business University.’” (59). Ultimately, “the University of Warwick only began to find its identity in a time of crisis” (59).

    Likewise, for those of us who observe that the contemporary university is now (in Bill Reading’s phrase) “in ruins”, we might similarly hope that a rebirth might be possible in the face of the crisis occasioned by today’s MOOC fever, the increasingly rapid encroachment of commercial interests, the shallow-minded enthusiasm for short-term fixes, and the obsession with the university’s “business model” over any sense of its values. At least we can hope.

    Warwick University Ltd ends leaving the largest issue open:

    Is it inevitable that the university will be reduced to the function of providing, with increasingly authoritarian efficiency, pre-packed intellectual commodities which meet the requirements of management? Or can we by our efforts transform it into a centre of free discussion and action, tolerating and even encouraging “subversive” thought and activity, for a dynamic renewal of the whole society in which it operates? (166)

    Thompson’s own answer to these questions presumably came when he resigned his post and dedicated himself to writing and working outside the academy and, increasingly, to activism in the peace movement. For those of us who are in the institution now–and not least but not only the students who are once again in occupation at the University of Warwick, over the latest attempts to turn public good into tradeable commodity–let us hope that these questions remain open. Let us return to the issue of what the university is for, understanding that the balance between dystopian threat and utopian promise is more finely poised than ever.