Higher Education

I’m starting to get back at it, and I’ll be updating the events calender and announcing new seminars and workshops shortly. But I wanted to begin the year by writing a more reflective post about the what it all means. What am I trying to accomplish here? What were we thinking here at the CBS Library when we decided to focus on the “crafts skills” that define academic work?

Well, there’s no getting around a sense of “crisis” in today’s academic institutions. Higher education is more important than ever, both in life of the individual and the in the life of the community. More and more people are getting university degrees, and more and more policy is based on the knowledge that is produced at universities. Universities are being asked, increasingly explicitly and with increasing urgency, to serve its social function, to contribute both knowledge and knowledgeable people to deal with the world’s problems. All this, of course, to be accomplished at the lowest possible cost.

There is now a concern about whether students are learning as much as they used to at universities. One specific area of concern, and one that happens to be the focus of much of my work, is the quality of student writing, which, of course, eventually becomes the quality of writing that is done by graduates, and therefore the state of the written language in society as a such. Another area of concern is the quality of the research that is being published, first in top-tier academic journals and then in high-circulation popular media. One of the most tireless defender of standards here, I should mention, is Andrew Gelman at Columbia, who has a very sharp eye for problematic studies and academic misconduct, and also cares about the standards we hold students to.

I think all these things go together, and I’m proud to have been able to contribute in my small way to what Andrew calls the “replication and criticism” movement. My ambition is to one day be as precise about storytelling as Andrew is about statistics. At bottom, the connection is our sense of the “craft”: the “care” we take in our scholarship, whether as students or as  teachers or as researchers. As I get older, I have to admit, I find myself feeling somewhat “conservative” about the universities, as though there is a greater of losing something than gaining something through “progress”. In fact, universities are, to my mind, best understood as conservatories of tradition not laboratories of progress. I think we have to defend the craft that makes it possible to know something.

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