Sociologist, local councillor, activist from Malta

Monday, December 05, 2016

The self-reflexive university

Times of Malta 5 December 2016
Last Tuesday, a symposium organised at the University of Malta discussed the ‘Post-Humanist University’.  At the risk of over simplifying the concept of post-humanism, I will try to explain its meaning.
It basically challenges the liberal idea of the human as an autonomous coherent individual who is in control through his choices. Instead the human being is conceptualised as being immersed within social contexts and relations.
Applied to the university context, some suggest that the latter are increasingly becoming bureaucratic factories of knowledge that measure output through business-like models.
During the symposium, Ivan Callus provoked the audience by asking whether autonomous ‘scholars’ are being transformed into ‘researchers’ who are subjected to structural requirements.
Here the researcher would need to justify his existence by continuously publishing peer-reviewed papers in reputable scholarly journals, especially those with high scholarly impact.
In turn, such journals may favour certain conventions over others, leaving little space for more creative approaches.
The researcher would also need to attract funding so as not to be considered a burden on taxpayers. Universities in countries such as Britain and the United States are increasingly adopting this model.
Paul Clough suggested that such processes can usurp precious time required for scholars to think and reflect. Quantity takes over at the expense of quality.
A more optimistic interpretation of the post-humanist university suggests that it may be operating in a context of new opportunities that were previously unavailable. For example, information technology can be an empowering tool which connects scholarly communities with other social fora.
Rather than having universities made up of specialists in silos, there may be cross-fertilisation of knowledge and increased social outreach. For example, literature and theatre can often express feelings which are difficult to express otherwise. Isn’t it great when the joys of such disciplines are shared with different communities within academia, the digital world and society at large?
Dogmas, methods and practices which may no longer be relevant need to be questioned and challenged
In this sense, James Corby suggested that the university may become a more accessible ‘multiversity’, thus breaking the barriers between ‘town and gown’.
Such arguments may sound abstract, but I believe that such provocations are vital for any self-respecting scholar.
Universities need to constantly update themselves by adapting to social change and by championing the production of knowledge and research.
Universities should also find a comfortable mix between their autonomy and their accountability to other stakeholders, including funders.  For different stakeholders, universities serve different purposes. For some, universities are champions of free thinking, for others universities need to produce employable workers.
I think that both perspectives are relevant in their own ways. They can also be reconciled. In a runaway world of constant change, being reflective, flexible and systematic in one’s way of thinking is a vital tool in our everyday opportunities, challenges and risks. Such skills are learned at university and can improve students’ employment potential.
I also believe that measurement of academics’ performance is very important to maintain standards, but this needn’t be reduced simply to hours of lecturing and publication of papers, important as they are. Other scholarly contributions such as social outreach could be given more consideration than is the case at present.
The measurement of academics’ performance should also be accompanied by more equitable employment conditions, especially in view of the growing global divide between full-time established academics and part-time researchers.
I think that the major contribution of the debate on the post-humanist university was that it provided an opportunity for self-reflection on the university experience today.
Such debates should really proliferate within the various university structures and disciplines. Dogmas, methods and practices which may no longer be relevant need to be questioned and challenged.
The continuous professional development of academics across the board and the introduction of novel techniques should be encouraged.
The debate also strengthened my view that different disciplines can and should learn from each other. To give one example, the sciences are essential for discoveries in the ‘real’ world. But the same sciences need the humanities to reflect on human principles, experiences and values ranging from ethics to inequality.
Philosophy, sociology, literary criticism are examples of reflective disciplines in this regard. And such disciplines are precisely debating concepts such as the post-humanist university.

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