There is a fascinating moment when academics reflect upon their practices in ways that are not just emblematic but are clearly leading to real change in what the practice of being an academic actually means. I have been reminded of this fact twice recently as I have considered practices of teaching and research at a number of universities around the world.
First, in the case of teaching, there was seeing some of the new educational technology which is coming into operation. I am not just talking about remarkable educational sites like the interactive simulation site for the physical sciences, PhET, which is used by so many science professors. As good as these undoubtedly can be at allowing students to reach a level of competence in particular problems before they come near a lecture, there is also the new software which allows real interaction in the classroom and the tracking of the reaction to that interaction in order to enable new rounds of inquiry.
The consequences are only just being worked through but in time, I am now pretty sure, the lecture in its old form, understood as a direct oral presentation intended to present information or to teach students about a particular subject and delivered by a lecturer standing at the front of the room and giving out information and judgments, will become a minority teaching method. Instead, what were lectures will be recorded for students to consult–many universities have already produced a library of such presentations–and the time previously put by for lectures will be used as a surgery, as a time for problem-solving, clarification, and the like. This is a no less time-consuming method of teaching–indeed, it may involve more work. But I think it is likely to become the norm in many disciplines.
Second, in the case of research, there has been reading Paul Rabinow’s latest book, The Accompaniment, which includes a fascinating chapter on what he calls a research collaboratory, based on an anthropological reinterpretation of existing practices of collaboration like the charette and the lab meeting. The idea was to “remediate” the graduate seminar, so as to make it more productive. Not everything worked but it seems clear that these kinds of experimental collaborative platforms can only become more and more prevalent in line with a general experimental turn in the arts and humanities and social sciences (see, for example, Celia Lury and Nina Wakeford’s forthcoming edited book on Inventive Methods or some of my own work).
These developments underline an ongoing process in research: the challenge to the idea of the individual scholar as necessarily being the norm. There seems to be no particular reason why the individual scholar closeted away from the world has to be the prevalent model of an academic. Science has already shown this–think only of the standard paper in particle physics with its multiple authors as well as the increasing number of multiple authored papers in science generally. But now it is becoming a more prevalent model in the arts and humanities and the social sciences too. All manner of straws are blowing in the wind. There are hybrid authors like J. K. Gibson-Graham. There are increasing efforts to investigate techniques which rely on workshop or curated styles of work. And there is all the work around larger and larger datasets which demands cooperation as a normal mode of proceeding.
Again, the consequences are only just being worked through. For example, research assessment of “dividuals” rather than individuals may become the norm and the idea that it is easy or unproblematic to assign percentages of effort or inspiration to one or another author could come to look increasingly outdated. Again, it will be difficult to always rely on the kinds of promotion and assessment criteria which most institutions hold dear.