Posted Monday February 19, 2007 by John Gunders in |

From the Chronicle of Higher Education Henry Jenkins’s provocative enquiry into the role of the university in the age of blogs, YouTube, and the temporary social networks that are enabled by this technology:

The science-fiction writer and Internet activist Cory Doctorow has called such groups “adhocracies.” An adhocracy is a form of social and political organization with few fixed structures or established relationships between players and with minimum hierarchy and maximum diversity. In other words, an adhocracy is more or less the polar opposite of the contemporary university (which preserves often rigid borders between disciplines and departments and even constructs a series of legal obstacles that make it difficult to collaborate even within the same organization). Now try to imagine what would happen if academic departments operated more like YouTube or Wikipedia, allowing for the rapid deployment of scattered expertise and the dynamic reconfiguration of fields. Let’s call this new form of academic unit a “YouNiversity.”

(Crossposted on Henry’s blog for when the article disappears behind the paywall)

Henry concludes that “The modern university should work not by defining fields of study but by removing obstacles so that knowledge can circulate and be reconfigured in new ways”.

There is a certain resonance here with Lisa’s last post about Credit, Debt, and the End of Capitalism: in the same way that the new formations of capitalism make it necessary for us to create new forms of activism (and new forms of organised labour, for that matter), universities need to respond to the new structures of knowledge, new epistemologies, and the new cultural formations in which these things are embedded.

But the problem is that, as Henry points out, universities are rigid structures that do more to perpetuate disciplinary boundaries than they do to cross them. And given the slowness of changing fundamental structures, I don’t see the YouNiversity coming any time soon.

But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing: it wasn’t so long ago that universities discovered that the 21st Century had happened, and decided to get serious about the “flexible delivery” of teaching. Almost universally, this meant sticking badly written lecture notes on the internet. (Apologies to Catherine: I know this is a generalisation, and flexible delivery was done very well in some places. Just not at any of the ones I’ve been at.) Things are improving, but only just.

Of course universities (and other institutions) need to acknowledge the growth of user provided content and the evolution of temporary social networks, but this has to be more than a simple “respond to”, or “deal with”. A fundamentally new type of cultural production calls for a new type of cultural institution, and I don’t think our universities have the ability to transform themselves into that institution, and I remain to be convinced that they should.

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