Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Medieval Dissertation

For several months now, I have been meaning to comment on Mark C. Taylor's New York Times op-ed "End the University as We Know It." Prof. Taylor rightly diagnoses the ailments of academia, particularly graduate student education, but in doing so he suggests a series of reforms that successfully managed to offend both conservative and progressive academics. While I find several aspects of Prof. Taylor's program problematic and unfeasible, it is his rhetorical treatment of medieval studies that most strongly raises my objections. In two passing moments, he uses "medieval" examples that implicitly affirm his argument that the university system is backward and outmoded. In an instance that he self-evidently casts as a symptom of academia gone awry, he writes:
A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
In his conclusion, Prof. Taylor gestures back to this example of an absurd dissertation topic:
In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text.
Subtly transforming a project on a medieval topic into one that is medieval (read: arcane and without use) in nature, this suggestive thread of his argument betrays the shortsightedness of his model for reform. Prof. Taylor's compelling idea of organizing the university around problems rather than according to departmental disciplines--a system that would group scholars and scientists around issues like Water or Information--apparently has no room for scholarship invested in premodern history.

I understand that he might be seeking to usher academia away from historical scholarship that fails to consider the present implications to society beyond the university. However, his argument relies on a shallow assessment of what, for instance, a project on Duns Scotus' citations could tell us. A savvy graduate student might be able to draw connections of significance to the Information problem of Prof. Taylor's reform scheme, allowing a study of medieval citations to shed light on the metaphysics of hypertext, which in turn could help us to further understand how we can manage information and knowledge.

The upside of this op-ed is that it has spurred further public dialogue, which is indeed necessary for reevaluating the role of universities. Yet, we scholars of things premodern cannot allow the reform of academia to leave us behind, much less to identify our work as that which most ominously signifies the obsolescence of higher ed. Through our work and how we present it, we must continue to assert the particular relevance of history and culture before the Industrial Revolution in ways that do not necessarily rely on genealogy. Others must be persuaded to see that, in premodernity, we can find clues to some of the answers to many a modern problem.

After all, anyone who thinks that medieval footnotes are not relevant to the problems we face today has never visited Got Medieval.

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