Part of my blogging duties for the AACU annual conference was to cover the opening plenaries. One was Wednesday night, the first night of the conference, called “Globalizing Knowledge.” I also attended the next morning’s plenary called “It Ain’t What You Do, It’s How You Do It: Global Education for Gender Justice.” Here’s my blog response to both:
Transformation is hard, and looking back to last week, I appreciated the opening plenary’s vision—which both Mark C. Taylor (Columbia University and Williams College) and respondent Michael S. Roth (Wesleyan) agreed is needed to change the business and culture of universities. You cannot have a future if you cannot imagine one. But to be honest, even as a “digital humanities guy,” I am uncertain and uncomfortable with the plenary’s broad technological and globalizational fixes. It comes as no surprise then, given that I am an English major, that I want to frame my response as a close reading, particularly of the metaphors invoked by all sides last night.
It is important that AAC&U Senior Vice President Caryn McTighe Musil who introduced the opening forum, spoke about the conference’s theme of “global positioning,” of “navigation,” of “maps,” of “movement” and “progress,” while being mindful of the histories, legacies, and violences of imperialism, capitalism, and global domination. Nonetheless, the rhetoric is a convincing one—one that echoes President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address where he, too, challenged the nation to “win the future,” to take back time, space, and choice as American birthrights. But these metaphors of trade, of transnational flows, and of nostalgic exploration are now linked up to new formations and logics, new metaphors that deploy technology and the twenty-first century as both an unavoidable, uncharted territory and a “new world” ripe for colonization and conquest. The immense potential of computers, the Internet, and mobile technologies are undeniable, and they must be heeded. But these very potentials for democracy, liberation, and flexibility can also (and already have) serve hegemony, unfreedom, and the intensification of the now mouthful military-prison-industrial-entertainment-educational complex. Let us not forget that telecommunications and computer networks were the product of military and security programs. Let us not forget that digital imaging and global positioning systems are leveraged to police and surveil bodies and populations. Cooperation often becomes cooptation. Qualitative often is simply disguised quantitative. Vision often becomes (a single) somebody else’s vision. These are the very lessons I have learned from looking at and experiencing firsthand the struggles for democracy by minorities and the disenfranchised and the marginalized. These are the very informatics of domination that Donna Haraway presaged in her influential “A Cyborg Manifesto.”
I agree that the university system needs revision, reorientation, redefintion, and rejuvenation. I agree that encouraging and enhancing (some) modes of creativity, adaptability, flexibility, decentrality, and practicality are necessary. I agree that recognizing that universities, learning, and knowledge itself are products of history, ideologies, and economies is central to changing what has become naturalized and institutionalized. And I agree that this is about transforming the cultures and the structures of the university and educational system. I just wonder if the solutions will come by further embracing and further entrenching models of globalized capitalism (the very system that got us in this mess in the first place). Mass customization, decentralization, flexibility, adaptability, emergence—these are all the buzzwords also used in the business world, in usability and interface design, in the tech service industries. To me, these are uncomfortable bedfellows. And the metaphor that trumps all metaphors here is choice. But whose choice? What kind of choice? Who gets to choose? Students? Faculty? Administrators? Or are we all just exhorting and expecting new forms of consumer choice?