Network Learning Conference: keynote from Steve Fuller

We’re now into the afternoon of the second day of the conference with Sian Bayne welcoming Steve Fuller but not knowing where to start or stop. Steve works in sociological methodology and epistemology. Steve has published widely on sociology, STS and post humanism.

Steve’s lecture is on the academic lecture 2.0.
His original training is in the history and sociology of science and main concern is in social epistemology. How knowledge is produced and distributed from a normative perspective. We can bring together more resources, distributed more wideley and people are better able to deal with or analyse such knowledge resources and so justifying the tab of the ‘knowledge society’. So what difference does a university make? HEIs are resilient but what is their distinction now beyond the simple bundling things together efficiently?
Steve is pro university in a classical notion of the university in Humbolt’s perspective of the academic as a transmitter of research through teaching. Prior to Humboldt (start C19) the interesting intellectual activity was occuring outside the university, eg, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution and the development of science – all outside the university. Humbolt incorporated the enlightenment spirit in to the university presenting the university as a dynamic institution. Before then, HE was to train people in the learned professions or as land/ wealth owner. Humbolt changed this, in part as part of a wider agenda promoting Prussia from being a second level country. HEI’s to do more than pass on tradition but to innovate.
So HEIs one of the earliest institutions to promote innovation. HEIs one of earliest corporations as self-organising with purposes of its own that extends beyond the life of the individuals involved so has a life and purpose and impact beyond a single human life.
So now are HEIs just about looking to preserve themselves or should and can they evolve? This was Humbolts idea that HEIs should evolve and produce graduates to go out to improve the world. Here the lecture was very important – the soul of the modern university.
Going back to the idea of before the enlightenment HEIs about transmitting traditional knowledge. But in C18 arose ideas of alternative forms of knowledge and so orthodoxy no longer good enough. The enlightenment about not just reproducing knowledge but that each individual can think for themselves as “dare to know” and make jusgements for themselves.
By the C19 could see revolutions and established orders were changing and market economies firmly established so what sort of leaders and thinkers do you knew. Humboldt driven by this alongside nation building. The points to the value of the lecture as not about the reliable transmission of knowledge given the range of media available, and the lecture is very authoritarian but its value in its asymmetry is that if the lecturer is good is the exmplification of the practice of ‘daring to know’. You do not want the lecture reducible to the Powerpoint and book chapter.
Prussia C19 lacked a generalised freedom of expression so was a precious thing for those entitled to free expression had a responsibility to study and understand things carefully before ‘daring to think’. Academic freedom was originally a guild right of freedom of expression and students train themselves to make judgements by attending different lectures and hearing different perspectives.
The Humboldtian university to act as an incubator of freedom and exploring what it means to be free. Freedom here meaning free for making informed judgements. Lecturing is an artform of the university and should be preserved as such. But the market of the networked learning pressure against such lecturing practices towards shallow learning and the transmission of established bodies of knowledge. Thus market pressures in HEIs act aganst the spirit of the enlightenment that makes the university a distinctive institution.
If HEIs seek to compete in the knowledge transmission market then universities will loose. Universities need to understand, identify and protect their core distinct identities. If concerned with knowledge transmission then you don’t need universities but rather you need a validating agency to certify that a student has attained “good knowledge”.
Moving on to the persona of the intellectual as someone who can improvise as an image of what it is like to think in public. Improvisation presupposes the existence of text – to improvise away from the text and exhibit their powers of thinking for themselves. A key challenge is that we’re able to record more and more of what we do often owned by someone else so we need to do something new each time to avoid infringing IPR. If you reliably deliver standardised lectures, you will be replaced!
The separation of research and teaching is a major challenge to this re-emergence of the enlightenment spirit. The idea of translating research into teaching is seen as a secondary task and this underpins a division of labour in HEIs. The outcome is an impoverishment of the lecture as a transmission vehicle and so it makes sense to get the content from an entertaining lecture online. But a lecture is like jazz and improvisation. Cites Liszt as a virtuoso adding new variations on traditional musical themes. For the 19C academic gained influence through enacting on and embellishing on their written texts as improvisation.
Lectures were a key part of university’s brand, the great universities had the great lectures engaging in public thinking and motivating students to critically read ‘the texts’. [In effect, the book and the lecture were a combined package].
So the uniqueness of a university is to take thinking and improvisation of conveying information as someone thinking for themselves. If all your interested in is cutting edge research or imparting vocational knowledge then there are much more effective ways of doing this than universities.

Q. Why is the lecture the best way of supporting students to think for themselves rather than, eg, direct dialogue?
A. but students still need to learn to think for themselves. A lecture has a argumentative form with an expectation that people will object. The key issue here is enactment and role-modelling of a public disputation (as well as in seminars, tutorials etc….). The public performance of thinking for yourself is the unique brand of the university.

Q. can we not model thinking for yourself beyond the oral tradition?
A. an important aspect is taking responsibility and multi-modality includes a danger that you can avoid taking responsibility by blaming the text, the slides etc… It is important to show the process of weighing and measuring alternatives perspectives.

Q. how can academic freedom be rearticulated in a networked world?
A. everyone is an information provider and universities should be more adventurous in entering these spaces, eg, in promotion of the strong lecturers. Links this to recruitment processes as academics should be performers – that HE should be dramatic! but this also requirs higher production values – Hollywood productions and Hollywood budgets!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *