One of the most frequent claims that universities make when they are trying to differentiate themselves from other educational institutions is that, within the university, research and teaching are intricately entwined. The best teacher, so the argument goes, is the one who is able to bring all of the excitement of her latest investigations into the classroom, a scholar who then learns something new about the nature of her own work as a result of the discussions she has with her students.
It sounds quite plausible in principle, but how, you may be wondering, does it really work out in practice?
The best way I can answer that is to give you an example - a very recent example - from what is going on in my own department.
Now, when the Cultural Studies program was established at Trent in 1977, it was the first such university department in North America. Since then, the field has grown enormously throughout the world, but it still does not have an agreed-upon body of knowledge - what in academe is sometimes called a canon. Some people will tell you that that is its weakness, but to us the source of the discipline's strength is precisely this capacity for renewal and redefinition. Every professor of Cultural Studies, if asked to come up with an explanation of what it is she does, would probably formulate a different response. Perhaps the closest we might come to agreement would be in terms of the need to read the cultures that envelop us with a critical eye. Possibly, too, we might also agree that this process of reading the world critically must itself be subjected constantly to critical scrutiny. In other words, the activity we are engaged in has an inevitably self-referential element to it.
Consequently, whenever my colleagues and I get together in the spring of any given year to plan a new first-year course for the following fall, it goes without saying that we start from scratch. It really has to be just that - a new course, from scratch - and, while we may incorporate sections that seem to have worked well before, we know we will want to develop them differently, in accordance with the debates we are having among ourselves and in relation to the events that are going on around us.
This past spring it was one of the newest additions to our faculty, Alison Hearn, who suggested that in September we should begin by looking at The University. Not just Trent, of course, but the whole institution, its history, its culture, the claims it makes and the myths it upholds. The idea immediately caught on. After all, the university might well be the only cultural experience that all of us, teachers and students alike, have in common. And beyond that, many of our colleagues in the Program have devoted substantial amounts of their own research to the study of various aspects of the university. Sean Kane has spent years figuring out the complex world of the Mediaeval scholar and teaches a fourth-year course that centres on it; John Fekete in his book Moral Panic examines the history of academic freedom and the forces that seek to suppress it; Andrew Wernick in his 1991 book Promotional Culture analyses in a truly prescient way the pressures that drive the modern university to behave like a business corporation. Much more remotely, my own writing has led me to spend endless hours of fascination discovering the great Buddhist institutions of higher learning that flourished South Asia fifteen hundred years ago - places like Nalanda with its ten thousand international students, its huge public debates, its deer parks, lily ponds and libraries nine-stories tall - back in the days when Europe supposedly was dark.
So, that is what we have been doing this fall, all three hundred or so of us in Cultural Studies 100; we have been talking about the university. Students have been able to learn about the great battles between poets and authoritarian dogmatists out of which the Western university emerged in the twelfth century. They have listened to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant pleading passionately for a space of absolutely unfettered enquiry within the bastions of a new utilitarian professionalism that universities were already becoming in the late eighteenth century. They have begun to ask why it is that every day the North American university, Trent included, is getting to be more and more like a shopping mall.
It's much too early yet to know how successful this particular experiment will be. There are no hard and fast answers to be arrived at; certainly the last thing the debates need is dogmatic formulations. But if students can see the university as a vast field of questions, if each one of us asks just one question we would not otherwise have formulated, we shall have achieved something - perhaps even the kind of resistance to lazy preconceptions that Kant himself believed to be essential.
On the downside, it's true that so far I haven't managed to squeeze the history of the Buddhist university into the course, but next year... well, you can rest assured that next year anything is possible!
Ian McLachlan is a novelist, theatre worker and cultural critic; he has been teaching at Trent for more than thirty years and is the Chair of the Cultural Studies Program.
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Last updated April 30, 2001