TITLE: Technology and Change at the University, Circa 1984 AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 07, 2014 3:25 PM DESC: ----- BODY:
cover of David Lodge's Small World, Wendy Edelson
As I mentioned last time, I am re-reading David Lodge's novel Small World. Early on in the story, archetypal academic star and English professor Morris Zapp delivers a eulogy to the research university of the past:
The day of the individual campus has passed. It belongs to an obsolete technology -- railways and the printing press. I mean just look at this campus -- it epitomizes the whole thing: the heavy industry of the mind. ... It's huge, heavy, monolithic. It weighs about a billion tons. You can feel the weight of those buildings, pressing down the earth. Look at the Library -- built like a huge warehouse. The whole place says, "We have learning stored here; if you want it, you have to come inside and get it." Well, that doesn't apply any more. ... Information is much more portable in the modern world than it used to be. So are people. Ergo, it's no longer necessary to hoard your information in one building, or keep your top scholars corralled in one campus.
Small World was published in 1984. The technologies that had revolutionized the universities of the day were the copy machine, universal access to direct-dial telephone, and easy access to jet travel. Researchers no longer needed to be together in one place all the time; they could collaborate at a distance, bridging the distances for short periods of collocation at academic conferences. Then came the world wide web and ubiquitous access to the Internet. Telephone and Xerox machines were quickly overshadowed by a network of machines that could perform the functions of both phone and copier, and so much more. In particular, they freed information even further from being bound to place. Take out the dated references to Xerox, and most of what Zapp has to say about universities could be spoken today:
And you don't have to grub about in library stacks for data: any book or article that sounds interesting they have Xeroxed and read at home. Or on the plane going to the next conference. I work mostly at home or on planes these days. I seldom go into the university except to teach my courses.
Now, the web is beginning to unbundle even the teaching function from the physical plant of a university and the physical presence of a teacher. One of our professors used to routinely spend hours hanging out with students on Facebook and Google+, answering questions and sharing the short of bonhomie that ordinarily happens after class in the hallways or the student union. -10 degrees outside? No problem. Clay Shirky recently wrote that higher education's Golden Age has ended -- long ago, actually: "Then the 1970s happened." Most of Shirky's article deals with the way the economics of universities had changed. Technology is only a part of that picture. I like how Lodge's novel shows an awareness even in the early 1980s that technology was also changing the culture of scholarship and consequently scholarship's preeminent institution, the university. Of course, back then old Morris Zapp still had to go to campus to teach his courses. Now we are all wondering how much longer that will be true for the majority of students and professors. ~~~~ IMAGE. The cover from the first edition of David Lodge's Small World, by Wendy Edelson. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SmallWorldNovel.jpg -----