Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Doctoral hunting

Another in my series that examines the rise of "hunting" behavior in our connected, mediated, informationalized world.

An op-ed piece in the NYT titled, "End the university as we know it," seemed, to me, to have lots of hints of my ongoing, multi-post rant about how we need more hunting behaviors in our current world, and less gathering ones. As I read through the piece, what struck me were the following phrases (all direct quotes from the piece, emphases mine):

  • Kant, in his 1798 work “The Conflict of the Faculties,” wrote that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”

  • Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration

  • The other obstacle to change is that colleges and universities are self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review... To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous.

  • The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network.

  • Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs.

  • Expand the range of professional options for graduate students...The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

It is a very interesting argument, even just taken at face value. When you look at it through the hunter-v-gatherer lens, though, it becomes even more startling.

Throughout the article, the things that Mark Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia, rails against are *all* essentially gathering behaviors. As I've said before, our ideas about productivity and industry come up to us through a history of agriculture and, later, the industrial revolution. The things that make farming and factories more productive often involve increased concentration, specialization and (ahem) silos. You don't plant nine kinds of grain in one field. You don't build a factory that makes toy trains and ball bearings. You don't have one worker on the treddle machine in the morning and the flay-rod in the afternoon. The assembly line is the ultimate expression of "put the round peg in the round hole" and generate efficiency through repetition.

Negative terms in Taylor's piece like "mass production," "division of labor," "separation," and "self-regulating" all have to do with advanced gathering behavior. The things he is in favor of -- "compexity," "adaptive," "network," "options," "adapting" -- are all hunting behaviors.

I've mostly thought about this issue in terms of my own experience with various industries; retail (wireless), the legal profession and (now) library services. In all of these, I have seen (and experienced) ongoing examples of how the principles of hunting are becoming more valued and valuable: flexibility, teamwork, a focus on goals over tasks, environmental awareness, multitasking, flatter organizations, "game like" behaviors, adaptability and a willingness to apply lessons from broad experiences.

I wonder what other industries and professions are going through similar reconsiderations of "gathering models," and who the new professors of huntology will be?

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