5.30.2012

Academia is Dead




As I wrap up my time here at Syracuse University and reflect on my experience, there are some observations I would like to add as a follow-up to an article I wrote last year when I first began this particular leg in my journey entitled, College... Take 2.  Traditional academia is dead.  That's right I said it.  And yes, I am aware that there are people who have declared many things dead, whether it is God, hip-hop or marriage, however, I make this claim serendipitously though my experience of spending a school year at Syracuse University as an alumnus observer who has spend lots of time in the real world doing real world things, and from my perspective, traditional academia, as I knew it as a undergraduate, is DEAD.  Case in point, it now costs $200,000 to attend Syracuse University for four years (undergraduate level).   To put this in perspective, when I graduated in the mid-90's the same four years cost $100,000, however, when I checked entry level salaries across several disciplines I quickly discovered that the average salary only rose a few thousand dollars (at most $10,000).  At this rate, college has out priced itself, but luckily for most, information is not contained in the university anymore.

As I walked along the rows and rows of dusty books in Bird Library, which has become more of a place for hoarding dead human thoughts than anything else, it struck me that many students do not read physical books anymore unless it's for research or a text book.  In fact, the job of librarian has morphed from the sweet, elderly lady teaching the Dewy Decimal System so many of us grew up on, into a tech savvy gatekeeper of information. Syracuse University currently has the number one school in Information Studies which does just that, studies information- how it is collected, how it is shared, how it is kept and how to monetize it.   Long gone are the days when thoughts and ideas were found nestled in a book, it is now easily tapped into digitally which makes brick and mortar academia libraries with all of its, microfilm and yellowing pages seem obsolete.  Bird Library doubles as more of student hang out, aptly called "Club Bird" and study hall than a library.  The Age of Information has definitely changed the game of who can find out how, what, when, where and why and that is opening up the discussion of what we are actually learning or not learning.

Syracuse University's first female chancellor, Nancy Cantor, who the students "fondly" call "Chancy Nancy" and many of the faculty see the writing on the wall and are trying to do everything to avoid what seems to the the inevitable, the fall of traditional academia. [Update 2.2.2014: Nancy Cantor is no longer the Chancellor, she is now the Chancellor for Rutgers Univeristy-Newark]  Yeah, I said it again.  Through initiatives with the local community, Syracuse University has been aggressively trying to team book knowledge with the real world so that students have an opportunity, if they see fit, to not only build a foundation in their chosen career, but also launch it.  To be able to start your career as an undergraduate instead of waiting for someone to give you a job should be the role of academia. The thing is, I only see a few students taking advantage of this reality, but this may change in the coming years. Waiting for someone to give you a job is become more and more obscene, especially since most of the new jobs will not cover the debt that is being racked up by some students.  And forget post studies, one can reasonably graduate a half a million dollars in debt (without considerable scholarships), so the old role of traditional academia is considerably outdated and costly.

These new ideas have been met criticism as the standard method of ranking universities has yet to catch up with the turning tide resulting in Syracuse University, in true maverick form, slipping in national rankings according to the U.S. News & World Report.  The rankings have little to do with the reality of the situation, as many academic institutions have yet to see the writing on the wall and want to maintain the traditional teaching and research practices that their reputation is built on.  Founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales has been tapped by the British government to put all government funded research papers on the internet, which might expose the failing system of academic research when compared to daily changing information gathered and shared in the field in real time. With the proliferation of information, it is anyone's ball game and the institutions who figure it out and change will be the ones who stay in the game.   Syracuse University is in a interesting position because it's reputation is not built on research but on liberal arts (#1 U.S. ranked schools in their fields of expertise:  Maxwell School- Public Policy, School of Information Studies - Information Studies, SI Newhouse School of Public Communications - Mass Communications. My alma mater, the College of Visual and Performing Arts is host to two top 25 world-wide schools in film and drama categories according The Hollywood Reporter: School of Art and Design -Transmedia Department -Film (my major:-) and Drama Department - Drama/Acting) which means it is poised to change in ways others, locked in traditional research, are not.

Some academics are still holding on to the old idea of traditional academia which means they are at odds with Syracuse University's Chancellor because they don't see or don't want to see the bigger picture, change or die. This new academia or meta-academia (beyond academia) won't look like anything it represents today, and I think this is what makes some people nervous.  The ones who don't or won't see what is happening are going to be left behind if they don't curtail their syllabus and humble their standings. To think that someone in the community with no prior college experience can (and have) come up with ideas that is on par with the top researchers and best them because of their experience in the field, is a scary thing because it challenges people's perspective on intelligence especially when you have built your whole identity through academia, including grade point averages, post-graduate degrees, publications and tenure, and very little through real world experience. For these people, it is a frightening prospect that one will actually have to venture out into the "real world" and tackle real issues not just ones that can be handle through an economic model, a PowerPoint presentation or data gathering.  No, in this new set up, one will have to be more of a guide and an humble one at that, which again is hard for those who have become too comfortably snuggled in the ivory towers.   When one feels threaten it is easy for one to attack the very thing that is the perceived threat which is where much of the criticism launched towards the Chancellor comes from.  But in the end, I do believe that the true teachers/guides will be left standing and the others will have to venture out to find their true calling.
In my opinion, the transitional future of the "four year" undergraduate degree will have to be more radical than what the chancellor is now implementing and lies in concentrations (taking classes only in your major) which will take less time to matriculate (less costly), will be based even more on real world experience, and very little on required core classes, which are forgotten as quickly as they are taken.  Critical thinking will be the norm as ideas are shared and old theories tested and debated.  No longer will the old guard of Western thought reign unchallenged because people from different backgrounds and perspectives will be able to share their experiences which will put the old ways of thinking to a test.  As young people are getting more and more in touch with their passion or calling and the question of going to college full-time is being raised,  this needed change in academia is in line with the reemergence of the artisan-- local, independent contractors or entrepreneurs highly crafted in their sphere of expertize.  And along with artisans, we are seeing a return of the the apprentice because there is an increase need for real life experience over easily "Googled" book learned information and this is where meta-academia can shine as a bridge for young students entering the world stage through engaging the local community. Syracuse University has the foresight to not only recognize this need but the gumption to actually take radical, progressive measures to capitalize on the changing times, which is in full alignment with the history of a school that never played it safe.

As I wrote in College... Take 2, the one thing I saw useful, but students didn't utilize to the fullest, were the lectures-- people from around the world pontificating about their experiences or academics presenting their research or ideas to a willing audience.  By attending many of these FREE lectures, mostly through the Maxwell School, I was able to put together an eye-opening idea for a documentary.  It would have taken me much longer if I had to depend solely on books, and quite frankly, I didn't know what I was actually looking for, so I wouldn't have known what books to read.  The lectures provided the serendipitous arena I needed to flesh out the concept for the film.  The verbal exchange of ideas is also important because one can actually question a person in way that one can not question a book.  I was able to question and challenge some ideas expressed, if only for the benefit for the students who did attend, which helped formulate my own views on the subject I am covering in the documentary and to see things for what they are instead of just sitting back and letting a professor sell me their views or someone else's while I regurgitate them back at a later time.  One short coming of the lectures is, in true western philosophy fashion, most of the focus is on solving perceived problems and little time on historical context and differential perspective approaches to situations (in other words, not looking at everything as being a problem that needs fixing and looking at different world perceptions as possible places for ideas) which exposes the lack of progressiveness and inclusiveness in and out of traditional academia. In this respect, an open ideas center that reshapes the lecture/seminar paradigm is where meta-academia can create a more enlightened experience.

Nothing lasts forever, so I don't see this change as a good or a bad thing just something that was bound to happen.  Academia was a concept that has evolved and slowly took the place of rituals into adulthood.  The acquirement of education or information became valued over learning through experience which made academia very powerful within the construct of the society. However, with the world changing rapidly, the academic rhetoric will have to change or become obsolete either by choice or by chance.


Written by Xelinda Aïda, an alumnus of Syracuse University - College of Visual and Performing Arts - School of Art and Design - Transmedia Department - Film major.
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