Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The seeds of a new intellectual structure for the academy?

Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I observed that the Catholic Church was the institutional center of intellectual life in Medieval Europe. But then things changes. The Renaissance, the scientific revolution, the Reformation, all intertwined. And the institutional center of intellectual life shifted to the new colleges and universities. Our world has been undergoing a shift of similar magnitude and the academy is increasingly ossified, and now terrified in the face of new technology.

Where's the new intellectual centers of intellectual life? MIT has just announced the formation of a new college backed by $1 billion. The college will be called the M.I.T. Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing after Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group, provided a $350 million founding gift, reports Steve Lohr in the NYTimes.
The goal of the college, said L. Rafael Reif, the president of M.I.T., is to “educate the bilinguals of the future.” He defines bilinguals as people in fields like biology, chemistry, politics, history and linguistics who are also skilled in the techniques of modern computing that can be applied to them.

But, he said, “to educate bilinguals, we have to create a new structure.”

Academic departments still tend to be silos, Mr. Reif explained, despite interdisciplinary programs that cross the departmental boundaries. Half the 50 faculty positions will focus on advancing computer science, and the other half will be jointly appointed by the college and by other departments across M.I.T.

Traditionally, departments hold sway in hiring and tenure decisions at universities. So, for example, a researcher who applied A.I.-based text analysis tools in a field like history might be regarded as too much a computer scientist by the humanities department and not sufficiently technical by the computer science department.

M.I.T.’s leaders hope the new college will alter traditional academic thinking and practice.

“We need to rewire how we hire and promote faculty,” said Martin Schmidt, the provost of M.I.T.

Today, most dual-major programs involve taking courses in a computer science department in machine learning or data science in addition to a student’s major. The M.I.T. college is an effort to have computing baked into the curriculum rather than stapled on. It will grant degrees, though what they will be or their names have not been determined.
The way I see it if they do it right, this college will drift further and further away from the rest of MIT, entrenched in the Old Academy as it must be, and help catalyze new intellectual formations. Other schools will follow, with the most imaginative figuring out how to leapfrog ahead.

I've got some suggestions for some undergraduate courses. See my working paper, Policy, Strategy, Tactics: Intellectual Integration in the Human Sciences, an Approach for a New Era:
Abstract: The human sciences encompass a wide variety of disciplines: literary studies, musicology, art history, anthropology (cultural and physical), psychology (perceptual, cognitive, evolutionary, Freudian, etc.), sociology, political science, economics, history, cultural geography, and so forth. In this paper I process to organize courses and curricula aso as to include: 1) material from three different methodological styles (interpretive, behavioral or social scientific, and structural/constructive: linguistics, cognitive science), 2) historical and structural/functional approaches, and 3) materials from diverse cultures. The overall scheme is exemplified by two versions of a course on Signs and Symbols, one organized around a Shakespeare play and the other organized around traditional disciplines.
Who knows where this will go. I'm wondering if MIT is, in effect, proposing something like Tycho Brahe's response to the conventional geocentric model of the solar system (that is, the standard academic arrangements we've inherited from the 19th century). If so, that's not what we need. What we need is a Copernican alternative, and then Keplerian.

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