Dr. Mark C. Taylor, chairman of Columbia University’s religion department, issues this call in the NY Times to “End the University as We Know It.”Among other problems, Taylor sees specialization making the university irrelevant:

And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations [Mark C. Taylor, “End the University as We Know It,” New York Times, 2009.04.26].

Likening the modern university to Detroit (think Chrysler and Lions), Taylor calls for revolutionary changes in department structure (get rid of them), curriculum (replace specialization with interdisciplinarianism), and tenure (replace with seven-year contracts). My favorite: transform the traditional dissertation:

In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats [Taylor, 2009.04.26].

I couldn’t agree more. Our dissertations should signify something more than our ability to play a particular obscure game. They should speak in language and forms that communicate vigorously and meaningfully with a much broader audience than a small committee of gatekeepers.

So who wants to chair my dissertation committee?

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