The academy is in crisis. Adjunctification, outcome assessment, online learning, for-profit universities — all of these things have been decried as challenging the very foundations of the academic enterprise. Yet no one stops to ask what that foundation is. We have forgotten about the question of the being of academia. We must put ourselves in a position to ask it afresh, so that we can begin to sketch out the ontological structure of academia. (Here I limit myself to institutions of higher education — lower levels present different, though not unrelated, problems.)
Let us start from the assumption that the academic enterprise is a type of professional practice. Academics never achieved the clearly “professional” status of doctors and lawyers — and our ontological investigation may disclose the inner necessity of that failure — but that status remains an indispensable point of reference. Part of being a professional in the modern world is obviously being certified by the state to undertake some kind of activity in an authoritative way. Anyone can give medical or legal advice, but that does not make them a doctor or lawyer. Further, there are some aspects of being a doctor or lawyer that only “work” if the state certification is present. Not just anyone can write a prescription or rightly demand attorney-client privilege.
Broadly speaking, the aspects of professionality that require state certification to be effective are performative speech acts that the state has empowered the professional to undertake. This puts us into a position to ask: What are academics empowered to do? Certainly anyone can teach, and learning can and does take place outside the bounds of a set curriculum or institution. Similarly, anyone can conduct research, which is a task undertaken systematically by a variety of governmental agencies, corporations, and “think tanks” that make no claim to being academic institutions.
Just as with the other professions, what sets the academic apart from any other teacher or researcher is the power to perform a legitimate speech act — in this case, the performative speech act of grading. What we add to the learning process that cannot be gained in any other way is the system of grades, credits, and degrees. And this, incidentally, is why academics have never been professionals in the full sense that lawyers and doctors are. No professor is a “free-standing” grader who can start a private grading practice. Their authority to grade is contingent on their affiliation with an accredited academic institution. That institution can and often does delegate the authority to grade to people without what might be regarded as full academic qualifications (grad students, true adjuncts who teach a class reflecting their area of non-academic expertise, etc.). Such practices might call into question the legitimacy of academic certification, but the people so empowered are in fact so empowered. The grade of a grad student or a businessman who teaches one class or an exploited adjunct is a grade.
A similar structure holds for another performative speech act that is closely akin to grading: peer review. Again, an academic is not empowered to authoritatively review other academics’ writings unless that power has been delegated by a recognized academic journal. I might present my article to a journal with a dozen reader reports that I have commissioned myself, but that would not constitute peer review in the recognized sense. Here the power structure is much less defined, however, because the state has generally not taken an interest in certifying academic journals — it is content to allow academics to handle such matters among themselves, even when the state provides funding for certain types of research. This still holds true in places such as the U.K., where the state has been concerned to measure and direct academic research more firmly than the U.S. has done. While the state expresses a greater confidence in certain journals than in others, that confidence is still (at least ostensibly) based primarily on the relative reputation of journals among academics.
[Added: The traditional structure of academic employment follows the same broad outlines as well. The granting of tenure is a judgment on the part of relevant members of the academic institution that the candidate is worthy of permanent employment at the institution. Even if everyone in the world agrees that someone is qualified, what matters is the decision on the part of that person’s own institution. The same holds if the person is a total clown — if their institution judges them to be worthy of tenure, they have tenure.]
The authority to grade is necessarily vested in a broader institution because the goal of grading is to put together a series of credits and qualifications that will add up to something called a degree. A degree that relied on the word of only a single professor would not be credible. That is not, however, because a single professor cannot have the requisite knowledge to adequately assess every subject area. At Shimer College, for example, there are faculty members who have taught every course in the core curriculum, which makes up 2/3 of a student’s credits, and it does not seem to be a stretch to say that those faculty members would also be capable of offering a suitable range of electives commensurate with the remaining required credits. Though it would almost certainly never happen in practice, it would therefore be theoretically possible for a Shimer graduate to take classes with only one faculty member. Parallel situations can be imagined at other institutions as well.
No, the reason that a degree from a single professor would not be credible is that the degree comes from the institution and not the individual faculty member. The institution is structured in such a way as to require the consensus of a good number of its individual members before granting a degree. This is equally true of universities that base degree completion on comprehensive examinations rather than the accumulation of individual credits. While universities doubtless try to delegate their grading authority based on knowledge, the reason an academic’s grade counts is not because that person knows the most about the subject, but precisely because they have been authorized to teach and therefore grade a given course.
Yet surely, you may say, grading is based on knowledge? Our ontological investigation suggests the foundation is elsewhere. After all, anyone can learn anything at any time, yet that does not — taken purely in itself — entitle them to graded academic credit in the subject area. What grading certifies and assesses is the student’s performance of a series of academic ritual practices. Traditionally, those rituals include class sessions at recurring intervals, some combination of lecturing and discussion, and some type of written work. All aspects of the performance are graded, and those grades are somehow compiled to reach a final grade for the entire course, which then counts as credit toward the final meta-grade called a degree.
The practice of grading certainly legitimates itself by means of a claimed correlation between grades and knowledge, but that relationship does not need to hold in order for a grade to be a grade — any more than a doctor’s prescription has to be the best remedy in order to be fillable. Considered strictly ontologically, a grade reflects an authorized academic’s assessment of a student’s performance in a certain academic ritual at a certain time and place. I may get an A in physics and then forget everything over the summer, and my grade remains my grade. Similarly, I may get a D in physics but later in life come to a profound understanding of the subject — even so, my grade remains my grade.
There is no necessary relationship between knowledge and showing up to a certain number of class sessions, or satisfactorily completing an exam on a given day, or any other traditional academic ritual. A good professor will certainly try to make grades and learning correlate as much as possible, just as a good doctor will try to really heal people and a good lawyer will try to give the best legal advice. Yet the only necessary relationship is that between the ritual and the grade. And in the last analysis, the only ritual that is absolutely necessary is the academic’s own ritual process of submitting and certifying grades. The professor may choose to give grades based on non-academic factors (bribes, sexual favors, personal affinity), just as a doctor can write prescriptions for reasons unrelated to legitimate medical treatment. A good university will have processes in place to prevent those abuses — but unless and until such processes are undertaken, the corrupt grade is the student’s grade, simply and solely because it is the grade given by the authorized representative of the academic institution.
When viewed in this way, the academic enterprise can seem to have very little credibility. It appears to be purely self-referential and self-authorized — what it adds to the process of learning is finally not a promise of deeper or more permanent understanding, but simply the fact of having taken place in the academy. On the ontological level, the academic enterprise is a self-grounded practice of assessment and certification that, in the last analysis, certifies the fact that it has certified something. Yet just as in the other professions, its performative acts are legitimated by an outside standard to which they aspire. It’s just that the standard in the case of academia, namely knowledge and understanding in the broad sense, is inherently less well-defined than in the case of law or medicine. The development of “majors” and the proliferation of specific departments and programs can be viewed as an attempt to give greater definition to the sphere of academic certification — but the ever-growing range of majors and programs only serves to testify to the inherent undefinability of that sphere.
With the ontological structure of academia in mind, we can see that the contemporary situation of the academic enterprise is characterized by two contradictory impulses. The first is the attempt to reduce the academic enterprise to the function of knowledge-transmission by downplaying or even eliminating the qualitative element of the performative practice of grading. Outcome assessment, for instance, creates a parallel system alongside grading that attempts to measure student learning in an objective and quantifiable way. Meanwhile, MOOCs claim to offer the benefits of an elite university education to the masses. What undercuts both practices is that they have no claim to cultural recognition and legitimacy. Even assuming that an outcome assessment process is rigorous and accurate to the uttermost extent, it is not and never will be the same thing as the system of grading that culminates in the granting of a degree — and it is also obvious that learning through watching filmed lectures, however edifying and informative they may be, simply is not the same thing, ontologically speaking, as completing a college course.
The second impulse is the demand for ever broader academic certification. We see academic credit being granted for creative pursuits, for service work in the community, for internships — all activities that have their own goals and sources of legitimacy and yet have come to be viewed as appropriate objects of academic certification. Since academic certification has no set content, this impulse makes sense in a way that asking for a medical opinion on one’s service project or attorney-client privilege to discuss possible changes to one’s novel would not. Yet it threatens to make academic certification meaningless insofar as it would have no particular sphere to call its own. An academia that is empowered to certify everything is empowered to certify nothing in particular.
In short, we as a culture are demanding at once that academia cut out the element of qualitative performative certification in order to devote itself entirely to the ever more effective transmission of knowledge, and yet at the same time we are asking its blessing for an ever-increasing number of activities that have no direct relationship to traditional academic practices or pursuits. Yet the academic enterprise only exists in the tension between its ritual practice and the production and transmission of knowledge. The full achievement of either goal would mean the end of academia as a distinct practice — in either case, it would certify nothing, either by giving up its claim to certification or by extending it so widely that it becomes effectively meaningless.
This outcome is precisely what a clear view of the ontological structure of academia can help us avoid. With a confident grasp of that structure in hand, the academy can make informed decisions about whether, for example, outcome assessment can help us to refine our practices to bring grading more in line with learning or online educational models can be pursued with integrity. It can more clearly determine whether and how it should extend its practices of certification to non-traditional areas with an eye toward meeting social demands while remaining true to its own sources of legitimacy. And finally, it can help individual academics to approach with greater confidence the institutions that depend on their labor for legitimacy and to better understand their own conflicted relationships with those institutions, particularly in their present forms.
In short, if we can attain a greater grasp of what the academic enterprise is, we can begin to see how the contemporary situation might disclose a horizon of an authentic future of academia, a way for it to undertake necessary transformations without destroying itself either through pure quantification or through an overextended claim of qualification.