Thinking Outside the Box at the Modern University

For the past three months, I’ve been working with a group of able and well-meaning colleagues to create a new program in digital arts and humanities. We were prompted by our provost and encouraged by our dean to think big about how this new program will look. The powers-that-be received enthusiastically our initial proposal, which involved faculty from History, English, Art and Design, Anthropology, and Music. The program we envision involves introductory level courses (including my hobby horse: a course titled Introduction to the Digital World that prompts our students not only to get hands on experience with such high-tech procedures as attaching files to email messages, but also to learn to think critically about how digital technologies impact their world), midlevel courses, and upper level “convergence” courses which will be taught collaboratively by faculty with skills in theory and production.  

Of course, to put together a program like this, we need not only to get buy-in from faculty who will contribute, but also develop the technological infrastructure to support this program. One of the first responses by people in the room was: let’s create a department. This, at first, seemed a logical first step. We know we need to hire a program director and hiring is usually done at the departmental level. We also need administrative support and that’s usually assigned at the departmental level (and the few non-departmental programs here on campus are notoriously underfunded and lack support). Finally, we need to create courses, have committees, secure commitments from various university areas, and all these things usually manifest themselves on the departmental level. 

At the same time that all this excitement about creating a department simmered away, some of us wondered whether it might be better to avoid these kinds of institutional entanglements and create a program with an explicit shelf life. What if we created a program in digital humanities and arts that lasted 10 years and then disbanded?

1. Technology. Most of the technology that this program will leverage and explore has a lifespan of 5 years. A ten year program will see this technology through a single refresh. This limits the university’s exposure to creating a program with significant recurring expenses and perhaps makes administrators more willing to invest in a program if they feel free from any risk at precedence setting.

2. Four Cohorts. If the average university student completes their major courses over three years. A ten year trajectory will allow us to move approximately four cohorts through the program with two years at the start to get the program settled and a minimum of faculty. Students will have to realize that they need to complete courses successfully because they will not be offered again for a period of two years.

3. Planned Obsolescence. Recently at an archaeological conference, a major scholar opined, in a matter of fact way, that archaeological projects should have a shelf-life of 10 years or so. When a 10 year plan of work is complete, the project directors should make the site available for other scholars to investigate and shift their attention to publishing results or move on to another site and project.

A few of us had this idea that we might run a degree program for 10 years. This would allow us to approach the program with a significant degree of intensity, keep on top of a rapidly moving body of scholarship, and invest as little time as possible in empire or infrastructure building. 

4. Programs without Departments.  The key component of our 10 year program will be the absence of a department. As at most universities, resources and infrastructure are typically (although not always) allocated on the department level. Departments require management and the members of the department are usually the individuals who provide this. Programs, on the other hand, can be administratively light on the ground. Our program, with a finite shelf-life and without the need to invest in long-term planning, would focus its energy on students and immediate results. The plan would be for every faculty contributor to the program to have a departmental home (including the program director) and to offer one or two courses a year in the new program for a period of 10 years and to have equal say in design and management of the program. There will be no long term entanglement.

5. Competition. Of course, the absence of a longterm plan for our program could hurt it in the competition for university resources, but we feel like we can make a compelling case for the vitality and significance of our program. And, if we can’t do this, perhaps we don’t deserve the not insignificant level of funding that our work will require. 

Our plan here echoes some of the policies proposed by Mark Taylor in his well-known piece in the New York Times. The main difference in our vision is that we would respect the disciplinary integrity of departments while at the same time offering an alternative perspective to the permanence and administrative rigidity and energy that goes into maintaining these institutional structures. 

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