Making a University. Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Study Practices

Dissertation, KU Leuven (2019)
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The question of how the university can relate to the world is centuries old. The poles of the debate can be characterized by the plea for an increasing instrumentalization of the university as a producer and provider of useful knowledge on the one hand (cf. the knowledge factory), and the defense of the university as an autonomous space for free inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake on the other hand (cf. the ivory tower). Our current global predicament, however, forces us to rethink the relation between university and world. Indeed, an easy nstrumentalization of the university for the purposes of society is no longer possible in troubled times when the future of society itself seems to be at stake. Nevertheless, urgent societal concerns do need to be addressed by the university. Hence, the disinterested position seems a highly irresponsible option. The aim of this dissertation is to reconsider the relation between the university and the world from an educational perspective by addressing the question “How to situate study in the relation between university and society?” The dissertation consists of three parts. In Part One, the existing literature on the relation between university and society will be discussed. The first chapter discerns two main approaches to this issue, namely the transcendental-philosophical approach (cf. the idea of the university) and the critical-sociological approach (cf. academic capitalism) that conceive of the university, respectively, as an idea and as an organization. By means of an excursus on the emergence of the university in the Middle Ages, the case is made for an ecological approach to the university. In the second chapter, the work of two authors who have recently adopted such an ecological approach is briefly presented. Whereas Ronald Barnett’s theory of the ecological university is situated more in the transcendental-philosophical tradition, Susan Wright’s investigations of the university in the knowledge ecology can be placed in the critical-sociological tradition. Both conceptions, however, are hinged on an institutional understanding of the university. In line with recent developments in social theory, namely the focus on practices, it is proposed to work towards an ecology of study practices. Part Two presents Isabelle Stengers’ idea of the ecology of practices. The third chapter elucidates Stengers’ work on scientific practices by first situating it within the so-called Science Wars, which provided the impetus to elaborate a theoretical framework for a civilized dialogue between scientists and the broader public. The basic tenets and concepts of her approach, such as the understanding of practice as a set of requirements and obligations, are presented, explained, and discussed. In the fourth chapter, the focus shifts from scientific practices to study practices. Assisted by Stengers’ writings on Whitehead’s speculative philosophy, this chapter aims to flesh out Whitehead’s description of the university as a ‘home of adventures’ in order to come to an educational understanding of the study practices of the university. A conceptual inquiry into how study practices activate certain worldly problems and turn them into matters of study is presented. Part Three develops the conceptual work on study practices further in relation to the activities of the Palestinian experimental university Campus in Camps. Chapter Five presents the work of Campus in Camps and explains how it relates to the theoretical discussion offered in the second part. On the basis of Stengers’ conception of practice, which discerns requirements and obligations as vital ingredients, this chapter argues that life in exile is what drives the study practices of Campus in Camps, and hence, that it is the issue of life in exile that participants are obligated to when they study. Whereas Chapter Five is focused on what is being studied in Campus in Camps, Chapter Six inquires in to the specific requirements its activities need to fulfill in order to be study practices; in other words, how the participants study. Four requirements are discerned that, taken together, seem indispensable to understand the study practices of Campus in Camps; namely, storytelling, comparing, mapmaking, and using. The concluding chapter returns to the research question and again takes up the main ideas developed in the dissertation, such as the adventure of study and the cohabitation of scientific and study practices in the university. The last two sections of the conclusion deal with two remaining issues of a more practical nature; namely, how to relate to institutionalization when working from a practice-theoretical point of view, and lastly the question of what can be done. In all, and returning to the initial problem, the dissertation asks what it means to conceive of the university as situated by and engaged with worldly questions.
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