Reworking/Rethinking the University

Two Conferences at the University of Minnesota, April 11-13th, 2008; April 24-26, 2009

Reflections on the conference

One of the conference posters

Perhaps we can begin our continuation of the discussions from the conference by responding to this post with our reflections (click on “Comment” below).  Eli Thorkelson’s “notes on a lively conference on universities” provides some initial thoughts.


April 21, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,


  1. Hello!

    I am impressed by Eli’s summary and agree with almost all of it (including the touch of ending with a legitimation of unlegitimated knowledge), but would like to push a little bit on the issue of the privilege/nature of (non-scientific) academic knowledge…which for me, is also the locus of the core tensions described in the questioning of “politically committed academic labor”, i.e. when we start questioning our own self-interest, our own desires, and especially, the ways in which we can actually achieve these things, which also confronts head on the notion of privilege.

    On privilege, yes! we should use it, but it is important to note that academic knowledge, as attested by its need for translation (both into convincing/sensible talk and action), implicitly and often explicitly argues for its own superiority, and does so by pitting itself against the ignorant other (be they undergrads, activists, other disciplines, or the uneducated). Moreover, this is done without the necessity, and indeed generally completely without, any sort of rootedness in the world.

    Hence, the amazing number of brilliant and totally useless proposals for changing everything, or the vast literature that has absolutely no idea of what, if anything is going on on the ground (a problem much more so on the left than the right, which says something about effectiveness, not inherent political tendencies). As such the academic division of labor (we think, you act) = mostly silly; in organizing it is effectiveness that is crucial, which need not reduce academics to the producers of instrumental knowledge!

    In fact there is a lot that academics qua academics can do, mostly in relation to serving as directors in a pipeline, moving resources, money, energy, awareness, credit, and ideas(!) into the grounds from which resistance (and longterm support for community based intellectuals) can grow…which can include their own ‘private’ projects. This is however, not a neutral position, nor is it one that can be effectively accomplished on one’s own, which leads of course to the problem of competition (and fame and egotism…and professional standards).

    There is also the way in which academic knowledge is separated off and abstracted from concrete everyday concerns, like childcare, rent, and other costs of living—academic knowledge is generalizable but not truth—a position which disappears academic’s self-interest as well as creating a deep ideological divide from other workers (which cannot be solved simply, nor is it reducible to this problem).

    Truth, in society, is a relation, knowledge an opinion…but it is truth, that is changed relations, that is important whether it be creating a daycare timebank to support supportive worker alliances of workers from all classes of the university, or building the power that is needed to stand strong together in the academy, or the simple practice of discussing ones ideas with communities in a way that keeps present the investments, or real potentials, of those communities. Or rather knowledge without relation is empty and implicitly oppressive, which is why, perhaps? feminist intellectuals, particularly those of color have put so much work into self-position, to, as it were, restore relations to knowledge, the facticity of truth to the rootlessness of knowledge?

    But now I, too, have become silly in a perhaps (un)commendable way and will halt my long-ish reply.

    Curious to hear others thoughts and also the nature of your university of the future. I find myself challenged by the realization that my university of this sort would not be a university at all…(of course neither would my job description, work, factories, or schools!).

    Hit me back when there is time!


    David (Boehnke)

    Comment by David Boehnke | April 21, 2008

  2. I have a few, very brief things: one a practical suggestion, the other an afterthought.

    Practical suggestion: I think that aside from bringing in more union/labor people we should also at least publicize the upcoming conference to even those professional organizations that have an activist component. I would not have known about the conference if I hadn’t gotten a message from Lucia. The National Women’s Studies Association has a space to list upcoming conferences, etc. on its website: There is a strong group within the organization that is concerned with the kinds of issues raised by “Rethinking the U.” I would also like to take info on upcoming plans to my Regional NW NWSA conference (sometime next November). Without networking with others, including those that might pull us out of our diverse “comfort zones” (and I apply that to myself as well) we will not bring in the kinds of creative and activist participation we say we want.

    Afterthought: When I got home my daughter, who is 12 years old, said she wanted to followup with some more questions for her middle school social studies class assignment. The assignment was to “interview an older person about something important that happened during their life.”(I’m her older mom, at 58, whom she interviewed before I left for Minneapolis. I chose to talk to her about the first demonstration I participated in – which was at Columbia University in 1968. I remember someone at our conference mentioning that particular student-initiated event. One goal of the student protest, occupation of the buildings, subsequent police riot and then month-long strike at Columbia was to get the Institute for Defense Analysis off campus; the research being done at the Institute was, it was felt, aiding and abetting the U.S. undeclared war in Vietnam. While I was revisiting those events with Anya it suddenly occurred to me that – and you probably realize this, too – that military research, research for the “state” preceded current corporate ventures in academia and subsequent corporatization of the university. I think we need to be on the lookout for how such research may now be present, in privatized form. Participating in the our conference brought home to me just how much alleged university “independence” is a fiction, and has always been a fiction. Workplace conditions, assaults on academic freedom including firings of dissident professors and decimation or restriction of “unproductive” programs, and selective attention to “the needs of our surrounding communities” are reflected in the purposes of such research, which serves both corporatist and governmental transnational policies, as well as policies more obviously detrimental to “us” at home.

    Whatever issues we might have with “the New Left” of the sixties, (and I had plenty at the age of 18, as a newly emerging feminist)there is a history of activism that isn’t just the boys of the RYM (Revolutionary Youth Movement) getting high and hoping to kick ass in the streets. Best, Barbara

    Comment by Barbara Scott Winkler | April 22, 2008

  3. I must say that I love this blog already. I have lots of faith that this will turn into a totally rad forum and can help keep the issues raised at the conference in circulation.

    Thanks Eli T. for your stellar comments/re-cap of the conference.

    I agree with Barbara that an examination of the intersections between University and military research is really important. There have been some folks trying to start such an investigation that at the UofM but its proven really difficult. Primarily because access is so limited and it would take a lot of time. It seems like leftist academics like myself have spent the bulk of our time doing “ideology critique” precisely because one doesn’t have to confront institutional power in the same way one would have to if one were to engage in militant, investigative research.



    Comment by Isaac | April 22, 2008

  4. Hi,

    The only part of the conference I attended was a reception — but I
    talked to a bunch of people there and realized that some things I’ve
    been thinking about and working on for a number of years could be
    nicely related to the topics you discussed in this conference.


    Here is a new entry into the discussion:

    I’ll describe the idea and how it connects to rethinking
    and/or reworking the university.

    Many people have common interests — is there a way
    that we can create an organization affiliated with many,
    other organizations, learning from all of them, and helping
    all of them better achieve their goals?

    (Certainly every non-profit qualifies as a potential “member
    organization”, for example…, but common interests go
    beyond just established organizations, of course!)

    One way this could relate to “Re-* the University” is
    as follows. Various “commons-based” online groups
    (like, a math pedagogy site I’ve been
    affiliated with for many years; or,
    a spin-off site; or the directory of electronic literature, which is something that
    I’ve just learned about; or Project Gutenberg,
    which has been around for ages) might be connected
    into the organization, where in the business of providing
    content and a place to connect with other people around
    the world who are interested in some specific topic. An
    organization like exco could play the role of connecting
    *local* people who are interested in similar topics.
    One of the interests shared by many of these people
    is presumably to get a degree. So somewhere within the
    metacommons organization there could be an accredited
    institution of higher learning where students can parlay their
    experience with local and remote learning collaboratives into
    a bona fide degree… for free, and without all the other
    constraints of geography, time, etc., imposed by present-day

    Comment by Joseph Corneli | April 23, 2008

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