Blog Post

Time and the Modern University: Prospectus

"Time and the Modern University" by Cathy N. Davidson, Scholar in Residence, Cornell University Society for the Humanities, April 5-9

This is a prospectus for the conversations I will be having while in residence at the Cornell University Society for the Humanities.



Credit hours. The semester. The quarter. Class time. Academic calendars. Class schedules. Contact hours. Required attendance. Office hours. Make-up classes. Snow days. Fall and Spring break. Credit hours required for general education. Credit hours required for a minor. Credit hours required for the major. Exam schedules. The timed exam.   Student hours.  Seat time. Time to degree. Tenure:  These are a few time-stamped features of the modern American university that we now take for granted.  Most of this infrastructure did not exist before 1860 and was firmly in place by 1925.

Like the school bell that became the symbol of compulsory public schooling, the Carnegie Unit may well be the symbol of Industrial Age higher education reform.  All of this apparatus was part of the late 19th century’s standardizing of, simultaneously, student admissions and credentialing, faculty workload and recognition structures, and disciplinary knowledge specialization and professionalization. They are the foundations for “standards-based education” and “accountability” that are making increasing incursions into higher education today. 


Emanating from Harvard and the Carnegie Foundation, these features were justified by Taylorist production models of efficiency and early twentieth-century modernization. We are learning from recent scholarship that, even more diabolically, capitalist time and production accounting practices were developed as a part of the de-humanizing bookkeeping systems of white Southern plantation slave owners. Specifically, incentivizing timed work (“bales per prime hand”) and recording human depreciation or appreciation on an annual plantation balance sheet were practices developed by slave owners and that subsequently moved to the railroads and the assembly line. From there, they moved to the “age-graded schools” and new ideas of childhood, adolescence, giftedness, disability, and age-dependent I.Q.  When reinforced by standardized, high-stakes summative testing, the establishment of the SAT as college entrance exams, and the linking of student selectivity to school rankings, we have the mechanisms of what Lani Guinier calls “the tyranny of meritocracy” that is the basis of the modern American university.


During her residency, Professor Cathy N. Davidson will be looking back historically to the origins of the modern university while also challenging us to deconstruct the higher education punch clock in the realms over which we have power: our classrooms.  She will think with us about what learning might look like if all vestiges of “seat time” were eliminated.  She departs from many pundits who seek to solve the “crisis” of higher education by such measures as reducing the four-year undergraduate clock to three years or slashing the PhD to a four-year project.  Switching out the time allocations does not get to the heart of the problems.  It does not transform the dependency of the present system on a punch-clock calibrated to the demands, aspirations, and paradigms of a different era.  By contrast, she advocates thinking deeply about how to create a more innovative, fluid, equitable, and activist model of higher learning not just for the world as it is, but also for the world as we wish it to be.


Here are some questions:


In the Factory Act of 1833, the factory and the school become inextricably conjoined, with child labor regulation tied to compulsory schooling that prepare students to the rhythms and requirements of factory work. What is the Uber Act of 2016?  What ways do we train students for this world of neoliberalism and the adjuctification of all labor?  Is it high-cost, standardized testing, the “tyranny of meritocracy,” and tuition and debt burden?


If we were to liberate learning from institutional racism, the assembly line, Taylorism, and the tyranny of the punch clock, what might the new university be? 


What if inclusion rather than exclusion and success rather than failure were to become our metrics for success? 


What if we aspired to timelessness rather than timed knowledge, contemplation rather than production, cooperation rather than individual output, community rather than leadership, hierarchy, and ranking? 


How can we be creative and expansive in a time of cutbacks and shrinkage, censorship and fear?


How might we start to change the system we’ve inherited, not in some distant future but (speaking of time) tomorrow? 


How can we, right now, redesign the realms in which we have agency--our classrooms--as newly engaged, activist, progressive spaces? 


How can we help create environments wherein our students can have agency and we can be co-learners not enforcers in the enterprise of learning? 


What new pedagogies can liberate us from the time-bound models of “knowledge production” that we have inherited?   



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