Blog Post

Technology, Corporations, and the University

In 1891, Andrew Carnegie warned students not to spend their time studying dead languages. Instead, he rejoiced, that students at Pierce College of Business and Shorthand of Philadelphia have spent their time "obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting" and that they were "fully equipped to sail upon the elements upon which you must live your lives and earn your living" (qtd. in Donoghue 4).

Useful and efficient, the typewriter in the above passage is a symbol of business values and how technology can help students be successful in the corporate world. I came across the passage in Frank Donoghue's The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (2008). Donoghue, an Associate Professor of English at Ohio State University, spoke on Monday, October 26, at Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. As I listened to Donoghue's talk and the excellent respondents, I kept thinking about the ways in which technologies were making appearances in these stories about universities and the threat of corporate takeover.

Antoinette Burton, Professor and Chair of History at the University of Illinois, was one of the respondents. She suggested that we look at Wendy Brown's excellent response to notions that we privatize the university, some of which are available on YouTube.  

At this point, Brown, Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests, we cannot say a simple yes or no to privatization. The beast is already in the house. Instead, Brown believes that we must strive to keep the beast small and self contained. As I watched Browns clip on YouTube, I realized how digital technologies are being used to resist privatization, perhaps in the same spirit that the typewriter had been used by writers for purposes that are remarkably different from what Carnegie imagined.

When Dianne Harris, director of Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at University of Illinois, responded, she explicitly returned to questions about the role of the digital world. She questioned Donoghue's claim that the corporate university is inevitable, that the abolition of tenure is inevitable, and that the transition from the university to professional training schools is inevitable. Nothing is inevitable, she rightly contends, as history as shown. How might we construct a counter narrative? We need only look as far as our laptops, Harris provocatively remarked. There is evidence that people do want to read humanities scholarship. We need to increase access.

I agree. We do need to make our work more accessible and certainly digital media becomes one way that we can reach broader publics. But once those digital roads have been formed, will we need to change the way we speak? Will we need to develop new rhetorics that can reach wider publics? The answer, of course, is yes. But how is far more complicated.

To read Donoghue's remarks, visit the Unit's blog Kritik.




I agree that technological resources can, if used correctly, be a critical site for pushing back for democratic control of the university.  I also agree that it probably won't be sufficient for humanities scholars to just transfer their traditional methods and ways of doing things to digital media. The shift to digital form will, almost inevitably, require changes in content as well, which would bring with it new risks, new challenges, and new possibilities. Like you, though, I think it is far too early to imagine what that could look like. 

The one concern I have with claims for the ability of technology to resist corporatization is that there are still lingering questions of access to this technology, hinted at in Dianne Harris's reference to only needing "our laptops." The divide in access to, and control of, technological resources, hasn't gone away. And so I think that it's important that those of us who want to use digital spaces as sites in which to mobilize against the corporatization of the university work to ensure that the access to those spaces is democratic as well.


Thanks Michael. I have been reading the great comments on the Democratizing Knowledge forum and am beginning to think about issues of access and sharing along a continuum. In Computers and Writing, for at least a decade, probably longer, there have been numerous publications about issues of access (e.g., Moran), about the lack of access that existed long before computers arrived. Still, I find myself fascinating by ways in which technologies might matter. 

In the NY Times, a few weeks ago, there was an article, "Rethinking the Shape of Everyday Life," that talked about new gadgets and the possibility that Apple might launch a touch-screen tablet computer next year. In the same paragraph, the author discussed the cute new XOXO tablet computer that One Laptop Per Child is planning to launch next year: 

If the bloggers are right and Apple launches a touch-screen tablet computer early next year, it could have the same galvanizing effect on the electronic reader as the iPod did on the MP3 player. Until then, the cute new XOXO tablet computer, which the non-profit organization One Laptop Per Child is planning to launch next year as an educational laptop for kids in developing countries, is the best example of how appealing an electronic reader can be. The screen opens up like the pages of a book.

I found this juxtaposition between middle-class consumerism and a version of social justice striking. It put a new on issues of access, for sure.