Where is the University?

During the pandemic, Lisa and I moved west, to the Mount Olive, NJ area. Apparently I’m just a few miles from Kenneth Burke’s farm, where he wrote a good bit of his later work, but I haven’t figured out exactly where it is yet, and whether or not any of his papers are nearby. I’ve just mostly been trying to work peacefully with the bear that likes to hang out in my yard.

Twice a week, at Montclair State, I teach a hybrid class, where I teach some students face to face at the same time that I teach others on Zoom. I have a mask and a headset. Sometimes there are a few students in the physical classroom. Other times the classroom is empty and everyone shows up on Zoom.

All of this has me thinking about where “the university” actually lives, as student, teacher, and administrative versions of “the university” seem to have been brought into stark collision during all this.  I guess I want to update Pirsig’s chapter about people’s confusion of the University and its location, as it very much applies to what happened this fall with reopening. Just as the church is different than its building, the University is different than its location. That has always been true. But I wonder if the possibility that university classes can happen online hasn’t complicated that issue in different, more difficult ways. That is to say the forces that have always believed they own the university (trustees, admin, governors, and so on) fought this past summer to make sure that the location IS the university because that’s where the profitable machinery runs.

Faculty, on the other hand, can impart (to some degree) the University from anywhere, but of course we want to get paid for doing so, which binds us to the machinery of location in ways that some of us do not want to acknowledge. (Students have bought in to the University as location, too, because, well, that’s where the fun is at). 

I don’t know what else to say about that right now, but I’m interested in the tension that schools like Harvard are experiencing versus aspirational schools like mine are facing and maybe how that would graph in Lacanian terms. University discourse is unconsciously supported by the master, sure, and the master has been making its long arc toward capitalism for quite a while. But (And?) there are endowments that allow schools to just go online (because after all even the very rich can’t afford to take a gap year from Harvard and be in competition with the next rising class) and there are schools like mine whose endowments would be done in less than a month if they did not offer the promise of university as location.  

In any case, that’s what I’m thinking about this morning as I prepare to go into my campus classroom to stream a class to college students on Zoom. As the weather turns colder, the campus becomes emptier and emptier. Each student seems to decide that the university lives in digital space, and that seems to be a day by day decision.


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