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Guest Blog Post: Teaching and Learning About the World in the U.S. University by Cynthia Miller-Idriss (American University)

By Shanna Saubert posted 03-06-2018 09:35 AM


This guest blog post was written by Cynthia Miller-Idriss, PhD (American University), with colleagues Mitchell L. Stevens, PhD (Stanford University) and Seteney Shami, PhD (Arab Council for the Social Sciences), exerpting content from their book:
Stevens, Mitchell L., Cynthia Miller-Idriss, and Seteney Shami. 2018. Seeing the world: How US universities make knowledge in a global era. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Teaching and Learning About the World in the U.S. University

U.S. research universities have long endeavored to be cosmopolitan places, and recent years have seen unprecedented growth in study-abroad programs, international student enrollments, global majors and degree programs, satellite campuses and other offshore programs. Yet scholarly production on U.S. university campuses has been stubbornly parochial: overwhelmingly dominated by inquiries about the United States and the global north. Despite decades of government and philanthropic investment in international scholarship, the most prestigious academic departments still favor research and expertise on the United States. Why?

Our book, Seeing the World, addresses this puzzle in three ways. First, it offers insight into the mechanics of knowledge production at the arts-and-sciences cores of U.S. research universities. Scholarly understanding of how universities transform money and intellect into knowledge remains startlingly limited. At present, we have only rudimentary measures of knowledge production’s inputs: tuition and fees, government subsidies, philanthropic gifts, and the academic credentials of students and faculty. Output measures are equally coarse: counts of degrees conferred; dissertations, articles, and books completed; patents secured; dollars returned on particular inventions. As for the black box of knowledge production in between: very little. Scholars have only recently made serious attempts to specify and quantify all the components that knowledge production at any great university daily entails: the myriad conversations among students and faculty, the workshops and seminars and working lunches, the chance meetings and office-door gossip sessions, the daily grinds of reading and reviewing and grading that somehow sum to publishable ideas and the occasional history-shaping insight. Our work reveals these mechanics.

Second, we theorize universities as special mechanisms for seeing the world. Scholars have long known that universities are ideal sites to observe social change. The pace of racial integration and the dynamics of gender and sexual relations are examples of important social processes that are both refracted and more clearly understood through their expression in higher education. How universities organize knowledge about the rest of the world also offers important lessons. Institutes on “oriental” civilizations, research projects grounded in modernization theory, study abroad programs offered at particular sites in particular ways—all of these can be leveraged for insight into how academics and their patrons make sense of the world and their changing relation to it across generations.

Third, we forward a theory of how U.S. universities themselves change. Universities are peculiar organizations in that they look backward and forward simultaneously. By going to work in lovely old buildings, donning medieval gowns on summer feast days, and issuing paper diplomas written in dead languages, university leaders rehearse their fealty to valued pasts. Yet these same people also are forever building for the future. They continually renovate their academic homes as knowledge grows, as technologies for producing and consuming knowledge evolve, and as the parties that pay for it all shift their predilections and priorities. The largest purpose of our work is to paint a picture of how US research universities manage to reorganize themselves continually while retaining stable identities over time.

The project’s earliest questions focused on how area studies centers were responding to increasingly prominent calls for interdisciplinarity and globalization in the US academy. We wanted to understand why area studies centers had not generated more inquiries on contemporary political, social, cultural, and economic developments in their target regions. We also wanted to know how area studies programs were finding their niches while administrators’ embrace of the “global” idea was rapidly accelerating.

SSRC’s founding role in area studies and the imprimatur of Title VI funding brought privileged access to many articulate lights in the American academic firmament. From 2005 to 2009, a team of SSRC staff researchers, doctoral students, and consulting faculty designed and conducted a multi-site, qualitative-comparative research study on twelve U.S. campuses across the country.

From the wealth and variety of evidence assembled for the larger SSRC inquiry, Seeing the World relies largely on interviews with faculty and administrators at eight of the project’s twelve research universities. We limited our scope of inquiry here to these eight schools because we had highly similar interview samples from each of them. These eight include both public and private universities, either of moderate or very large size relative to the organizational population, and they are located throughout the continental United States. All of them are highly regarded research institutions with multiple centers funded by Title VI.

What we Learned

By the time we started studying them, the eight universities we studied had accumulated a great deal of capacity for making knowledge about the rest of the world. The early American academics who built out the civilizational schema had left enduring commitments to the historical and humanistic study of others, as well as substantial and occasionally exquisite collections of books, manuscripts, and other artifacts representing varied cultural legacies. Through the world wars and especially after World War II, architects of the national schema added programs for the social scientific study of world regions and federal patronage for linguistic and other instruction that might serve U.S. interests abroad. Our specific focus has been the area studies centers funded by Title VI, but they are among many kinds of not-departments that mushroomed on university campuses during the 1960s and 1970s. Modernization and development theories of many varieties, along with their traditions of critique, grew together in a highly revered and generously funded Cold War academy. The close of the Cold War and chronic contractions in state-government subsidy ended a golden era of academic prosperity, yet within a very few years U.S. research institutions were substantially re-narrating their identities. Signaling a third schema of academic internationalism, institutional leaders began to make sense of themselves as “global” universities. They breathed fresh life into the university’s medieval promise of cosmopolitanism by courting more foreign nationals to their campuses and sending ever more faculty and students abroad. They built strategic alliances with other national governments, opened satellite campuses in distant countries, and actively courted patrons from every corner of the world. And because these new international activities did not necessarily replace the prior ones, U.S. universities grew ever more complex. They accumulated ever more ways of thinking about the world and more units for expanding their international reach.

We found that universities retain clear traces of very different schemata for representing the world as they move through time (Chapter 1), and that the Cold War decades were especially formative ones for the character of the universities American academics inhabit today (Chapter 2). We describe how the intramural organizational ecologies of U.S. universities are varied, complex, and productively competitive (Chapter 3). We detail the cooperation norms that enable intramural units to work together routinely (Chapter 4). And we explain the several ways in which disciplinary departments of economics, political science, and sociology have remained ambivalent about regional inquiry outside the United States (Chapter 5). We conclude by considering how universities are responding to secular changes in the politics and patronage of the U.S. academy, and suggest how social scientists, especially, might help to inform and direct the academic future.

Ambivalent Internationals in the Space of Opinion

From its beginning our inquiry was concerned with social scientists’ ambivalence about regional inquiry. Why, after years of incentive investment, had economists, political scientists, and sociologists produced so little research on regions important in their own right as well as strategically vital to U.S. national security? Our answer is that the prestige of disciplinary departments is linked so closely with scholarly identities, institutional ranking schemes, and doctoral student job placements that attention to contextually specific problems rather than abstract disciplinary ones is a very hard sell to departmental faculty.

The accomplishment of disciplinary boundaries and institutional security for the social sciences has made it constitutionally more difficult to organize social knowledge along regional or topical lines. However troubling this news may be for those who would like a more cosmopolitan social science, it comports both with prior theory on status dynamics in academic professions, and with the enduring marginality of regional inquiry in the North American academic world. As sociologist and regional specialist Charles Kurzman recently lamented, serious social science on Islam and the Middle East, for example, remains remarkably rare.1 Our conclusion is that the paucity of regionally oriented social science is not a failure of Title VI. It is instead a predictable if perhaps unfortunate outcome of an academic status system that privileges the study of disciplinary abstractions.

Our inquiry emphasized scholarship taking place at the arts-and-sciences cores of the schools we studied. America’s great research universities now sustain spectacularly complex knowledge ecologies, and disciplinary departments have no cartel on the production of social science. There are accomplished economists, sociologists, and political scientists in professional schools of business, education, information, law, medicine, and public policy. Although our project was not designed to assess it systematically, our interviewees volunteered numerous reports of professional schools being somewhat friendlier to regionally focused social science. This too would comport with the general insight of knowledge production our inquiry has sustained. Explicitly charged with informing practice and training practitioners, professional schools do “applied” social science by definition. The sheer existence of professional schools better enables scholars with appointments in the arts-and-sciences core to indulge their preference for abstraction.

But is that the sort of social science we want?

Consider, for example, that the general failure of disciplinary social scientists to attend to Islam and the Middle East has probably made it easier for others to claim expertise on these topics. We conclude by suggesting the changing place of U.S. research universities in the larger ecology of knowledge production. Sociologists Ronald Jacobs and Eleanor Townsley call it “the space of opinion”—the vast realm of public discourse where journalism, politics, and the academy intersect.2 The space of opinion is where politicians, professional pundits, and laypeople go to obtain information and perspective on current affairs. This space has changed substantially in recent decades on two broad dimensions.

First, a whole new category of organizations—think tanks—have come to wield ever more influence over public discourse. Funded by private patrons and specifically intended to direct government policy and popular wisdom in line with specific ideological persuasions, think tanks now give respectable organizational footing to all manner of partisan experts.3 Second, the scale and form of mainstream journalism have been transformed through digital media. The internet has made it possible for many versions of news to be conveyed through an essentially infinite number of vectors: print, television, and radio journalism is now conjoined with web venues and social media channels of ever expanding variety. Costs of entry into the space of opinion have been reduced nearly to zero. Wildly diverse versions of reality can now vie for global audiences with the minimal commitment of an e-mail account, a Facebook page, or a Twitter feed. In this new media ecosystem, no one or few sources of information can lay claim to truth or primacy.

This is the context in which Duke University sociologist Christopher Bail observed how anti-Muslim fringe organizations came to substantially influence what counted as truth about Islam in the years following the 9/11 attacks.4 In retrospect, it is impossible to know whether or how a more robust social science of the Islamic world might have influenced the evolution of national sentiment in the wake of 9/11. But we do know this: during the same years that the space of opinion underwent revolutionary change and expansion, catalyzing definitive change in how Americans made sense of the Arab world, academic economists, political scientists, and sociologists had very little expertise or professional incentive to contribute to the public discourse.

In the book’s conclusion, we reflect on what the U.S. federal government, or indeed any other patron, might do to incentivize more regionally focused social science. This essay does not offer sufficient space to elaborate on those reflections here. But we believe that recent secular shifts in the resource environment of U.S. higher education provides fresh incentive for encouraging young social scientists to better investigate substantive problems in specific places all over the globe. A great inheritance of the twentieth century is that the rest of the world still admires our great universities. Everywhere, people dream of sending their children to our campuses. They want tastes of our academic banquet through online courses. They court our experts to consider their local affairs specifically, on site. Worldwide, governments are building new universities and growing existing ones, often hiring U.S. consultants to help them approximate an American academic ideal. What will our most ambitious students have to offer these new patrons, in what languages, and on whose terms? Facing these questions squarely might transform parochial social sciences into truly global endeavors.


Excerpted from Seeing the world: How US universities make knowledge in a global era by Mitchell L. Stevens, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, and Seteney Shami. Copyright © 2018 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

1 See: Kurzman, Charles. 2015. “The Stubborn Parochialism of American Social Science,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 19, 2015. Also: Kurzman, Charles. 2017. “Scholarly Attention and the Limited Internationalization of US Social Science.” International Sociology 32, 6: 775-795.

2 Jacobs, Ronald N., and Eleanor Townsley. 2011. The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

3 On the rise of think tanks in the second half of the twentieth century see: Medvetz, Thomas. 2012. Think Tanks in America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

4 Bail, Christopher. 2015. Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.