I remember reading William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep a few years back and thinking: This is about me? It’s not that he’s completely wrong in his analysis of the student-as-customer model of higher education; I think in many respects Deresiewicz is correct, but wide-sweeping claims about an entire generation hardly seem productive, even beyond what Eve Sedgwick has labeled “strong theories,” which extend to wide swatches of experience, albeit with some weak spots. Rather than belabor the reductive point of What’s Wrong With Students Now—a stance critiqued by Sara Ahmed, herself a leading critic of the contemporary university—why not hone in on the work the current cadre of students and educators are doing to reshape the campus?
My appreciation of Davidson’s book, then, stems from its focus on oft-overlooked examples of “the new education” already in action. From Juana Maria Rodriguez’s beautiful gesture towards the production of open-source knowledge on Wikipedia to Alexander Coward’s student-centered approach to Ashesi University’s reverse pyramid model (beginning with a specific research question and extending outward from there), Davidson beautifully and clearly tracks concrete programs for improving higher education. In this way, it complements the work Paulo Freire does in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, offering palpable programs for an academic-industrial revolution, which may already be underway in some American public universities.
I do, however, keep returning to Lauren Berlant’s distinction between “infrastructure” and “institution”: “I use infrastructure rather than institution because an infrastructure requires patterns, habits, and norms of use, in contrast to institutions, which are defined by their concentration and distribution of resources and legitimacy.” Davidson, thankfully, does not regurgitate the common cut between “the real world” and “the campus”; however, I do wonder if her focus on changing institutions to “prepare students” for a world in flux is in fact a call for the slow, gradual “reform” of longstanding institutions which consistently reenact exclusionary, tokenizing, and violent admissions practices and metrics of success. This is not to say that institutional bureaucracies are intractable, but that radical pedagogical work is also being done at the level of the infrastructural, which may actually better respond to the demands of the here and now in its marked refusal of bureaucracy and trustee oversight. Examples of this type of work include The Free University of New York City, The Black School, and the strategies Stefano Harney and Fred Moten call for in The Undercommons. Davidson’s institutional examples all perform in the disciplinary and institutional in-betweens; I wonder where the infrastructural fits in the new education. Is it in the in-between, or somewhere else entirely?feministkilljoys.com "Against Students." Accessed 4 Nov 2018. https://feministkilljoys.com/2015/06/25/against-students/#_ftn1. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. supervalentthought.com "Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness." Accessed 4 Nov 2018. https://supervalentthought.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/berlant-aaa-2011final.pdf.