Introduction: Models of teaching and learning
Universities have long had to defend themselves against accusations of ivory-tower irrelevance. However, today, as universities face depleted funding, increased pressure to provide more practical and vocation-oriented education, and a trend away from face-to-face encounters between instructors and students in favor of heavily mediated and distance learning, the need for scholars to demonstrate the unique and vital role of universities is especially urgent. Despite the seriousness of these challenges, however, the problem is not essentially one of economics or technology. The most fundamental challenge facing universities is cultural: how will universities prove their relevance in this new historical moment? Universities are not static institutions. Across the world, a general loss of public-
mindedness and the elevation of proﬁt-driven entrepreneurialism or state-driven intervention contest many aspects of the established models of higher education. For this reason, the relevance of universities must not simply be reiterated, but also must be redeﬁned. How do we ensure that universities will continue to contribute in meaningful ways despite serious challenges? The virtues of a university education are manifold. Many of the beneﬁts of higher education are unique to the university setting. No other institution is so dedicated to helping its members grow as responsible citizens and questioning, ethical, and creative individuals. It is hard to imagine a meaningfully free, vibrant, and modern society without universities promoting the disinterested acquisition of knowledge. Universities and colleges recognize that if they do not nurture a passion for knowledge as such, they will fail to produce thinkers with the intellectual expansiveness necessary to deal with the moral and practical complexities of contemporary life. Though multiple features of our universities might proﬁt from change, there is much to defend in the rich and humane liberal arts tradition out of which universities grew. Such objectives are complicated by the fact that diﬀerent kinds of university settings
often forward contradictory solutions for their achievement. “Graduate education is
the Detroit of higher learning,” Mark Taylor famously (perhaps infamously) quipped in his Op-Ed critique of American higher education.1 And yet his suggestions to “make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative” – by establishing “a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network,” abolishing departments and creating “problem-focused programs” and particular “zones of inquiry,” and expanding the “range of professional options for graduate students” – have already seen fruition in some academic disciplines. Communication leads the pack here, where – as in the ﬁelds of literary studies, rhetorical studies, social psychology, philosophy, sociology, political science, and anthropology, and in the interdisciplinary ﬁelds of ﬁlm studies, new media studies, and critical race and gender studies – an emphasis on transdisciplinarity, on a blending of practical and intellectual training, and on multiple directions for graduate training thrive. Students of communication, perhaps more than those in most ﬁelds, are able to jump the line from academic to professional tracks, and its undergraduates are trained in production skills and practical labor, as well as – or often instead of – critical analysis and research. Part of the call for “professional” training is an acknowledgement that the university
must be made more relevant, both to students and to the world more generally, outside its fabled ivory walls. Other professional approaches are possible (if not often recognized) outcomes of training in this ﬁeld. For instance, communication scholars regularly extend their work beyond academe in projects such as media literacy programs, statements at congressional hearings, health communication-based interventions, children’s television program evaluation, and real-time campaign studies. As a ﬁeld, communication shows how to orient its strengths toward a reconsideration of what university education looks like, and what it is for. At the beginning of the twenty-ﬁrst century, we face signiﬁcant transnational perils
including extremism, ecological degradation, and profound social inequality. Universities have the opportunity to foster innovations that will address these profound problems, and to take an active role in (re)articulating the purpose of colleges and universities. As professionals, intellectuals, teachers, and citizens, we are charged with translating the ideals of higher education into curricula and practices that matter in a globalized and increasingly mediated world. We must make a clear and persuasive case for the continued, and perhaps even increased, necessity for universities as wellsprings of learning, tolerance, solidarity, and intellectual and technological advances. What we learn and teach, and how we learn and teach, are all central to this goal. The authors in this section oﬀer valuable suggestions for enhancing universities’ relevance to students, the professions, the state, and the “outside world.” They provide a sense of the directions we must take to ensure that universities continue to play a meaningful role as we head into a promising, but also challenging, future.