Specialization and Openness

Something that rings through David Russell’s “Nineteenth Century Backgrounds” and Clay Spinuzzi’s All Edge and “Symmetry as Methodological Move” is the tension between specialization and openness.

For Russell, the changing demographic of students entering higher education and their educational needs and expectations created a conflict between more general education and the specialized training of a discipline. On the one extreme, outlines Russell, one has the elitist liberal arts curriculum, “a single required course, identical for all students, regardless of abilities, interests, or career paths” (37). In this model, departments were flexible, and each educator could change roles easily. Schools were small and communal.

This unified, homogeneous education broke down amid increased discipline-specific and technical needs, though vestiges sometimes remained–like Harvard’s “forensic system”–as a general writing requirement.

Often, this general requirement has seemed to gain power from serving some need, ranging from civic or moral formation in its early years to solving the 1970s literacy crisis more recently. Thus, a compromise often took place between the two extremes: a school empty of general requirements, and one with a substantial one. In Russell’s history discipline-specific training has seemed to push out much of the general requirement.

The opposite sort of transition occurs in Spinnuzi’s tracing of labor from institutional bureaucracies to all-edge” adhocracies.” As Spinuzzi argues, bureaucracies are not as inefficient as we might associate, but use a hierarchy-driven model of labor that allows differently skilled workers to work co-independently, with management synthesizing and transferring the relevant output of these different silos. This was efficient because moving information and labor output could be expensive, and keeping the bulk of it sequestered into relevant silos eased this strain.

But, with information and communication technologies (ICTs) becoming more efficient and widespread, the expense of moving that information has diminished, and the bulky, rigid nature of bureaucracy impeded potential labor practices.

This shift in technology, from  forms to desk phones, has increasingly led to adhocracies. “Adhocracies,” a term from Alvin Tofflin, refers to a mode of working in which workers are more loyal to a profession than organization, more interdisiplinary, more project-focused, and more adaptive. All edge adhocracies are the extreme of this: the bureaucracy has broken down, and project-directed work of shifting specialists becomes the norm. Here, the individual and their profession comes to overshadow any departments or organizations. Skills, not labels, become essential.

Thus, in this case, unlike Russell’s history, we see an transition, in terms of labor, from a more structured and silo-oriented approach to one that is open and flexible–more general. However, unlike the liberal arts model that Russell describes, the flexibility proves outward, rather than inward.

In the early University model, homogeneity was the unifying factor. Everyone spoke a similar discourse, contained a similar skill-set, and enjoyed the same training. The unity was inward. But in the all-edge model, everyone moves flexibly from one project for another, unified over a project, but not over a common culture, discourse, or skill-set. In all-edge models, it seems, disciplinary silo’s breakdown (or become irrelevant and vacant), but discipline-specific skills and training do not.

This seems to present three larger configurations of unity and specialization:

  1. Disciplinary unity: Everyone shares the same skill-set, training, discipline, etc., as within the classical university or within present-day disciplines.
  2. Structural unity: Discrete disciplines may work toward a unified structure, but unity is imposed structurally, as in an organization or school. Separate networks or activity systems may connect over hubs, but remain separately identified.
  3. Project-based unity: Networks arise from participants united by a project. They may have different skills or outlooks, but the project itself creates unity in an emergent way, drawing the actants together in a more democratic, skill-based fashion.

Naturally, these are on-the-fly categories with more complications and exceptions that don’t show up here, but they point to the final of the three readings: Spinuzzi’s “Symmetry as Methodological Move.”

In this piece Spinuzzi defends Latour’s concept of “symmetry” by arguing that it is not a totalizing worldview, but a methodological move. In symmetry, one treats human and nonhuman “actants” in largely the same way, dropping a priori concepts like human will. For example, argues Spinuzzi, an elevator with a weight limit is going to treat the weight of a suitcase the same way as a hipster, no matter how developed their palate for craft IPAs is. In some cases, like in a craft beer contest, symmetry may not make sense, but here it does.

In a light of the other readings, I think that “symmetry” presents a tool that allows one to better appreciate the role that nonhuman actants play in this debate between discipline-specific silos and unity.

At the more mundane level, it forces us to more concretely consider the role that nonhuman actants, like printed  documents or digital communication devices, play in organizing human labor. These do make a difference, allowing different structures and networks. Also, it forces us to consider the role of nonhuman actants in the identity and function of disciplines or the way they may constitute unity. For example, the “project” that unifies the project-oriented structure of the all-edge model is not human. It is a concept that creates its own emergent team. Likewise, the tools that comprise a discipline, like design software, get considered on their own merit, not as mere addendums and appendages to human actants.

At some level, this feels obvious, but as Spinuzzi argues, these alternative views may create new questions or perspectives that can drive research in new directions.

[Image: “network” by Rosemarie Voegtli]

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