Karen Robinson Defends

December 10, 2011

OK, still catching up on old news…  We’ve had a bunch of defenses at UCI, starting with Karen Robinson a few months ago.

Karen’s dissertation looks at the rise of choice in university curricula over the past century.  Classically, universities offered rigid “courses of study” — specific sequences of topics, from which students could not deviate.  Or, there were exam-based programs, again affording no options to students.

This, of course, has given way to a world where students choose among myriad elective courses, and even design their own majors to address their highly individualized interests and preferences.

Karen does a wonderful job of telling an intertwined story — that the rise of individualism writ large is bound up with celebration of individualism and choice in university curricula.  On one hand, the university is a fantastic site to interrogate the nature of modern individualism (she has some amazing qualitative material). On the other hand, Karen argues that the university, itself, is a primary locus for the institutionalization and promulgation of individualism in modern societies.  Obviously, this historical shift is related to the rise of students as consumers, but she resists a simple story that student “demand” drives the expansion of choice.  Rather, Karen compellingly argues that the imagery of demand is just one facet of a sweeping cultural shift toward greater individualism in society.

David Frank chaired the committee, and you can see his influence in the massive data collection that Karen undertook.  (David is rather zealous — some would say crazy — when it comes to data.)  She examined university course catalogs over an entire century, focusing mostly on American universities (including elite, land-grant, religious, and historically black universities and colleges).  She also has a comparative chapter that examines diverse cases across the world — and shows that the rise of individualism and choice in university curricula is a global phenomenon.

Congratulations, Karen!

You can get a flavor of the project from Karen’s solo-authored paper in Sociological Forum, which came out in the September issue:  “The Rise of Choice in the U.S. University and College: 1910–2005“.  Congrats on that, too!

Chiqui wrote an excellent — and fun to read — review of the book DIY U:  Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamanetz.  Check it out:


The book taps into a number of recurrent themes about the imminent demise of conventional higher education — especially the idea that technology (in this case the internet) renders traditional universities obsolete.  Who needs to pay 40K a year to go to Stanford, since everyone can watch Kahn Academy videos on Youtube for free?

Chiqui provides a gentle rejoinder, reminding us that universities are deeply institutionalized certification systems that may not easily be supplanted:

“The future, Kamenetz knows for sure, belongs to personal networks, not to the certifying dinosaurs.But therein lies the rub. To truly undercut universities, one must undermine their certification clout. Kamenetz imagines this will happen because technology allows us to peer into universities and classrooms and see results. We indeed can see results with respect to a narrow domain of skills. But as regards a broader range of more complex qualities – what she calls the “pearl inside the oyster” – results are murky. And it is precisely this uncertainty that will continue to give universities and their diplomas the edge over personal learning networks and their portfolios.”

Anyhow, it is definitely worth thinking about the role of technology in transforming higher education. But, Chiqui’s review reminds us not to forget about the institutional centrality of universities in the process.

More good news.  John Meyer told me that his paper, with Tricia (Martin) Bromley and Chiqui Ramirez was recently accepted at Sociology of Education!

The paper comes out of their major ongoing project to code textbooks from a large number of countries.  I’m a big fan of the project.  Sociologists of education are mainly concerned with stratification, and one consequence is that the curriculum hasn’t garnered much attention (except, of course, in narrow ways that relate to stratification).

This project examines the curriculum in a new light:  as one of the important forms of institutionalized cultural knowledge in society.  Curricula reflect dominant cultural themes of modernity — and so global analyses of the curriculum shed light on global culture.

The curriculum is also a particularly consequential form of institutionalized culture… because it is transmitted to kids through schooling.  The curriculum — and education systems more generally — consolidate and reproduce modern culture.  This project, in my opinion, reflects a really important new direction for institutional theory and for the study of modern culture/knowledge.  (Another example is David Frank and Jay Gabler’s book Reconstructing the University.)

Anyhow, the paper has some nice models identifying the key factors associated with high levels of emphasis on human rights in school textbooks around the world.  Human rights appears in textbooks increasingly over time (especially after the mid-1990s), particularly in those that are very student-centric and focus on international issues.  At the country level, some measures of individualism and economic development predict human rights.

The descriptive material and analysis of the content of human rights discourse really make the paper shine.  The paper gives a powerful sense of how the curriculum is increasingly globally defined — with a content that enshrines the importance of the empowered individual.

Here’s a pre-publication version:

Meyer Bromley Ramirez Human Rights in Textbooks SOE May 4.11.10.pdf

Danielle Logue has put together a really neat visualization of the historical proliferation of universities in the British Commonwealth.  As someone who thinks a lot about the growth of universities, I found it really interesting.


Here’s a description with some of the context:

“This map is part of a larger doctoral research project by Danielle Logue, Said Business School, University of Oxford.  This project examines the changing composition of top management teams in over 500 universities across 37 countries of the British Commonwealth.  By conceptualising these leadership positions as constitutive of particular conceptions of control, it asks the question:  how do such conceptions of control spread in global, loosely structured fields, where there are not the usual suspects of organisational diffusion?  Amongst other findings, the research reveals the global diffusion of a finance ‘conception of control’, which will be demonstrated in an upcoming animated map.  Danielle is working with her DPhil colleague, Tim Hannigan at the Oxford Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation,  who provides the sophisticated technical expertise to produce such visualisations.  For further details, contact Danielle Logue (danielle.logue@sbs.ox.ac.uk) or Tim Hannigan (timothy.hannigan@sbs.ox.ac.uk).”

Tricia also put up a measure of national participation in international educational tests.

It is a neat idea that Chiqui mentioned a while back.  We didn’t discuss it extensively, but I think the idea was that participation in the IEA testing regime might affect national educational policies.  Participating in testing activates a sense of competition — putting nations in more of a ‘horesrace’ mentality.  And, it stratifies nations, which facilitates copying/diffusion.  You know who is ‘winning’ and might choose to emulate them.

Minzee also shares some recent data on government health and education expenditures.  Again, an excerpt from her description:

“Data (variable name: healthpcgt3 & edupcgt3) are operationalized as % health expenditure in total central government outlay and % education expenditure in total central government outlay, respectively. Data come from IMF Government Financial Statistics. For 1990 and later years, data come from IMF GFS CD . For earlier years, data come from IMF GFS yearbooks. In both cases, central government data are used.”


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