Karen Robinson Defends

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!

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