As I was thinking about the idea of “purity” of research topic last week, I’ve begun to draw some rather tenuous connections to another project I’m working on over the summer about Theophilus Wylie and his role as scholar and librarian in the nineteenth century. In my discussion of purity, I mentioned Andrew Abbott and in Chaos of Disciplines Abbott specifically discusses higher education in relation to the trend of “purity” in research. Abbott states “Professions are organized around abstract knowledge” particularly “those who exercise the profession’s knowledge in its most pure form” (p. 145). He then goes on to state that “In general, professionals who are doing what the public imagines to be the most basic professional functions are of relatively low status in the eyes of professionals themselves” (p. 146). In the very next paragraph Abbott talks about university professors and their aversion to teaching. Furthermore he describes their preference for teaching graduate vs. undergraduate students as a preference for “pre-professionalized votaries rather than demanding dilettantes.”
Certainly, the J. Lawrence Smith presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science fits this pattern. Smith says that teaching “unfits him [the teacher/scientist] for that free exercise of the mind which leads to new ideas and discoveries. He becomes an educational drudge instead of an intellectual scientist.” At the end of the post on the “purity” of research I mentioned that there must have been another tradition that opposed these viewpoints. I think some of my work on Theophilus Wylie who would have been ending his career about ten years after J. Lawrence Smith’s speech. Coincidentally, Wylie was also a professor of chemistry so may have been aware (though I of course cannot prove it) of Smith’s views.
From what I know about Wylie, he was the very definition of what Abbott might term a “dilettante.” He was a Presbyterian minister, professor of ancient languages, natural philosophy, chemistry, and other disciplines. Additionally Wylie seemed to put a stress on teaching. I have only so far been looking at his role as a librarian. Even within that, however, he clearly feels that libraries should help to aid the teaching mission of the university. When President Lemuel Moss tried to move the library into a more research oriented position, Wylie made a note in his diary about how much he objected to Moss’s actions. Also, in his 1865 library committee report, Wylie spends roughly a third of it talking about how students in the sciences need to learn ancient languages both to better learn the scientific nomenclature and to broaden their minds. In all, it seems that Wylie represents kind of view of a professor as a generalist interested in many subjects who dedicates himself primarily to teaching. This is the very conception of a professor that Smith is arguing against. Smith is advocating for the kind of professional that Abbott suggests later dominated universities.
Abbott goes on to say that “the intellectual consequences of academic regression [focus on the pure science that Smith advocates] of this kind are considerable. . . . It is rather the general public and above all undergraduate students who now find that the social sciences give less compelling interpretations of social life than do the less technical humanists” (p. 146). That Abbott quote is in the context of a chapter about a push toward interdisciplinarity and professional norms within the social sciences. Though Chaos of Disciplines is about 15 years old at this point, it seems that his points are no less valid today. Furthermore, I wonder about whether higher education needs to think about ways of re-professionalizing university professors. Later in the chapter, Abbott discusses how academics are incentivized and suggests that “a change in academic hiring and/or in career structures could easily transform the system” (p. 149). I wonder what those norms might look like. I also wonder if the kinds of activities that incentivized Wylie such as an emphasis on multi-disciplinarity and teaching would be beneficial for the university of the future. Certainly the scholarly communication system as it is incentivized now is very similar to the kind of “pure science” that Smith envisioned. I wonder if that structure is best suited to the needs of modern universities. Should researchers become better teachers and communicators with the public? Personally, I think that they should.