The University is a site of distributed cognition. Or: a site for the distribution of cognition, a site for the monetised exchange of cognition between embodied nodes (whereas the site of the thinking of this exchange is ‘elsewhere’). The exchange may be between people (students and staff) or it may be between bank accounts (mine and theirs). In another sense, the exchange involves the educating present being given as a loan from the indebted future to secure the servicing of said debt. Those who wish to acquire certain socialised cognitive processes come here if they want those processes to be demonstrable; is its object the learnt cognitive process, their confirmed repeatability, or the certification of a warranted certifier? This is the distribution centre of certificates of demonstration. The ‘University of Life’ does not, to the best of our knowledge, distribute certificates.
Outside of this site thinking (or cognition) may occur. However, these exteriorities are not formalised, nor are they reviewed by independent agencies. If they too are educational facilities, they too have systems for counting and accounting for cognitive behaviours, but they are not ‘best practice’ counting and accounting. These other sites are not highly accredited cognition facilitators and so they cannot on-sell the best cognition, or the certification of the best cognition, through virtual networks. Their customers are not maximising the ratio between their cognitive accreditation and their capital investment; attendance at the University, like any productive investment, is capital intensive. But, this is a leading site of investment with a difference. Other sites of investment – other sites of cognition distribution – have not ranked internationally. They are not privy and their evidences of cognition are compromised, lacking solidity and objectivity. The University’s solid certifications act as quality guarantors in the workplace, allowing our stratified society to be structured around its verified processes of cognition accumulation. The student becomes a portfolio of guarantees.
Thinking practices probably exist outside the institution, since the institution provides thinking about those sites, but the practices of these other sites have not been so efficiently monetised. The institution provides documentation and readings of these external cognitive practices, recording and formalising them where it is economically useful (where patents or publications can be established, or where faculties can develop), or borrowing them under license when another institution has formalised them. The formalisation of cognition as patents and publications is a legitimised form of plagiarism. It is the thinking of spaces both within (classrooms, staffrooms) and without the institution (offices, conference rooms, galleries, cafes, flats, etc.), remade into an achievement of accreditation and job securitisation. The use of other’s thinking for credit is plagiarism.1
In order to centre itself as the archive and curator of cognition, the University is itself structured in the language of cognition. The two have been conflated. Clusters of intellectual concerns are called ‘faculties’. One gains accreditation from a faculty, mastering that faculty. As it certifies my mastery of a given faculty—my passing of their testing processes—these institutions and archives continuously formalise and normalise themselves as the prime site for the official recognition of my thinking. The faculties are embodied in their faculty members. Without their guarantee, my claims on cognition lack ‘documentation’. When someone—casually, carelessly—asks you where you studied, what you studied and with whom they are also asking a second question: ‘Can I see your papers?’
The University is a site for the distribution of concrete accreditations reliant on tangible cognition. The University has acquired the alchemical processes of corporate responsibility, requiring that otherwise ephemeral cognitive and administrative practices can be made manifest, sited, recited, patented, distributed, publicised. Thinking demonstrated in speech can be recorded; faculty notes can be digitised; consultations between staff and students take place as electronic correspondence and can be archived as ‘documents’; the classroom is a dramatisation of the publicised ‘aims’ and prescribed pedagogies handed out in the first class of semester. The institute is a correspondence course you can visit. Of all the commodities abstracted by the University from its labourers, teaching was the most swiftly forfeited.
The accreditation model has transformed the University into a transcendental corporation: the University Generic. Through the consistent making corporeal of cognition in the form of accreditation the University Specific itself has become the site for the distribution of a transnational economy, an economy of cognition whose performance index – their ability to maximise growth and refine ‘best practice’ – can be tracked courtesy of the annual Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. Here cognition is counted, collated and compared before being redistributed as an update of an emergent consensus. These are not just the calculations of key performance indicators of cognitive practice as decided by key performing cognitive practitioners; they are also, more nobly, numbers. The numbers speak for themselves. From the University Generic Prime (an alpha University Specific) of any given year radiate descending strata of accumulating algorithms, brackets in which the undergraduate hopefully searches for the best of possible futures and the postgraduate hopefully derives competitive advantage over other accredited species. What are the best numbers you can hope for, given your circumstances?
The University is a site of harvested cognition. Each year the University’s total income stems from not only its cognition distribution business but also the multi-million dollar revenues generated by its cognition acquisitions, courtesy of patentable processes and products. The more obvious and traditional manifestations of harvested cognition are the publications of the University Specific’s presses and publications by other manifestations of the University Generic. These publications are primarily the accreditation and re-accreditation of University faculty and are lucrative not in immediate sales, but rather as attributable key performance indicators; academics need citations, not readers.2
The most immediately lucrative sources for cognition harvesting are the Sciences, Engineering and Business, as they are areas in which innovations appear more immediately protected and exploited. Their innovations are already related to the realms of economics and technology – including the pressing concerns of health, design, efficiency and the capitalisation of all three – entailing only technocratic questions of implementation and copyright. Various critiques have worked towards a renovation of the Social Sciences towards the economic and cognitive efficiencies of the Sciences, often suggesting these speculative and analytical cognitive faculties become the service industry of the professional scientific faculties. This is another sense in which we might understand the University as a site of distributed cognition, a bureaucratic hierarchy made out of departments of thinking; Research and Development delivers products to Marketing.
Annually the University Specific facilitates an ‘Entrepreneurship Challenge’, asking various nodes to supply competing innovations for the attention of an audience of investors and the monetary prizes of a select panel. This competition is itself the innovation of other ‘best practice’ Universities and previous winners include innovations in the reprogramming of cells, the exporting of indigenous species and devices that deliver higher business efficiency (such as alarms that monitor the drowsiness of workers).3 The competition includes cognition demonstration by successful businessmen who have ‘created value’ in the marketplace.4
The University harvests cognition and onsells it as novel and patented solutions to contemporary functional problems. Problems of lifestyle. Problems of growth. Problems of production and product.
The University is an institute of distributed cognition. Institutions are, at least in part, built by the individuals who ‘think them’ from within. Our thinking about the institution —what it is, what it is for, what it is doing—is all thinking that manufactures the site as an institution before-the-fact. As a thinking system, the University Specific is no more than the accumulated thinking actors and their thinking activities, structured as they are by categories and stratifications that are bestowed by the University Generic and then re-thought—as legitimated categories of knowledge or standing or practice—by institutional individuals.
In this schema, the Humanities seem to be caught in a bind, thanks to the conflict between distributed cognition—where the subject (student or staff) is not autonomous, not Romantic, not individualised, caught as they are between different cognitive practices and practitioners—and a foundational belief in the cognitive autonomy of the subject. This bind seems, in fact, to be an optical illusion. If cognition is not just that ‘knowledge’ which is demonstrated in formal assessments, attributed to a single name and student serial number, but is rather thought of as an ill-defined mash of problem-solving, language usage, formal reasoning, public memory, communal emotion, intuition and imagery, then the Humanities thinking- subject is just like the Science thinking-subject; they are still disciplined towards the truth procedures of their discipline (it’s just some truth procedures look more truthful than others).
While the University Generic is typically obedient to the imperatives of vertical counting (higher numbers equate to higher values), more is not necessarily better even in this site, as it also serves the protocols of efficiency and strategy. More is often worse. So, while serving vertical counting the institute also attempts to distribute cognitive practices and cognitive actors into effective and strategic organisational units, ordering thinking subjects into appropriate buildings, activities, modes of dress, modes of work, technologies, textual practices, environments, etc., in order to think the institution through the individual and the individual through the institution. When you use a calculator you are thinking it and it is thinking you, just as you are thinking (and being thought by) the desk that calculator rest on, the room the desk resides in, the room in-relation-to-other-rooms, the building that names and locates those rooms and the difference between this building and other institutional buildings.
Distributed cognition is not made up only of practices and disciplinary protocols, but also of idiosyncratic actors and unpredictable activities. The tension between the formal and the informal allows the highly-designed institution to also be the site of innovations and ad-hoc collaborative activities. What to do with resistance, or rebellion? A peer of leading autonomous Universities Specific that therefore maintains a status as a leading iteration of the University Generic cannot, at least by definition, also produce critique or novelty. The suspicious amongst us might see, in the University Generic’s prioritisation of Science, not only an eagerness for the efficiency dividends and commercialised technology it springs as ‘innovation,’ but also its inability to produce criticism of the vulnerably hyperliterate University. Science alone can solely tell us about the chemical properties of technologies, the circulation of air, the respiratory hazards of our aging ceilings or the neurochemical reasons to change room arrangements or assessment modulation.
You are likely dubious that this account of cognition being accredited, patented and strategically organised is not a full account of how we come to think what we think. We are regulated thinkers, but we are regulated through interactions with multiple knowers, technologies and tools beyond the bounds of the institute. As all participants in an economically structured society must, we regulate ourselves to take part in the great social reverie – the great ‘growth’ project – through external regulators; we discipline ourselves in order to take part through both objects and others. At the University Specific we don’t just internalise an archive of facts and details, we internalise fact- discerning and detail-discerning procedures. This is what you are learning, socialised and socialising cognitive protocols.
After a certain amount of this cognitive training we may self-determine that we are sufficiently competent to start manipulating our cognitive practices. From a professional viewpoint what is important is that our cognitive training can be guaranteed according to the standards of various ‘degrees’; the subject can be counted on to follow further explicit regulation from an employer, and sometimes to a level that the subject is of such high certified discipline that they can self-discipline. But in the University Generic, competence in the manipulation and critique of cognitive practices is limited to teacher- researchers, generating knowledge that is rarely imparted to students as its purpose is actually to accredit the University Specific and the scholar in their ‘counting’ competition with others Universities and scholars. Other than at the advanced postgraduate level, where students become teacher-researchers, the University rarely encourages self- regulated cognition because, simply, what would be its use?
The unpredictability of cognition’s distribution explains why innovative thinking sometimes does not run to the temporal (semesters, 50-minute classes), technological (computers, audiovisual systems, pdf and PowerPoint files) or disciplinary organising of the institute. Thinking does not sit passively or tidily within the borders of courses, individuals, offices, departments, meetings or e-mails. The thinking in the institute that manufactures the institute also, then, puts an unruly pressure on the institute’s delineating structures. Against this, a major development across the Universities Generic has been the appropriation of research models and learning theory by their managing overseers to produce commercialised kinds of thinking that are both commercial and ‘best practiced’ by the University. These overseers have taken distributed cognitive practices – collaboration, expertise, adaptive skills, capitalised applications – and formalised them into the skills of compliant and flexible professional ‘portfolio people’ ready to be on- sold. These people are guaranteed producers. Just check the certifications of their portfolio. This kind of University is only as autonomous as any business serving the needs of a market, regulated and organised to meet the needs of consumer-employers that request professional ‘disciplined’ thinkers.
Hyperliterate, underdetermined and unruly thinking are not compatible with a conditioned and conditional University. The University is not an autonomous institution working for the public good and the betterment of us all. We are not sovereign agents and knowers. We do not control or provide rationale for the larger system in which we are situated. The University has thoughts separate from the thinkers that are thinking within it.
Is this a problem or an opportunity?
The University Generic is not satisfied with esteem, communal affect or customer satisfaction unless these are indices of quality control or comparative assessment. How we might think of ‘peer esteem’ is intimately bound to the ways in which the University thinks about the distribution of cognition. Under this model, ‘peer esteem’ is not a measure of your standing with students or staff; ‘peer review’ is not an employment protocol or oversight committee as conducted, formally or informally, by officemates and department fellows; ‘peer review’ is not what happens in the dying minutes of each semester as students, beleaguered by bureaucracy, decide where to plot the qualities of your teaching on axes from ‘Strongly Disagree’ to ‘Strongly Agree’; ‘peer esteem’ is not a measure of your rank of ‘excellence’ as a quantified average of the value, originality or rigour of your research as decided by anyone who has to work with you. As managerial culture has taken over the networks of distributed cognition, certain kinds of knowing and certain kinds of making are obviously favoured. Tertiary research is capital intensive, producing tangible commercial outputs. Capital wants to grow, and critique and resistance are rarely, in this sense, growth enterprises.
What is at odds here is that teacher-researchers do not teach across purely textual or digital international networks (though they are sometimes encouraged to).5 Teachers teach in classes with students who define themselves as local participants. Between the ranking of Universities by ‘research excellence’ and, financially, by enrolments and endowments, there is the unmarked assumption of ‘teaching excellence’ which seemingly goes uncounted. Undergraduate classrooms, a primary ‘business’ of the University Generic, only enters the count quantitatively, as high enrolments provided a sufficient endorsement of the University’s quality teaching.
This problematic schism in the institute remains unaddressed, generating undergraduates with ‘guaranteed’ competences that are delivered in localised environs by academic staff encouraged to ignore local horizons. Academic staff are, on the one hand, creating ‘portfolio’ people with a list of checked and quantified skills, while generating thinking to and for ‘peers’ who are, almost by necessity, nodes in an abstract network; anyone who has been in a tutorial room or lecture hall will understand the weight and affect of bodies that must be accommodated in those spaces, just as anyone who has submitted a paper to a journal will be familiar with the disembodied text-based communiqués—the hieroglyphic ligatures measured out in bullet points, the procession of emails—that make ‘peer esteem’ happen.
Managerial culture is happy with this schism, as it produces two viable commodities, even while it creates a schizophrenic postgraduate culture (part portfolio, part peer). It guarantees, in the manner that High School graduation might once have, a certain cluster of basic techniques have accumulated in the undergraduate/ pre-employee, basics which are not core data or content but rather transferable skills like English proficiency, timetabling and infrastructural disciplining through deadlines, assessments and attendance.6 This does not open up the educational space to create contexts or challenge meanings, to ask what the University is here for and what it is up to. The commercial University, the managed University, instead proscribes a set of ‘excellent’ skills for successful employees-to-be, while actively making inappropriate spaces and time for critical thinking and critique.
But this makes sense, doesn’t it? What interest does a business like the University have in critique unless it makes it a more effective and ‘higher achieving’ University Specific? Perhaps its tactics may have some purchase due to the University Generic’s stated commitment to social equity, a countervailing force against the split directives of credentialising? Given the above, might we not regard standard ‘equity’ policies as a strategic guarantee against political rapprochement, or an apparatus for the creation of new markets out of those previously excluded by economic or social marginalisation? Demographic equity is a remedy to social injustice but it is not itself justice. Social equity, if it happens across this disciplinary network, happens because cognition remains necessarily ill disciplined.
Author’s note: sections of the latter part of this paper were written in response to an academic seminar on a related topic. The author has sought the permission of the original author for this work.