Academia moves slowly. Such is the very structure of the institution. Professors are hired in absurdly particular fields then obliged to publish hilariously pedantic articles and books that foster their presumed expertise on some subject — perceptions of women in 19th century Italian poetry; Wittgenstein’s early philosophy and its relationship to his life; conceptions of justice in Icelandic blood feuds. And then, after establishing dominion over this so-called field, they have no need or drive to read anything new, or anything else for that matter.
In fact, not only don’t professors wander or explore intellectually across domains, the institution makes it nearly impossible. Who will fund this? Your department? My department? Ah, let’s just forget about it.
Some of this plodding movement is fantastic. For those, like me, who have worked in both the corporate and academic world, this slow plod can be a respite, even if it’s occasionally frustrating. And, no doubt, there’s something fantastically weird about all these folks gathered together with their specialized knowledge and myopia.
On the other hand, there’s something stilted and stupid about the whole structure. I studied, then taught, in the Rhetoric and Film Department at UC Berkeley. After getting my doctorate, and despite zero experience in anything technological, I became engaged with the mechanics and implications of the digital network by building complex digital experiences (this was 1999). For those supposedly interested in moving images and the means and terms of discourse — those who teach rhetoric and film —, this seemed like an obvious thing to be interested in. And yet the people in that department didn’t know squat about the interweb and showed nothing but disdain. I always found that strange. But such, alas, is the way of the system.
Meanwhile, as the traditional humanities university dies through irrelevance — I, for one, love much of this irrelevance, mind you — there’s a swift rise in online universities. These are for-profit institutions less interested in broadening the horizons of youth than in driving as many degrees for dollars as they can. While there is much that’s creepy and soul killing about these self-proclaimed schools, there’s also something great about the democratization of access they offer. Anyone, anywhere, can take classes.
And then there is The New Centre for Research & Practice. While licensed in Michigan to offer certifications, not degrees, the Centre operates according to a logic and mission that is neither academic nor online mass for-profit. The Centre operates at once alongside, between, parallel, and tangential to the traditional academy while leveraging interweb technology to reach and gather people from across the globe who want to see the world differently, who want to move in a new direction, at a different speed: who want to accelerate (or decelerate, I suppose).
The Centre offers courses that traverse a range of fields — art, politics, philosophy, critical theory, technology— but which focus on what we might call theory. But this is not theory as distinct from practice as the theory/praxis dichotomy is an egregiously false dichotomy. To think differently, to see the world differently, is the greatest practice of all. And that’s what The Centre, as its name proclaims, seeks.
And so these are not massive online open courses (MOOCs) in which participants are anonymous clicks but intimate seminars run through Google Hangouts. No one is there who has to be there. No one is there just to get a degree, then a job. The Centre offers that all too rare experience of people coming together because they actually want to learn, to know, to think and become different(ly).
As there’s no tenure or rigid institutionalization, they read and teach new things and are free to traverse disciplines. If the academy is stationary — or moving at its own continuous speed, which is to say the same thing — the Centre accelerates. It takes what you know and think and speeds it up, puts it in a state that’s not just faster per se but that is in the act of speeding up: you are thrown back in your seat as you surge ahead (or sideways — it doesn’t matter as there is no linearity here). This is not about confirming the known or mastering a domain; it’s about the act of personal and intellectual transformation. Such is acceleration: it is the act of changing states.
When I was writing my dissertation, I was a freak for writing about Deleuze and Guattari along with Merleau-Ponty. Sixteen years later and the folks at the Centre are already operating in a post-Deleuze and Guattari, post-Virilio world. Where I had to justify my thousand plateaus, the Centre was born playing there. I look at their seminar descriptions and, for the most part, it’s all new to me — even if I’ve read many of the texts, the approach and rhetoric is new to me. This is the kind of thing that the academy rarely, if ever, offers: new thinking about new subjects with new writers constituting new modes of thinking the world.
Practically speaking, the agility of the Centre lets it serve a range of people. It’s not anti-academia at all (personally, I would push them a little farther from academia). In fact, it’s a great way to augment a graduate or undergraduate education as well as a great way to figure out if you want to even go to grad school, to pick up some knowledge and perhaps some credit as you think about applying for a graduate degree. As they write: Our certificates are intended to complement, enhance, and intensify MA and PhD programs from existing accredited colleges and universities, as well as to recognize those enrolled in our seminars to broaden the scope of independent research and practice.
But, to me, what’s more exciting is that you don’t have to take the seminars to be privy to the knowledge. You can become a member and get all these podcasts to listen and digest in your own time. This is for those people — and I’ve interacted with many of them as my own lectures are online — who love to think differently but don’t have the patience, interest, or money for a doctorate. They want to be part of a community of active thinkers. They want to be lit up. They want to see differently: they want to accelerate. Join The Centre for a ridiculously low $100 for a year.