Size, Modernity, and Colonialism: The Structural Dynamics of Small Academic Departments in Colonial Settings

Abstract:  The structural settings of small academic departments in colonial contexts gives these very particular dynamics differente from those found in much larger departments within metropolitan settings.   It is hoped that greater awareness and conceptual exploration of these dynamics will allow for the creation of policies which will stimulate their productivity and, ultimately, enhance their status.  Three elements will be addressed: departmental size, socioeconomic realities, and contemporary colonial relations.  Broader issues pertaining to standards criteria in humanities will also be explored.


    One of the first things that strike any foreign researcher in Puerto Rico is the strict emphasis placed on the 'non-copying' of masters and doctoral thesis; while metropolitan libraries also place restrictions defined by copyright, the extent to which these rights are explicitly emphasized do not come anywhere close to the degree of their colonial counterpart.   What is particularly ironic about these prescriptions is that their subject actually constitute the richest horizontal segment of information pertaining to the colonial reality of any kind.  Far more theses are written about far more topics than ever appear in formally published settings: i.e. books or scholarly articles.   Theses make up the thick nutritious soil of the colonial academic production, from which sprout the smaller body of their more sophisticated products (i.e. monographs).  Academic normative prescriptions hence represent a type of anomaly and window into this community; social prohibitions, after all, have always constituted the key departure points of anthropological analysis.

    We may observe that small academic departments inevitably are unable to provide the breadth of scholarship required to produce original academic work; there are simply not enough individuals to cover the vast number of fields that exist, particularly so in fields such as history which span numerous chronological, geographic, and disciplinary zones.  A small department made up of 8 individuals, for example, simply cannot actively research the 200 or so political entities, centuries, and disciplines that currently exist with any degree of professional standards, while at the same time pretend to teach and master areas such as "african history", "history of science", and "medieval history".  I once had a brief talk with the interim director at the metropolitan campus of a well-known private university here in Puerto Rico.  When I asked her what area of specialty was, she responded that it was "history", "sociology"...and went on to provide a long list of other social sciences, rather than the expected 'metropolitan' answer: a particular discipline, time period, and geographical region.  

    While the restricted nature of this institutional reality applies to just about any department in the humanities, the insular-colonial setting in Puerto Rico compounds these limitations, turning the department into another type of de facto insular institution.    In the United States, for example, one typically sees a rich exchange of ideas, information and regional conferences where departments from many different regional groups join at yearly gatherings.  Their diverse and impersonal nature make them places to learn of and acquire new 'working tools'; they are fields of competition where interpretations are explored, scrutinized, and synthesized.  In insular colonial settings, however, this dynamic tend to be undermined because of the nature of the small academic market that is relatively absent in diversity and heterogeneity.  The unequal distribution of academic resources that exist also reduce the intellectual potential of these gatherings given that information will tend to flow from high-order institutions to lower-order institutions, rather than the metropolitan setting of an information exchange between relatively 'even-resourced' institutions.  Interaction occurs, but it seldom leads to innovations in theory or methodology; instead of a "creative schema type" we more often get a "diffusive information flow type".

    Within the combination of these overlapping settings (small departments, unequal distribution), the work of students undertaking their graduate studies become of critical importance to the respective department and its instructors.  The small scope and insular setting will generally mean that the thesis director will be unable to genuinely direct the student to the appropriate resources for a given area of study, despite the best of intentions and effort.  While the studen'ts potential range of interests is infinite, the number of books possibly read by a single individual is limited.  As a result, in order for the student to appropriately pursue their personal area of interest, they are forced to undergo comprehensive reviews of the literature, which at some point eventually turn up the few gems of a given field.  Generally speaking, this is the reverse of the metropolitan pattern, where the professor is generally a master of a given topic and will appropriately guide the student to the most important and relevant sources.  (The larger body of departments and professors gives the student more options appropriate to their particular interests. While in one set of circumstances the students 'works for' the professor, under another the professor will 'work for' the student; the student is 'consumed' in the first case, while he is the 'consumer' in the second.  As a result, we might characterize the information flow of small departments in colonial settings as 'parasitic' in its structural tendency.

    What is particularly troubling about this relationship is the absence of clear and distinct formal criteria for the fair evaluation of graduate student theses--an ambiguity which is obviously structured to continue into the indefinite future given the absence of incentive by the professorial group who in fact benefits from this ambiguity.[1]  There do not exist clear and explicit formal criteria for evaluation, and as a result, there emerge drastically varying qualities in the types of work produced at the graduate level.   We might, as an example, compare the work of Norberto Barreto Velazquez, who produced the impressive study "Rexford G. Tugewll: El utlimo de los tutores" versus the more ordinary thesis of Carlos Leon, "El surgimiento de las urbanizaciones : vivienda para la clase media en Puerto Rico" who sought to legitimize suburbanization by pretending (without proving) that Puerto Rican values of rural origin coincided with capitalist realities.  While Barreto's masters thesis was turned into a book due to its high quality, Leon's was not.[2]   We are not suggesting that Leon's work was "bad" [3], but rather that Barreto's work was extraordinary and frankly merited the reward of a  doctoral degree rather than the masters title he actually ended up getting.  

    The important point to emphasize is that the existence of vast differences in qualities between the two works clearly reveals that there are few clear guidelines for evaluation, and in turn means that a student will not necessarily benefit from harder work.  As as result, the set of incentives created by the structure is "vicious" in its discincentive of academic productivity over the long run.  Rather than providing a minimum number of books/articles to be read as a well defined amount of work/effort to be done (cost to the student), the student is uneasily left adrift in the vast competing theories and realms of  academic production.  They may work as hard as they want to, and unknowingly receive the very same reward as the student who worked very little and very poorly.  The world is implicitly presumed to be infinitely open, despite the fact that the graduate student is a single individual with a limited amount of time and resources in which to write a set number of pages.  It possible that those within the academic system who have low levels of formal scholarly production directly suffered the iniquities of the insular system, and hence are the best examples of the system's failures.

    Professors who might wish to remediate this situation are placed in a 'Catch-22', given that, as with all middle classes, they are subject to control and abuse of norms once these are established: i.e. the bureaucracy.[4] If guidelines were to be layed down, would not  these be used to inhibit new approaches; could they be used for ideological repression?  While the failure to formally lay down clear norms might be perceived by some professors as a mechanism to avoid bureaucratic control, failure to do so also implies being restricted by the norms that currently exist--in other words, cases which the formation of such bureaucracy failed initially to consider.   It is clear that institutional norms in bureaucratic academic settings will always 'grade down' a student if they do not meet standards, but will never 'grade up' the few students who far surpass expected norms, as the case of Barreto demonstrated.  While 'laziness' will always be 'punished', 'very hard work' will not be inversely rewarded to the same degree. Failure to establish clear norms might seem to be a means by which to escape "modernization" and the establishment of a "beaurocratic rationality", but in fact could lead to the worst possible case scenario: the arbitrary use of power by those of an 'administrative predisposition' who little understand the deeper rhythms of academic inquiry.  It is here where the strange mix of 'tradition' and 'modernity' intertwine in an academic setting, being neither fully one nor fully the other.

    Oddly, some brilliant scholars who are deeply attune to the rich nuances of complex scholarship too blithely dismiss modernization theory by failing to give due consideration to the ideas which its conceptual body provide.[5]  (While certainly modernization theory had racist and ethnocentrist overtones, it is to be commended for the sociocultural analysis of very large themes and for some key insights.  As with Marxism, they are 'first' imperfect but valiant efforts to address these highly complicated and ever-shifting social realities.)  It does in fact appear that the vast number of rural laborers ("jibaros") who moved to urban areas to increasingly take part in the intricacies of education and administration at mid century (1950s), creating the "new petty bourgeoise" in the island, brought along with them a core set of beliefs aptly described as 'traditional' by writers in the 'modernist' vein as Henry Wells.[6]   In particular, we find strong and pervasive evidence for the existence of 'personalism' rather than 'abstraction' across numerous educational and administrative institutions, such as the Puerto Rican Congress or  (ironically) the statehood party  (PNP): that is to say the evaluation of reality by personal criteria as opposed to 'theory', 'concept' and 'abstract principles'.   Ironically, it is sometimes the case that "abstract" work is actually conceived in "personalistic" terms; while the outlying form suggest the rigorous logic of objective deliberation, its internal spirit can be far removed from it.   (Rather than pursing 'reality' to understand it, its emotionally-driven conclusions are formed apriori to the study.) 

    Scholarship, we might suggest, is also detrimentally affected by the abscence of anonymity. As Jack Goody long ago demonstrated, this dynamic is not conducive to intellectual innovation.[7]  For example, in metropolitan settings, academic libraries are far removed from departmental bodies.  Despite their 'cold anonymity',  they become private domains of inquiry for the researcher: peaceful majestic oceans of clear blue waters to freely travel and explore in that evade the judgemental eyes of others.  In insular settings, however, it is sometimes the case that the library is situated right next to the department, leading to a watchful eye over who enters and leaves the domain, making for the empty chit-chat of passive-aggressive banter (mud slinging).   The metropolitan domain not only passivly allows  the inquiry of abstract investigation but actively encourages it because it structurally removes personalistic elements from its domain; inversely, the opposite is the case of some insular institutions.  In the constant battle for academic employment, this empty banter becomes the poisonous weapons of those who would not, under ordinary circumstances, be allowed to remain in the system. 

    We might ask, however, whether the perceived need for 'personalization' in institutional settings actually does more harm than benefit to the academic endeavor.   Is it really true that 'bureaucratic rationality' harms academic inquiry?  Again, this is a "Catch-22" that is not easily answered.  No social system, when considered in and of itself, will 'solve' the complex problems engendered by human behavior; it is as true for comunism as it is of capitalism.   Social determinism need not necessarily be presumed to addresss and fix the problematic aspects of social (human) behavior.  (The assumption seems to be driven by the same kind of analogical thinking as that found in colonial Africa or medieval Paraselcus: all skin illnesses, for example, could only be cured by ointments.  Similarly, it is presumed that 'social problems' must have 'social cures'.)  Pretending otherwise is to ignore the problematic and anomalous nature of all social systems, ultimately ad-hoc solutions in their origin and nature.


    1.  The graduate student, seeking to establish that remunerative position typical of the middle class, will wishfully believe that 'superhuman' effort will possibly lead to a position in the department.  Although the promise by the department is never explicitly stated, it is implied--condition (the 'carrot' of a full-time academic position) is a typical phenomenon of many dispossessed classes (proletariat) in modern economies.   

    2. Norberto Barreto Velazquez,  Rexford G. Tugewll: El utlimo de los tutores (San Juan, PR: Ediciones Huracan, 2001).

    3. It was in fact "shameful" by its attempt to culturally justify the island's colonial-capitalist structure; rural 'jibaro' values were alledged to 'match' those of the consumer oriented economy.  Ironically, the author and the piece it attempted to rebutt, Nathaniel Fuster Felix's brilliant 1991 masters thesis, reversed his position by his 1999 doctoral project upon taking a "Weberian" stand to these issues ('value determinism').  Nontheless, In 1991 Fuster Felix noted that suburbanization promoted capitalist by its increased service needs: the greater the geographical distance between homes, the greater the number of items needed to be obtained that could be necessary under a more traditinal collectivist structure--whatever that might look like.  Medieval authors were also made this observation by noting the increased costs of small family housholds versus extended family households: more tables and plates were needed in the first tinstance.  It is unfortunate that Fuster chose to note follow this suggestive line of inquiry.

    4. C. Wright Mills, Las clases medias en norteamerica, trad. Jose Bugeda Sanchiz (Madrid, España: Aguilar, 1957).

    5. Angel Quintero Rivera, “La base social de la transformación ideológica del Partido Popular en la Decada del  ‘40” in Navas Davila, Gerardo. Ed., Cambio y Desarrollo en Puerto Rico: La Transformación Ideológica del Partido Popular Democrático. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Editorial Univeristaria UPR, 1980, pp 35-120; Angel Quintero Rivera, "Los debates sobre 'identidad' en la ilusión modernizante de las ciencias del 'modelo puertorriqueño de desarrollo' ", Revista de Ciencias Sociales 12 (2003), 120-138.

    6. Juan Manuel Carrion, “The Petty Bourgeoisie in Puerto Rico”, Ph.d. Thesis, Rutgers University, 1978; Henry Wells, The Modernization of Puerto Rico: A Political Study of Changing Values and Institutions (Cambridge, Massachusettes: Harvard University Press, 1969).

    7. Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  1977).

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