Provocation on Christensen, The Innovative University

It seems like much of Christensen’s approach conforms to the category of what is called (specifically in business, tech, and Silicon Valley) ‘design thinking’. Bearing similarities with pedagogy as a practice that seeks to differentiate information from knowledge (including [assignment] scaffolding and outcome assessment), design thinking “is a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result” (

I learned a great deal from Christensen’s piece. The text does important work not only on the level of exegesis and prescription, I would also say it has a certain performative pedagogical function. As a graduate student myself, the text works as a kind of ‘unveiling’ of structural forces that—as CUNY students—we are uniquely subjected to. Part of any field of practice is not only competence in discipline-specific knowledge, but also familiarization with the political economic (and discursive-metapragmatic) constraints within which that work is being done. While I’ve often heard appeals from faculty and fellow graduate students about the structural forces Christensen discusses, I benefited a great deal from his historical contextualization and ‘disruptive-innovative’ (not to say cyborgian) solutions. I say ‘performative’, then, because I at once recognized his call and was also emotionally and ethically engaged in the solutions he proposed, as well as the ethical model of the University he is advocating.

Any institution recognizes its goals, its challenges, and its possibilities for desirable transformation in terms of broader social notions of value that change along with social paradigms (in our time, primarily technologically-driven). While Christensen’s advice is quintessentially practical, I therefore wonder about the risks to the kinds of qualitative, unquantifiable ‘values’ that Christensen names as one of the University’s niche strengths. While Christensen paints with a broad brush, there is still a certain myopia here.

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2 thoughts on “Provocation on Christensen, The Innovative University

  1. Interesting. I found Christensen’s analogies (especially the notion of “re-engineering” the “DNA” inherited from the Harvard model) silly, his arguments unpersuasive (the solution is online education!), and the whole setup of the book (sidebars? Is this an undergraduate textbook?) irritating. Not to mention that the whole idea of “disruptively innovating” our universities is reckless, given that the education of generations, not just the fate of a company is at stake.

  2. I second you, Ximena! In addition to the DNA analogy I was also put off by the way he slipped back and forth between criticizing corporate analogies and using them, not to mention the constant reiteration of the Harvard v. BYU Idaho schematic. I do agree with much of his analysis, in terms of the problems he articulates and the way he unpacks the environment/history that perpetuates them. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder what is at stake (personally) for Christensen in this argument?

    (And a personal hobbyhorse of mine: I’m so sick of the word “disrupt!”)

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