The Porous University Symposium: “Der Fachidiot”; The Paratechnic in the Monotechnic by Neil Mullholland

The Porous University symposium was a collection of people in education brought together in the University of the Highlands and Islands during May 2017. The symposium was based on a series of provokations given by the various contributors interspersed with a series of conversations about what a porous university might mean or might look like in practice.



essor Neil Mullholland teaches at the Edinburgh College of Art, is Personal Chair of Contemporary Art Practice & Theory and operates as the Dean of Postgraduate Studies, College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences. You can find out more about his varied interests and work by clicking here.  What follows is the provokation which he gave at the symposium accompanied by a transcript of his presentation:


The Provocation Transcript

I want to just start off by briefly talking about how art schools differed or are seen to differ from university. So, by the early sixties the art schools were widely thought to be epistemologically anomalous within higher education. This was really for one key reason – art schools tended to encourage personalised ontology while most universities supported students to join disciplines.


So, while the art school said ‘you are an artist’, the university tended to say ‘you are making a contribution to the arts’.


Now that focus on personalised ontology has made it very difficult to accommodate bredth and innovation within the art school curriculum. It has led to dis-economies of scale which meant that art schools have tended to over specialise and educate ‘fachidiots’ – or subject idiots – who are one track specialists who have no skills outside of their ever narrowing field.


So in their resistance to different learning styles these fachidiots stood in opposition to the extra-disciplinarity in art and design transformations of the sixties and seventies. Many art schools today, as a result continue this unhealthy pre-occupation with the territorialisation and purification of the curriculum.


Now this is often colloquially fantasized as an integrated curriculum which is something which is very widely understood within art and design circles. The phrase ‘integrated curriculum’ in art schools tends to mean a totalised program which has no internal or external components.


Now in most art schools the term ‘integration’ then is a euphemism for assimilation so if we think of art schools as very specific communities of practice, the fachidiots via a formation of purification tends to naturalise a set of internal values as intrinsic to a specific practice as if they were metavalues or criteria that were universal; as it were…


So staff who dont share the same community of practice are assimilated or backsourced into the monoculture and they are obliged to adopt its internal ethics as if they were a universal set of truths.


Now this is in contrast to most arts and humanities disciplines which at least try to construct dissonance through the appointment of scholars who represent quite distinct subject positions.


One culturalism of the fachidiot then is routinely supported by recourse to the monotechnic exceptionalism – so art schools claims, in other words, for the wholeness or hermeneutic coherence with the past, with the history of art education.


Now this kind of essentialism is unconvincing I would say insofar as art schools like universities are mungrel institutions. So today’s art schools in universities are both higher assemblages of once independent colleges where pallet chests of collegiate competition and cooperation.


Of the 40 art schools out of 201 that survived the dip AD [diploma Art and Design] Armageddon of the sixties, all of them were Frankenstein’s bolted together from government design schools, academy francais style ateliers and the remnants of medieval guilds, workshops and confraturnal schools.


Atelier dart
Atelier d’art

And in their pre-modern origins they are virtually indistinguishable from England’s first university colleges – Oxford and Cambridge – wherein masters offered tuition to pay fee apprentices. So this moral culturalism is as much an anathema to the history of the art school as it is to the pursuit of knowledge in general.


So the prevalence of this kind of insular exceptionalism, the idea that art schools are inherently diffferent from universities is really a manifestation of the fachidiot’s fear of the other. And this is particularly the delusional, currently I would say, since in the professional sphere art florishes precisely because it is so extraordinarily extradisciplinary.


It also generates a number of barriers to learning because it is predicated on a liberal construction of selfhoods – i.e. owning yourself as if it were a property – a monotechnical education is proprietary, authoritative and linear rather than shared, multiplicitous and generative.


This particular vision of selfhood tends to generate systems failure in art students due to it being a completely unachievable objective. While externalised values tend to benefit the whole of the field of practice, the monotechnic’s internal values tend only to benefit individuals. The monotechnic prevents constructive dissonance and productive tension; both are imperative because they enable diverse learning styles.


So in contrast to the monotechnic, integrated curricula are really about making connections. They make connections across disciplines, between people, between academic and non-academic realms; they are concerned with correlation – the correlation involves engaging with related materials in other subject areas; making those materials present for another area; and enabling materials for one subject to interpret those of another.


So in all of these senses the integrated has an enormous sense of transformative potential. In that sense there is an opportunity for art schools in admitting that their internal ethics still nurture a sort of modernist assimilation and that preventing art schools from realising their educational potential fachidiots place their own fields at risk of redundancy.


So from this we might begin a productive transformation of the art schools communicative practice in the relationship with communities of purpose that lie beyond their boundaries.


So what I want to do to just finish here is to just briefly outline a few examples of what we call paratechnical integration, the para being that it sits to one side of, above or beyond the academic – or the monotechnic in this case.


So one kind of integration is theme based where a core learning theme or approach is established around which all work is temporarily integrated. And there are two ways in which that kind of theme based integration has been organised within art schools of late. So one is interdisciplinary thematic integration, and the other is transdisciplinary thematic integration.


So the former interdisciplinary thematic integration considers how you might corroborate learning across the disciplines. Now that requires a great deal of curriculum coordination to ensure that a range of disciplines all perceive the same focus. They can be disparate disciplines or close cousins; all they have to do is relate to a chosen theme, thing, method or quote.


Now one example of that’s been running for a while of that type of approach is ‘Boundary Crossings’ ( which is a thematic two weeks long biennial run by the Institute of the Animated Arts which runs annually in the PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art) in Portland in Oregon.


Now the other example of transdisciplinary integration concerns how you might combine approaches from different disciplines in a single project which can transcend different disciplinary fields. So for example, Jurgen Bey who is the director of the post graduate Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam has designed a range of what they call ‘Temporary Masters’ programs. To quote Sandberg: “Following the observation that singular disciplines frequently fail to discern or capture significant knowledge about uncommon and unprecedented situations”.


So the first Temporary Masters program in Sandberg in 2011 was called ‘Vacant Netherlands’ and it focused on empty properties and the result was the creation of the transdiscipline of vacancies studies.


Now the other kind of integration which I mentioned is called performative or project based and it involves teams of researchers drawing from different fields who work and organise live projects. And a really good well established example of that is Erin Manning and Brian Massumi’s SenseLab ( in Montreal, which is a sort of global network for what they call “immediation” – which is a live collaborative encounter between disciplines.


You also have student led integration which is maybe a more familiar negotiated learning model, and there are two ways in which student led integration is facilitated. So one is through auditing where they just choose through a menu of pre-existing courses from other disciplines; and the other is through paragogy where peers co-create their own educational environment.


So ‘paragogs’ are double loop learners who exploit distributed networks, especially OER (Open Educational Resources) networks, and those distributed networks significantly are ones which flow through and which can be activated by art schools, but are not contained by them and cannot be contained by them.


So, just to finish off; to paraphrase Corneli and Danoff in their work on Synergising Individual and Organisational Learnings – so their paratechnic, or in their case Paragogy principles. We can think of the paratechnic potentially of bringing on a series of similar principles:

  1. So firstly a paratechnic would offer an integrated curriculum in the knowledge that it can only thrive where diversity is embraced.
  2. Secondly this diversity emerges from staff and student expertise and their various external connections rather than from internalised departmental competition and since it is always seeking out external opportunities, the paratechnic always has to facilitate dissensus.
  3. Now where the monotechnic is concerned with wholeness and hermeneutic coherence in the past, the paratechnic privileges immediation, or the idea of live research as learning.
  4. Forthly, an integrated curriculum is one which is a constantly adapting process where learning is equally new to staff and students. So it is a paragogy in other words.
  5. And fifthly, while departmentalism doesnt actually prevent an integrated curriculum, the paratechnic can only integrate when peers generate common ground and find different connections, so it might make it rather more difficult to emerge.


Click to Download: 'Paragogy Synergizing Individual and Organizational Learning'
Click to Download: ‘Paragogy Synergizing Individual and Organizational Learning’


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Now all these ways are approaches to make sure that art education is a subsystem of a wider society rather than something separate from it, and it has a more realistic sense of its transformative potential.

Ok, that’s me

For more information on the symposium: