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“Modern” Students and “Outdated” Professors: Temporal Concepts in the University Discourse

Priority areas of development: humanitarian
The project has been carried out as part of the HSE Program of Fundamental Studies.

Goal of research

To identify the role of temporal discourses, concepts, and metaphors in (self)organization of the academic community. In order to reach the goal, a number of objectives have to be achieved:

  1. to identify semantic changes in the university’s discourse and also in concepts connected with the topic of time and determined by oppositions between old and new, outdated and modern;

  2. to trace the connection of discourses and concepts with social and cultural practices and norms, as well as to scrutinize their reciprocal influence;

  3. to study the correlation between corporate memory or representations of the past created by professional historians and temporal metaphors in the language of academia;

  4. to relate the role of time in research or administrative practices to academics’ evaluative judgments.


Discourse analysis, conceptual history (German Begriffsgeschichte, and Cambridge School of intellectual history), metaphorology of Hans Blumenberg supplemented by the theories of M. Black and G. Lakoff, and also methods connected with the sociology of time.

Empirical base of research

Legislation, bureaucratic documents, minutes, letters and memoirs and also newspapers and magazines, textbooks and scientific works. A considerable part of the sources is unpublished and introduced for the first time thanks to the archival work.

Results of research

The project is the final stage of the three-year study of the relationship between university and time. This year’s project led to a number of results. Specific theoretical framework was developed for the study of temporal discourses, concepts, and metaphors. They were treated as performatively acting means of expression, evaluation, categorization, self-identification, and justification for actions and decisions. They were viewed as a background and also factors in the life of students, professors, and administrators. Discourses, concepts, and metaphors are likewise pivotal for the image of the university as an institution that moves with the times and preserves traditions.

Key concepts of the research, student and professor, are understood not only literary but also figuratively as designations for two cultural and generational poles of academic life. The concept student represents the renewing and changing world of university culture and, at the same time, means the beginning of an academic career. For its part, the concept professor is connected to the stable and repetitive cycle of academic life and also to the top of the academic hierarchy.

The study showed that temporal discourses, concepts, and metaphors structured academic life by affecting and segmenting astronomical time. Descriptions of the medieval university, as well as concepts old and new, outdated and modern reinforced by various metaphors, had more or less noticeable temporal component.

In the Middle Ages, university’s immutability and continuity were highlighted whereas changes were not of great interest to contemporaries. From that point of view, change even could be considered evil, whose harmful effects had to be minimized. In Modernity, conversely, various transformations acquired value per se. Universities were imbedded into linear and progressive history, comprised of strictly divided past, present, and future. The future became no less important than the past with its time-honored traditions.

The idea of novelty accompanied by the harsh criticism of the outdated approaches and conceptions brought together classical philology and electrical engineering, different, and in many ways opposing, university disciplines. On the contrary, in the late Soviet period, there was a tendency to “extend” the history of the Soviet institutions and practices into the past. Notable examples of this were the development of the essentially new course on the history of medicine and late Soviet university jubilees. In both cases we see the clash of the new and the old, that easily traded places during academic debates reflecting the (re)establishment of the disciplinary boundaries and hierarchies.

As usual, proponents of the new defended rationality and systematic approach for the lack of which they blamed their critics. Yet the very need to articulate the old and the new made them speak about such a difficult subject matter as time and metaphors were especially helpful in this regard because they clarified vague meanings and supported expectations of the future.

Metaphors and allegories played an important role in the public representation of electrical engineering at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Metaphors and other tropes not just helped to conceptualize what was almost incomprehensible but also allowed to conceal fears and vulnerabilities by presenting new and potentially dangerous technology via familiar and credible images of infant or fairytale character. In extreme cases, the new was an escapist fantasy serving to distract from the problems of the present that was unlikely to turn into the world of tomorrow.

University jubilees (their own or national) usually reproduced quite simple linear model of time determined by the narrative about individual important events such as the revolution of 1917 or the Great Patriotic War. As a rule, lacunae between them were filled by propaganda clichés or accounts of the university’s various accomplishments. However, the study revealed that time and history of the soviet vuzy (universities and institutes) did not dissolve completely in the national ones since academics looked for and found discursive ways to show their otherness and specialness. M.Yu. Lotman, a professor who paid special attention to time in his works of the 1980s and early 1990s, was one of them. On the one hand, his studies had scientific (semiotic) rigor, on the other hand, they opposed the optimistic ideas of stability and progress maintained by the Soviet propaganda. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lotman’s juxtaposition of la longue durée and explosion, and that of ternary and binary structures gained relevance as a warning that the world was heading for catastrophe.

Level of implementation, recommendations on implementation or outcomes of the implementation of the results

The results of the project can be used for the development of scientific policies in the field of social sciences and humanities by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. On the basis of the results, recommendations on prioritization of support of the research in the social sciences and humanities can be provided for Russian Science Foundation (RSF) and Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR). Project’s outcome has potential in terms of the creation of innovative university courses on social sciences and humanities.


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