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We’re Here, Because We’re Here, Because We’re Here, Because We’re Here! Or, Why Disciplines Rule The University Roost

November 27, 2009, 10:08 am

If you are the chair of an interdisciplinary program and see any meetings with deans or provosts in the immediate future, make sure you read University of Pennsylvania sociologist Jerry A. Jacobs’ Interdisciplinary Hype in the Chronicle of Higher Education (11/22/09). It will prepare you for every tired old argument you will have to answer about why your intellectual commitments are not worth supporting. Arguing that there is major pressure for breaking the boundaries of academic discipline (oh, would that this were the case!), particularly driven by federal money aimed at supporting interdisciplinary research in the sciences, Jacobs expresses his view that “efforts to reorganize academe based on interdisciplinary principles would have disastrous consequences in the short term—and would end up reproducing our disciplinary or departmental structure in the long term.”

There’s nothing I despise like a wishy-washy man with no opinions.

OK, I wondered, interdisciplinary intellectual that I am, “Though I detest these things he says, why does he say them?” And the more I tried to figure this out, the more my irritation grew. The article articulates little that is “disastrous” in the short term, nor is it persuasive that new interdisciplinary structures inevitably revert to disciplinary forms in the long term because of something inherent in the act of knowledge production that we all share. It does not persuade, as it tries to at the end, that interdisciplinarians are the barbarians clawing at the gates of disciplinary civilization. Ignoring the ways in which universities act to constrain interdisciplinary scholarship by how they structure appointments, Jacobs expresses the “disaster” of interdisciplinary scholarship as pure tautology. Furthermore, by not even mentioning the ways that interdisciplinary scholars are inevitably forced to conform to discipline during hiring, promotion and tenure processes, Jacobs reveals the real point of the article: it is a justification for the “necessity” of maintaining the stranglehold that disciplines have on funding streams of all kinds as we enter an era of increasingly diminished resources.
Why it’s the culture wars all over again, except this time the scientists have been folded into the critique (which is probably a good thing for our team: has anyone else in the humanities or social sciences noticed lately that the more you play with the “hard” science people the more seriously your university takes you?)
One red flag raised early in the piece is that Jacobs never defines what interdisciplinarity is, or what make the task of the interdisciplinary scholar different and valuable. His belief that all scholars are more or less the same and that we all demonstrate similar tendencies and prejudices in relation to an intellectual “other” produces polarized logic like this: “Alongside the image of academic departments as barren silos is another image of interconnected knowledge—a web.” To paraphrase Horton, a scholar’s a scholar no matter how small: we who choose to be interdisciplinary do not embrace and explore multiple routes to knowledge. In fact, we are just as intellectually intolerant as the next disciplinary guy. So why give us centers and tenure-track lines? Why not just turn your endowment over to the Taliban now?

Furthermore, Jacobs argues, such webs of connection (which are multi-disciplinary, not interdisciplinary) already exist and don’t need to be argued for or institutionalized. And when they are, look at the chaos:

A recent example from Pennsylvania State University is instructive. Penn State has promoted research on homeland security, but the pursuit of that worthy goal has resulted in the proliferation rather than the consolidation of specialized units: no fewer than 21 research centers on various aspects of homeland security. They include units on terrorism, computer security, crisis management, infectious diseases, and nonlethal defense technologies. Each of the centers may represent a noble undertaking, but their proliferation underscores the fact that there are many aspects of complex issues, and that interdisciplinary efforts can lead just as easily to the multiplication of academic units as to their consolidation.

Well I agree: 21 centers on Homeland Security is idiotic. But this doesn’t strike me as a problem with interdisciplinarity (which has never made a claim to provide thrifty forms of academic consolidation), but a problem of the federal government slapping the label of academia on a political agenda and military agenda and the university signing off on it so that they can hire faculty on the federal nickel. Which is an old story, dating back to the Cold War.

Interestingly, Jacobs moves straight from that example of wasteful proliferation of resources to: American Studies! Jacobs notes the age of the field, and gives a woefully insufficient view of the field’s complexity before delivering himself of this peculiar judgement:
Indeed, American studies has been far more ambitious in its intellectual scope and more dynamic and enduring than most interdisciplinary fields. Here again interdisciplinarity coexists with scholarly specialization. A look at American-studies dissertations makes clear that they are every bit as specialized as dissertations in English and American history. Furthermore, American-studies topics have proliferated. The 2008 program of the field’s annual meeting reveals the remarkable scope and specialization of researchers: Papers were organized by period (early American, 19th century, 20th century); by ethnicity (African-American, Asian-American, Chicano, Native American, Pacific Islander studies); and by place (border studies, cultural geography, landscape and the built environment). The conference included a variety of approaches to gender issues (gender and sexuality, queer studies, transgender studies) and global perspectives (global, transnational, cross-cultural, postcolonial studies, studies of U.S. colonialism). The examination of culture included popular culture, print culture, material culture, food, music, film, television and media studies, performance studies, and visual-culture studies. There are undoubtedly many accomplished scholars in the field—including Drew Gilpin Faust, a Penn Ph.D. in American civilization who is president of Harvard University—and many valuable pieces of research, but that does not mean that the field has achieved a more unified vision of American culture than those of its closest neighbors, history and English. (American studies has never ventured too far into the social sciences.) Indeed, if a unified theory of American culture were to be advanced, the current generation of American-studies scholars would be the first to challenge it.

Aside from the incoherence of the critique, here are the main issues: that the success, or failure, of the field is in Jacob’s view, knowable by whether it has achieved disciplinary unity. And yet, no one who actually works in the field of American Studies is cited but for the admittedly successful Drew Faust, who was appointed to a history department for her entire career prior to leaving for Harvard University, where she is now president. Furthermore, Faust’s Ph.D. (and her initial monograph on the slave holding mind) dates from a time in which intellectual historians (what Faust was when she was a newbie) often did their work in American Studies programs because historians who worked with literary materials were often believed to be peculiar. Nor does Jacobs mention that the failure of universities to
establish tenure-track lines either in American Studies or in many of the fields he cites as part of the American Studies crazy quilt, which leads to the evaluation of American Studies scholarship through the deep prejudice of disciplinary values, often prevents young scholars from doing the path-breaking interdisciplinary work that they want to do.

In Jacobs’ mind, disciplines are the parents and interdisciplinary fields, the children:

Going too far down the interdisciplinary path by ending academic departments, as some have suggested, would be a disaster. Departments teach techniques needed to conduct high-quality research. Disciplines establish a hierarchy of problems. Interdisciplinarity cannot exist without disciplines and departments. What happens when that structure is broken? Will all problems be equally important? How will quality be judged, and how will the most important advances be communicated?

Lurking behind these peculiar statements and questions is Jacobs’ apparent fear of the postmodern, where all values dissolve, any method is good enough, and their are no hierarchies of anything. Interdisciplinarity is the anarchy that departments prevent, right? Wrong. Interdisciplinary programs and departments do all the things that Jacobs claims are the exclusive purview of departments: where does he think those of us who teach in them came from anyway? Furthermore, our students have to know more, not less, to survive in a scholarly atmosphere that is incredibly competitive, not only because bright students go into it for the challenges it offers, but because they must be willing to fight for jobs and respect from people like Jacobs who are firmly convinced, for no good reason, that to be interdisciplinary is to be second rate.

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