Again on Easily Distracted, there’s a terrific analysis of interdisciplinary programs. ED looks at the College of the Atlantic, which is an inspiring exemplar. Links are there.
I should say first by way of context or confession that I am barely disciplined. Although my doctorate is in modern European history, for the first four years after graduate school I taught philosophy, sociology, and human development but almost no history. (I am tenured in a nice little history department now and teach history exclusively, or at least that’s what it says in the course catalog.) My undergraduate degree was similarly eclectic, and while I was in grad school I identified and studiously avoided or resisted (which I now regret) the professors who made it their mission to discipline the younguns.
Much of my indiscipline I would now call preconscious. While I was teaching all that whatsis and looking for a permanent job, I got more conscious and thought a whole lot about discipline, indiscipline and interdisciplinarity. I also worked for several years in an interdisciplinary human development program, one of the great experiences of my life, and interviewed at a couple of interdisciplinary institutions. This does not make me an expert, just an interested commenter.
The concept of interdisciplinarity takes disciplines for granted. This is realistic. Knowledge systems are organized into disciplines as a matter of fact. There are accordingly two ways to accomplish interdisciplinarity. The first is to bring people with different disciplines together. I call this serial disciplinarity. The second is to expect individuals to become multiply disciplined, that is, actually conversant with and practiced in not just the material of different disciplines but their codes, practices, assumptions, debates, sacred texts. I’ll need to talk about this more in a second, but here I’ll just say that this is really exceptional. The third option, to train people outside of established disciplines, is what interdisciplinary programs usually shoot for. But the products of these programs are not interdisciplinary properly speaking. They are undisciplined.
The temptation is to think of disciplines as just databases or at most, bodies of knowledge. If I read “Gravity’s Rainbow” and use it as a source on receptions of WWII in popular culture, I am interdisciplinarily doing literature, right? Well, um, no. The discipline of literature is not defined by its materials, but by its habitus. Literature is a way of seeing, thinking and judging, not a thing to see, think about and judge. People disciplined to literature are disposed to see the whole world as a text, not just books. The purpose of literature departments is in part to organize the investigations and knowledge produced by the practices of the literature habitus, in part to reproduce themselves by passing on the dispositions of seeing, thinking and judging that define the field to new generations.
Historians have a habitus (which includes the various internal contestations of it, of course; all of those contesters are historians) and are disposed to examine everything historically, including texts. Philosophers also have a habitus, and so on. All of the disciplines of the humanities fantasize that they are the master discipline that encompasses all the others. This is self-evidently false, if we think about what disciplining means. When Lit types dabble in context they are not practicing historical interdisciplinarity, they are taking snapshots like intellectual tourists. And I just have to laugh when philosophers tell me things like they are Wittgensteinian/Hegelians, in that order. Well, you can be that in philosophy.
Getting back to habitus, becoming disciplined is a way to narrow, direct and focus one’s attention while providing a sense of purpose and belonging in a meaningful community of like-minded folks. Disciplines enable some conversations and disable others by foreclosing tangents and digressions, by specifying right and wrong questions and adjudicating right and wrong answers, by categorizing, and by providing shared vocabularies. The enabling is just as important to notice as the disabling. Taken as wholes, disciplines offer their disciples a morally ordered universe and a firm sense of ratified adult identity. This is why disciplined people forced into interdisciplinary contact with other disciplined people often end up feeling existentially angsty and deciding that the ‘others’ are immoral, as I have repeatedly seen.
ED points to this when he concludes “[i]n the end, for all of us who chafe at excessive departmentalization and balkanization in academia, this is a problem of culture, attitude, practice and orientation. Cultures change slowly and organically, and you can’t rush those kinds of transformations even by the radical redesign of underlying structures.” I agree completely, except – is it a problem? Why? He also admires generalists who have a conceptual map of the disciplines and thinks they’re a rare breed. Thanks! We know how to think outside of the box, play different games, speak different languages, pick your metaphor.
However, the role of the generalist is necessarily a limited one. Disciplines are ways of getting things done, after first defining what needs doing. Like any sort of groupthink they encourage narrowmindedness and arrogance if left unchecked; anxiety and defensiveness when challenged. I certainly saw both dynamics in play at the interdisciplinary programs in my experience. But disciplines are also a way to get grounded, to build leverage. We generalists tend to be a wifty lot. We’re good at playing with boundaries, but like Socrates or two-year-olds who keep asking whywhywhy we can get irritating to serious people fast. At a certain point you’ve just got to plant your feet somewhere and do stuff in a disciplined way.
The best role for the undisciplined generalist is probably translation. We don’t really have the chops that a lifetime of focused devotion to one discipline can bring, so we’re never the cutting edge. We can point to stuff that’s going on from field to field where intersections could happen. We can try to unpack disciplined information so that it’s usable in an undisciplined way. We can be oddly comfortable with our interstitial identities and remind people that boundaries are often arbitrary. There should always be some of us around. But I’m not sure we’re what a whole program should be built out of.
I notice I started in one place and ended up in another here. I don’t have a train of thought about this stuff so much as a pile of boxcars. This is another problem with indiscipline, of course.