Discipline and interdisciplinarity

by Carl Dyke

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.

7 Comments to “Discipline and interdisciplinarity”

  1. As someone who is in favor of interdisciplinary approaches to scholarship, but very (very) skeptical of generalists, I’m curious who you would consider an example of a good generalist.

  2. I was just thinking (again) of these issues when prepping for the lecture the other day, and looking back through Weber’s Science as a Vocation:

    In our time, the internal situation, in contrast to the organization of science as a vocation, is first of all conditioned by the facts that science has entered a phase of specialization previously unknown and that this will forever remain the case. Not only externally, but inwardly, matters stand at a point where the individual can acquire the sure consciousness of achieving something truly perfect in the field of science only in case he is a strict specialist. All work that overlaps neighboring fields, such as we occasionally undertake and which the sociologists must necessarily undertake again and again, is burdened with the resigned realization that at best one provides the specialist with useful questions upon which he would not so easily hit from his own specialized point of view.

    Drowning in work at the moment, so more just registering the resonance, rather than developing fresh thoughts 🙂

  3. Musicalcolin, that’s a tough question. The standards of ‘good’ are odd for generalists. For interdisciplinarians it’s easier. They get properly judged by their mastery of the different disciplines they’re operating. It’s really hard, and rare. Bourdieu might be an example of that. Dabbling doesn’t count; calling that interdisciplinary is just a sort of compliment we pay to normally-disciplined people who have read widely. Geertz might be an example of that.

    But generalists aren’t really operating any discipline. If they’re not careful they look like dabblers to everybody. The rigor of generalism is in translating the babble of the various disciplinary discourses and then making connections without losing too much signal in the noise. At their best generalists say things in a way that doesn’t offend normally disciplined people too much, but also lets them ‘think another thought’ for a moment.

    I’d say most of the really good generalists are educators. You probably had one or two in school; they were the ones who were really exciting and thought-provoking and didn’t really seem to fit any mold. They might not publish much because they’re too busy learning and teaching (and probably ironic about/tangential to the disciplinary channels of publication), which goes back to a point ED made about how hard it is to value generalists.

    I guess I might cite someone like Stuart Hall, although he contributed to creating a new discipline (cultural studies, a sort of disciplinary generalism) so I’m not sure he counts. A public intellectual like Christopher Lasch or Jared Diamond (although he pings the anthropologists’ disciplinary defenses something fierce). Some of the people doing translation from science into humanities might qualify: my dad Chuck Dyke for example, although he can be pretty disciplined when he needs to be. Bruno Latour. Stephen Jay Gould. Donna Haraway? These are debatable ascriptions!

    Maybe we can come at the question from another direction. What would be an example of the bad generalism you’re skeptical of?

  4. I’m sure that I had generalists in school, but not in college. It seems to me that the generalist is maybe the typical job description at a good private high school. At a University though I have a hard time imagining what purpose they would serve. Admittedly I went to an R1 state school for undergrad, but part of the amazing thing about college is that you are taught by people who are real experts in their field. I’m a little fuzzy on what would be the value of changing that.

    Bad generalists? Without being too specific, there are people on the web who advocate for collapsing disciplinary boundaries, but in their examples this type of scholarship reveal ignorance about the fields they are generalizing about.

  5. Mc, I see that you’re well-disciplined and as such, your interest is to judge disciplines as good and generalism as bad. Fine. This will work for you, especially if you manage to stay at the R1 level. Schools that cannot afford the luxury of huge hyperspecialized departments must do things differently and value a different set of skills, in particular the ability and interest to broaden one’s base and learn on the fly. One definition of misery is an R1 skillset at a tier 3/4 liberal arts college – and vice versa.

    A thing I’ve learned in a History department of four, covering all of world history from prehistory to the present, is that I don’t have to know everything to teach students well. I only need to know more than they do, and keep ahead of them as they learn so that they’re always drawn forward. You only learned a tiny fraction of what your undergrad professors knew in their fields. I don’t even teach mine – it’s too esoteric. All undergrad courses are introductory. So the model of the expert is really not applicable at the level of undergrad pedagogy.

    Anyway, I’ve said a number of things above about the tradeoffs involved in disciplining, and the ways well-placed generalists can help moderate those tradeoffs. N. Pepperell has offered a lovely quote from Weber, himself quite the impressive generalist, to support that analysis. The purpose generalists serve, as we’ve both indicated, is to open up questions that are not visible within the single-mindedness of disciplines. They can’t and shouldn’t replace disciplined thinking, of course, but it’s not just a matter of choosing which is best.

    As to the wifty anti-authoritarians and layabouts who often pose as generalists on the web, I’ll agree with you completely there. No use for that.

  6. Interesting discussion on interdisciplinarity. As a women’s studies librarian I grapple with issues related to this daily. Library classification is built on a foundation of distinct disciplines. As more and more university departments cross those disciplinary lines it becomes increasingly difficult for libraries to organize information and for scholars to find that information. In the past academic librarians were expected to have an advanced degree in their subject area, along with their library degree. Now they are seen more as generalists. Given this cross-fertilization between disciplines, that may be a better role. Any thoughts?

  7. Swortman, thank you! Poking around the ‘net I noticed with great interest that librarians seem to be on the cutting edge of these discussions, and in a far more focused and practical way than is often the case with the rebellious anti-disciplinary masses who I think Musicalcolin had in mind.

    The question of classification is forefront and conscious when it’s a matter of how to number and shelve a book, e.g., in a way that it doesn’t need to be for authors and that may be invisible to readers who simply miss the relevant stuff that’s classified out of their areas. I imagine that the people who do marketing of intellectual property also have some useful thoughts here, although they have much more of an incentive and leverage to enforce marketable disciplinary niches.

    I used to do most of my research by finding one and then shelf-reading. Now I write with search terms in mind, but you’d be amazed – or more probably you wouldn’t – by the strange combinations that show up on my dashboard as ways people got to this site. I’m reminded of Foucault beginning The Order of Things with a passage from Borges that quotes “‘a certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’.” This would also make sense; the point is that classification is how we make sense.

    My inclination is to think that generalists have an extremely important function in pulling insight and information across the borders of discipline for people who otherwise would miss out on each others’ work and wisdom. They’re sort of like the honeybees of the mind. Women’s studies is a great example here, a discipline that began its life as an interdiscipline. If the foundational point is that gender is mixed up with everything, and your gaze ranges from poetry to physics; and if the ways that disciplines got constituted historically are themselves gendered (I’m thinking for example of Bonnie Smith’s great book on the research seminar in the disciplining of History); how can you engage sensibly with that critique without being a generalist?

    I still think that the advantages of focus, specificity and depth that come from disciplinary classification are indispensable. But the flowers need the bees, so I’m very glad for the shift toward generalism in library science you observe.

    Is there an institutional factor in this? At my small understaffed school neither the historians nor the librarians can afford to be hyperspecialized; at larger, better-funded schools it seems the luxury of specialization in both fields is enabled. Any thoughts?

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