On Interdisciplinarity

Over at the Cat in the Stack (The HASTAC blog–not sure what to call it), Cathy Davidson makes the following interesting comment about interdisciplinarity:

We’ve been arguing that true interdisciplinarity can’t happen unless you are put into situations where you are forced to learn from people with whom you do not share experiences, training, or even goals but who, instead, test all of those things. If you are conjoined in a common project, you have to make all those differences mesh in order to succeed. But in typical collaboration, you can actualy reinforce differences rather than highlight them, thus building in more error. Collaboration by difference is more than checks-and-balances, it is counterposing different ways of seeing the world in order to see the world’s multiple facets.

I am inclined to agree with this assessment and I think it points to some of the real stakes in doing interdisciplinary work, not the least because Cathy has to go to some length to explain what she means by “interdisciplinary.” I have come to feel that the word “interdisciplinarity” is a sorely abused term in the humanities (and humanistic social sciences). Often, it has simply meant reading the work of another field and importing it as “theory” or “context” in your home field without really understanding the context in which the work is operating. This is more like disciplinary Halloween or something than it is actual scholarship or a meaningful challenge to anything. When most of your professoriate and all of your job applicants use the word “interdisciplinary” to describe their work, can the term mean anything at all? Is “interdisciplinary” supposed to simply be the opposite of “bad”?

There are at least three alternatives to this superficial version of interdisciplinarity:

1. Talking with others. One obvious version of this is collaboration, as in the HASTAC model, or in the interdisciplinary course on the future of the music industry that I participated in for the last two years at McGill. Here, you work with people who share neither your training and assumptions, so you actually have to talk with them and they will challenge your assumptions (and you will challenge theirs). The other would be simply living among people in the other field for a period of time even if you’re doing your own work. This is effectively what happened when I spent a summer working among cultural historians at the Smithsonian, and it’s what happens (on a much faster scale) when people attend conferences in fields other than their own. Both of these approaches involve lots of talking with other people outside your own field in order for anything meaningful to happen.

2. Rich disciplinarity. One of the unstated assumptions of the “interdisciplinarity is good” movement is that disciplines are inherently limited, limiting or just plain stupid. Perhaps it’s a hangover from Foucault’s Order of Things or all the critiques of disciplinarity published in the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t know. But this isn’t actually true. I suppose it is experientially true if you’re a frustrated scholar who’s had to fight for the legitimacy of what you do throughout your career from graduate school through tenure. But I have met plenty of literary historians, ethnomusicologists, labor historians, philosophers, or whatever who are incredibly knowledgeable about their own fields and open and literate in adjacent fields when those fields deal with subjects important to their home discipline. You could go further and say that there are scholars who are trained in interdisciplinary fields like cultural studies or “new media”, who also could be said to be practicing rich disciplinarity even though their “home literature” is not situated inside a single discipline.

3. Erudition. I know there’s some Chronicle of Higher Ed article floating around where a new-old-fuddyduddy English prof says “theory is over, now it’s back to erudition.” That’s not what I mean. I mean that some people are incredibly well read in unexpected ways. Literate in ancient Greek, able to understand theoretical math, and writing Frankfurt-school-style cultural criticism. That is in some sense an older sense of the humanities scholar, but it also represents the kind of thing that happens for exceptionally learned scholar who started out as an autodidact or dilettante and took an unusual path through his or her education.

All of these are legitimate forms of interdisciplinarity, though I must say that most universities are now focusing on #1 for reasons I will discuss in a subsequent post. What I do know is that the term in its unqualified or unspecified form has more or less lost its punch as a meaningful challenge to much of anything. And I say this as someone whose entire education and career has been interdisciplinary in one way or another.

As a person with a blog, I feel as though I am supposed to be saying (or to have already said) something in this space about the world-historical significance of the Obama victory. And maybe at some point I will.

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