Oberlin Blogs

The Liberal Arts & Antidisciplinary Education

April 13, 2016

Andres Cuervo ’17

First, you're probably wondering what "antidisciplinary" even means. It comes from the MIT Media Lab (or, at least, that's the first place I heard the term), and my first introduction to it was in a piece by Joi Ito, the director of the Media Lab. The concept is still a little hard to explain, so I'll let Ito explain in his own words:

I like to think about a huge piece of paper that represents "all science." The disciplines are little black dots on this paper. The massive amounts of white space between the dots represent antidisciplinary space. Many people would like to play in this white space, but there is very little funding for this, and it's even harder to get a tenured positions without some sort of disciplinary anchor in one of the black dots.

If you're still confused, maybe seeing the dots will help:

Animated visualizations of the quote above from Joi Ito

While Oberlin, like most institutions of higher education, is still very much defined by disciplines, I want to complicate the notion that there's a hard and fast line between disciplinary, inter-, and antidisciplinary education. In the same way Ito talks about "spaces" of academic exploration, we can consider the curriculum a space; in some places it is well defined (you need X credits to graduate, you need X classes in each of the three major divisions, etc. etc.). In other places in this curricular space, the liberal arts philosophy allows us to simulate and explore antidisciplinary space: we can examine these empty spaces to take advantage of the quintessential liberal arts notion of "learning how to think" as a fundamentally antidisciplinary project. So, where do I see opportunities like this in Oberlin's own liberal arts curriculum?

Private Readings

I've taken two private readings, and I plan on taking more! Private readings are really interesting, because while they do have to be situated in a department, both of mine have been so broad as to approach antidisciplinary status: the first was about trans- and posthuman, feminist futurities in social theory and textuality (this one was in the English department). My current half-private reading is in the computer science department, and while we are looking specifically at the question of "underrepresented groups in computing," there are questions of economy, design, morality, history, curriculum design and more that go into managing the preparation, expectations, and lived experiences of disadvantaged students trying to major in a difficult discipline. A lot of the answers (and, for that matter, questions) we've arrived at are useful not only for computer science, but for industry, other STEM fields. This is more than just bringing one field's lessons into a broader applicability: readings, critiquing, and presenting alternatives to the diversity problem in computing is a discussion that brings together psychology, sociology, queer and feminist theory, economics and radical critiques therein, as well as traditional computer science evaluation methods to attempt to deal with a unique problem: too many students, too few students of color, women, trans, queer, etc. etc. If we're to solve this, and think about these issues completely, we need students with the ability to develop ideas.

Winter Term

There's not much to say here -- with the opportunity to learn to drive, watch movies, bake muffins, or do independent, little research projects, Winter Terms -- like all great things -- can be made into antidisciplinary projects, not fully fitting an academic siloing.


ExCos are fascinating, and while they do focus on a specific topics (interactions in video games, baking, communication, sexual health and education, to name a few), they often lie so outside of the curriculum space, for complicated reasons of academic and social inflexibility. ExCos allow you to interact with ideas presented by peers in a way that is accessible, encourages communal learning and discovery, and most importantly leaves space within the credit-bearing infrastructure of the disciplinarian liberal arts to, with time, patience, and determination, explore what it means to study and practice outside the realm of singular disciplines, to stretch and study the space between the dots of discipline.

I've written before, in other places, about how antidisciplinary education both offers a blueprint of exploration and, at the same time, shouldn't be allowed to discredit the disciplines: there's a lot of foundations built on that old university/college model. But, if you like the idea, know that I think there's space here for you to explore antidisciplinary education in the true spirit of the liberal arts education!

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