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Tell me what you study and I'll tell you who you are

March 8, 2011

I've never liked the term "discipline" as a way to refer to what I teach and write about. It's harsh, forbidding, army-like. I much prefer to tell people that I work in a particular field--maybe because as a kid I wanted to be a farmer.

Either way, though, my field or discipline is a huge part of my professional identity: my membership of a discipline--my degree in Hispanic Studies--justifies my claims to knowledge and authority as a teacher and scholar.

Disciplines have been around as long as universities, but the ones we know and love--anthropology, physics, modern languages--were invented in the late nineteenth century as discrete, collective scholarly endeavors to understand ourselves and the world. It was around the same time that the United States adopted the German model of the research university structured around academic departments, with each department representing a discipline and its specialized course of study (what we call the major).

On the face of it, this organization makes a lot of sense. Members of the same discipline speak the same scholarly language, ask the same kinds of questions and go about answering them in similar ways. In practice, though, it is all quite relative. While I can read and understand the work of pretty much all my colleagues in the humanities, including history, the physicists and mathematicians tell me they lose their fellow department members after the first paragraph. So much for speaking the same language: in the sciences, specialization has created a scholarly tower of Babel.

At the ripe age of 120 or so, the German model is still going strong. Just look around you: Oberlin's College of Arts and Sciences is still basically a group of largely autonomous, neatly separated academic departments. (The couple of exceptions, such as Comparative American Studies and Comp Lit, only confirm the rule.) This is a bit surprising, because for the past three or four decades disciplinarity has had a bad rap, associated as it is with narrowness, stodginess, and unnecessary limitation. Since the early 1970s, the easiest way to look cool as a scholar or administrator has been to invoke the virtues of multi-, trans-, or interdisciplinarity.

But these things are easier to call for than to put into practice. Logistics and bureaucracy are a problem, as always. (How do you count an interdisciplinary course? What four-letter acronym to assign to it?) Even more of an obstacle is the sheer strength of scholars' disciplinary identity, branded into their psyches through the drawn-out rite of initiation that we call graduate school and progress toward tenure. Much like national identity, this one comes with built-in preconceptions and misunderstandings about the Other, fueled by more than a century's worth of rivalry and competition. (In the Darwinian fight for students, tenure lines, budgets, and prestige, departments are forced to play up their own importance and downplay that of their rivals.) Political scientists and sociologists look down on each other. English has a hard time understanding that their colleagues in the other languages engage in something more than language teaching. Germanists can't help think that Spanish is easy. Almost every department considers itself understaffed and undervalued.

I've long been curious how much of this trickles down to our students and their self-image. In my experience, this varies enormously across the college. Disciplines with a strong and superior sense of self (political science, chemistry) tend to breed majors who proudly (though perhaps a bit precociously) think of themselves as political scientists and chemists--and who are largely assumed by their professors to "go on in the field." In the humanities, things are different. I frankly never think of my majors as Hispanists, nor do I wish or believe they should enter my discipline. I love what I do, but know it's not for everyone. In fact, I get most excited when my inquiries lead me beyond the boundaries of my field (which by now are pretty blurry anyhow). And most of the problems that I try to understand--How does language shape ideology? How do societies deal with a recent violent past? How do metaphors actually work?--require the insights and conceptual tools of more than one field.

Although our current department and major structure makes for a simple institutional map, I have come to find it much more constraining than helpful. I mean: Has our world really changed so little since the 1890s that we can understand it through an 1890s toolbox? Which is why I sometimes secretly dream of an Oberlin without departments or majors, or at least an Oberlin in which departments and majors have lost their overwhelming structural power. I've long known that to many colleagues this would be a nightmare. But now I'm wondering whether the strongest resistance to such a change wouldn't come from the students, who like--perhaps even crave--to identify with a discipline... Am I right?

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Responses to this Entry

As a Latin American Studies major, I am excited by the possibility of interdisciplinary work. After all, ideas are not compartmentalized into academic departments, nor can they be owned by any one discipline. I am glad to be able to pursue understanding a region through various academic perspectives: historical, political, linguistic, economic, environmental. In fact, my largest academic interest is in what I think of as sustainable development, a topic that draws as much on culture, history, and economics as environmental studies. I understand the usefulness of a major for providing some academic focus, but I think it's very possible to have a well focused interests that crosses our traditional disciplinary lines. The most exciting learning I have done has been in connecting ideas, between different classes and life experiences.

Posted by: Nora on March 9, 2011 11:40 AM

Someone (that I don't agree with) told me during my first year that I should avoid any majors that involve the word "studies" since they weren't "serious" majors.

I learned so much about how to think, act, and execute original thoughts through cinema studies. There was crossover in other departments, and depending on what I was working on, I could work other departments' classes into my requirement. Exploring many disciplines allowed me to put more thought and intent into my pieces; I wasn't flying blind into a topic since I had support and background from the other classes I had taken.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on March 15, 2011 10:28 AM

Interesting piece this morning in Inside Higher Ed on a discussion along these lines at the Rhode Island School of Design. Money quote:

... adopting an interdisciplinary focus is meant to make curriculums more flexible and less compartmentalized, and render administration better able to support such efforts. This focus is intended to make it easier for departments to work together and break down the silos separating them. “Most people in our association think this is a good idea,” he said. “But they also acknowledge that there will always be students and faculty who like silos.”

Read the full piece here.

Posted by: Sebastiaan Faber on March 16, 2011 8:34 AM

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