Becoming Interdisciplinary

BY AARON BARLOW

“’Tis but thy name that is my enemy.”

That line, and Juliet’s following thoughts, come to mind each time I listen to talk of interdisciplinary courses and programs. So bound are we by names and the divisions they create that we no longer seem able to see how ridiculous and small-minded we can become. Even our talk of what it means to be “interdisciplinary” sometimes spirals into nonsense.

I’ve seen schools define interdisciplinary courses by physical aspect. That is, teachers from different departments pairing for one course or invited lecturers from various fields making the offering “interdisciplinary.” Nothing else will do, the who, not the what, taking command. I’ve also seen discussions that force conversations on interdisciplinary activity into a Montague/Capulet dichotomy, one reflecting C. P. Snow’s observation, more than half a century ago, that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups.” The only interdisciplinary activity of significance, it follows, is that bringing together STEM fields and the Humanities. A course combining Biology and English is worthy while one mixing Linguistics and Psychology, I guess, is not. I’ve seen “interdisciplinary” used as a cudgel against those content to work within traditional frameworks.

Sometimes “interdisciplinary” reaches absurdity by other means—even when the intent is laudable. I remember a professor who tried to teach Ernest Nagel and James Newman’s Gödel’s Proof as a literary text. That the students (like the professor) had no background in Symbolic Logic was, apparently, beside the point—which was… well, I don’t know what it was beyond a Quixotic attempt to break disciplinary boundaries by example, not knowledge.

It’s true: the only real way of creating truly interdisciplinary courses and programs is to ignore the artificial boundaries of academic disciplines. Importing a text from one field into another, however, is not always the best way to do it. Real interdisciplinary work should start with the ways we view our own scholarly activities—with the ways we view our colleagues and ourselves. Later, we can move to courses and programs.

For a start, we might think of ridding ourselves of the specialist/generalist dichotomies within our own fields. These distinctions becomes static when they should be fluid. People are defined by what they did in graduate school, by what they published long ago and by grants they received. Their current interests are suspect until they have proven themselves, an attitude discouraging original thought and making exploration dangerous. Yet scholars are constantly challenged with, “Why are you looking into that? Your expertise lies elsewhere.”

There’s a need for care, certainly, in our attempts: the professor trying to bring Logic into his Literature classroom had (in this particular case) stepped beyond his competence (apparently, he hadn’t even read the book he had assigned)—but there should be nothing wrong with smaller, more deliberate movement in that direction. Taking those steps, though, requires both reaching out and a willingness to welcome, and not rebuff, others who reach out to us.

Real interdisciplinary activity starts with faculty interaction—within and across fields. Only later can the results become part of the classroom. By trying to create interdisciplinary courses by first asking professors to get together on course creation, we are approaching the process backwards. The institution should promote collaborative work across disciplinary boundaries with the hope that this will lead to course proposals, not the other way around.

What institutions need to be doing is breaking down the barriers between departments so that faculty can start getting to know each other on an intellectual level, so that they can be comfortable questioning each other and asking for help. Once they have done that, interdisciplinary courses will start appearing, whether developed by one teacher who has achieved the requisite level of knowledge in two areas or collaboratively by people with diverse backgrounds. Or in ways we, as of now, don’t expect.


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