September 15, 2007

Department of Something

I've wanted to respond to an early August post of Timothy Burke's for a few months, but I've been swamped with a number of other tasks, and it took an early Saturday morning of some other mundanities to justify my splurging on this reply.

This really started with Mark Bauerlein, so you can complain to him about having to read this. Back in July, Mark Bauerlein wrote An Anti-Progressive Syllabus as an IHE column, suggesting a rather eclectic set of conservative readings he wanted included in literary theory anthologies/courses (such as the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism). That column prompted a long discussion in The Valve, to which Bauerlein responded (in part):

Luther [Blisset] raises a significant point that goes deeper to the heart of what is and is not relevant in a Theory course. He says that this course should teach students the ideas and approaches that have prevailed in the discipline for the last 30 years or so. But what if the problem lies in precisely what the discipline has considered important? That's the real issue. For me, literary/cultural theory has traveled so far into itself, so far into advanced humanistic study, that it has lost touch with both the basic undergraduate classroom and with cultural policy decision-making in the public sphere.

Later in the thread, Adam Kotsko suggested that the problem with the items list was that they had not been used in literary theory:

English professors aren't using "conservative" figures as sources for literary theory. The syllabus of the Theory course is not the place to make this change--rather, [Bauerlein] should be arguing for the deployment of [Francis] Fukayama (or whoever) in literary scholarship. "Hitler Studies After the End of History: A Fukayaman Reading of White Noise." In fact, MB should be out there doing Fukayaman ... scholarship himself.

To which Tim Burke added in his blog,

So don't tell people they ought to make their students read Hayek or Horowitz. Explain what a hermeneutics that riffs off of Hayek actually looks like. Illustrate it. Do it.

Burke then riffs off of a comment in the original The Valve post about English morphing into a department of Everything Studies (an idea that also appears in Bauerlein's comment quoted above, albeit in the context of teaching and cultural policy decision-making in the public sphere, a term that's just a tad obscure), to argue that, in fact, there should be such a department:

I want to collapse all departments concerned with the interpretation and practice of expressive culture into a single large departmental unit. I'd call it Cultural Studies, but I don't want it to be Cultural Studies as that term is now understood in the American academy. Call it Department of the Humanities, or of Interpretation, or something more elegant and self-explanatory if you can think of it. I want English, Modern Languages, Dance, Theater, Art History, Music, the hermeneutical portions of philosophy, cultural and media studies, some strands of anthropology, history and sociology, and even a smattering of cognitive science all under one roof. I want what John [Holbo] is calling Everything Studies, except that I want its domain limited to expressive culture.

Burke is making an argument for something beyond interdisciplinarity; I've heard a colleague describe it as transdisciplinary. The nub of this argument is how Burke acknowledgmes that he has a limited set of skills, "But the limits on our research and interpretation of expressive media are provisional and personal. There's no reason to turn them into prescriptive claims about the nature of interpretative work for everybody else." Burke is arguing that disciplinary boundaries are constructed.

Well, that's not quite it. Burke is frustrated with disciplinary parochialism:

What I'm sick of is people who want a "conservative tradition" picking only the neo-Arnoldian parts of this list and then thumbing their nose at the rest as if it is self-evident that no self-respecting critic would want to talk about the cognitive, historical, economic, ideological questions that surround expressive culture, that all that crap is some social scientist's dreary business and get it the fuck out of my English Department. Just as I'm sick of a historicist refusing to take hermeneutics seriously, or some Franksteinian Frankfurter regarding the practical questions involved in actually doing cultural production as some sort of low-class consorting with the hegemonic beast.

I've written about academic parochialism and my own frustrations with it. I doubt whether that parochialism justifies the destruction of departmental boundaries, but let me focus on Burke's stronger argument, that we should be aware of how our disciplinary boundaries are institutionalized for practical or political reasons, not issues of fundamental divisions in knowledge:

The problem of course is to have world enough and time. We cannot write everything, read everything, teach everything. Scholars and publishers have to make decisions about what they value: which graduate student should advance or be rewarded, which work should be published, who makes the cut in a syllabus, which courses do we offer and not offer? Canons and disciplines are a pragmatic shorthand that keep us from having to rehearse our wanderings through Everything every time we set out to teach and research Everything. But that's all they are. They're not complete ontologies, not totalizing politics, not comprehensive philosophies.

I've heard arguments before in favor of some version of transdisciplinarity before, from vapid progressive educational philosophies to conversations with my campus colleagues. Burke's is the most thoughtful argument on this point that I've read or heard, and I don't think anyone who's aware of a smattering of sociology of knowledge would disagree with his basic point: disciplines are malleable entities, in theory and in practice. If playing along disciplinary boundaries is useful--what we call interdisciplinary work--then maybe destroying the boundaries would be even better.

Burke is wrong on several grounds, and I state my disagreement as someone whose academic work is necessarily interdisciplinary as a teacher (of an interdisciplinary field), as a researcher, as a member of several interdisciplinary communities (education policy, social-science history), and as a university employee (an historian in a college of education).  In my own career, I don't think I've behaved as a parochial academic.

Yet Burke is wrong from three perspectives. First, in colleges and universities, departments are essential to organizing the professional life of academics. Every so often, institutions attempt to abolish departments, and these are usually unhappy experiments (such as in Peabody College for Teachers in the 1970s, before its absorption into Vanderbilt University). There is a certain amount of support that faculty need in the practical life of running an institution, and beyond a certain size, large collections of faculty are unwieldy to support or administer. In a more practical sense, however, the peer relationships among colleagues that are part of evaluation, tenure, and promotion decisions require enough common understandings that decisions avoid the capricious quality inherent when you just don't understand someone else's work. As an historian in a department with a majority of psychologists, I've seen the hard work that such interdisciplinary structures require. My colleagues and I all putatively focus on education, but that doesn't eliminate the frictions that occasionally need to be smoothed about our research traditions, the different types of questions we raise, and the ways we answer those questions. I've worked in a Department of Everything Studies (Education Division), and Burke is glossing over the hard work required in such an arrangement.

Even if we could ignore the institutional needs for departmental structures, we should not ignore the importance of providing depth of experience in research education. What would a Ph.D. produced by a Department of Everything Studies look like? Even if disciplinary traditions are constructed, and even if disciplinary boundaries are movable, they are sufficiently coherent to provide a foundation for advanced research education. Graduate students need to focus on something, both in terms of interests and also in terms of scholarly tools.

I suspect that Burke would want people with different sets of skills and interests in his Department of Everything Studies, but they'd have to have graduate education in something, and I suspect that couldn't happen in a Department of Everything Studies, or a Ph.D. produced by such a department would carry enormous risks of having eaten a thin intellectual gruel rather than consuming something of substance. I often worry about that risk in colleges of education. (In our college, a formulaic program structure is the institutional answer to such concerns, with required courses in ed psych, social foundations, statistics, and research design, as well as a certain number of courses in one's specialization and in a cognate field. Of course that doesn't guarantee a coherent, sensible program; advisors still need to provide considerable guidance.)

Finally, if we could wish away the institutional need for departmental structures and a graduate student's need to study something, there is the question of whether undergraduate students should study something instead of everything. At least in one context, we can wish away those departmental needs: In a small liberal-arts college, where the problems of scale and graduate education recede, one could experiment with an undergraduate Department of Everything. Those who worry about students' ability to think critically and develop other generalizable intellectual skills might approve of such a department, and I suppose it would fit into the views of others who want some sort of universal assessment of what students learn from college (such as those who like the Collegiate Learning Assessment).

But I do not think that we learn anything as general as critical thinking or even subdivisions of that (such as essay-writing) absent studying something specific. Yes, our intellectual skills are generalizable, but we don't develop them absent topics. Each topic then invites its own set of approaches, including ways of categorizing the subject, raising important questions, and answering those questions. One of the reasons why Kotsko and Burke could call Bauerlein on the carpet for failing to show what a Fukuyamaesque literary analysis would be like is because there exists a mental model of what good scholarly tools for literary analysis should look like, and they have a sense that tossing off names doesn't fit the bill. Where did that mental model come from?

Maybe my point about needing to study something would be useful with a contrast. What makes history different from biology is a set of limits to the topic, the questions that historians and biologists raise, and the ways that they answer them. And while there are interesting overlaps between the two (such as how humans have shaped the environment, and vice versa), even in the overlap environmental historians such as William Cronon and Michael L. Lewis are going to ask questions different from the questions their biology colleagues ask and have different ways of answering them. Part of what we learn from interdisciplinary work is how to ask questions differently, something that can change our own disciplines, but that can only happen when there are differences in approaches.

Well, responds Timothy Burke from the Devil's counsel table, wouldn't an interdisciplinary area such as environmental studies then develop its own somewhat coherent set of topic boundaries, categorizations, questions, and tools, akin to the canonical disciplines? Yes, of course. Point granted. It could, and it does. Apart from the campus politics of interdisciplinary areas and new departments (such as the history of SUNY Buffalo's women's studies program/$JSTOR), there is nothing in what I've said that dictates what configuration of disciplines would be necessary. Disciplinary boundaries evolve, and there are plenty of undergraduate and graduate programs that live in the boundaries of two or more disciplines... or have evolved out of that interdisciplinary state into their own entities. My own program area and department are examples of such evolutions and noncanonical configurations.

But the fact of intellectual change and the constructed nature of disciplines doesn't mean that disciplinarity doesn't exist, isn't healthy, and isn't necessary for undergraduate curricula, graduate education, or academic institutions. Thus, my bottom line is not the current constellation of disciplines but some configuration, not a Collegium of What Exists Now but a Collegium of Somethings. In higher education, everyone needs a Department of Something.

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Posted in Higher education on September 15, 2007 12:45 PM |