Monday, November 12, 2012

On Interdisciplinarity

These notes were produced in conjunction with Dr. Karsten Piep's seminar Interdisciplinarity, in Union Institute and University's Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies program during the Spring 2012 semester. 


What’s in a name? The naming of an intellectual movement may best be known through its means than its ends; perhaps that’s a kernel of debate within this larger redefinition of academic pursuit. Tracing a history of the term interdisciplinary, Klein seeks to establish a theoretical grounding for practice and work between disciplines—and how institutions may embrace such weaving of departments, faculty, and research methods. Using the “swift embrace of Lyotard, Derrida and readings in American humanities” (p. 2) as an entry to distinguishing types of interdisciplinary work, Klein’s definitions seek to name something he speculates may be the “model of an organic society of the past, when culture and society were presumably joined” (p. 2). Disseminating terms, the integrity of any one discipline may appear to be questioned, through a truly interdisciplinary lens: Klein praises Rorty for ‘working within the system,’ as it were, in that his critiques of analytic philosophy “from within the discipline, from arguments advanced by mainstream philosophers” (p. 3). Without descending again into a linguistic battle of prefixes to denote differences in the sharing of knowledge, I am interested to know more about what this acknowledged system to work within, or betray, by way of inventive inquiry?

Following an introduction that includes examples of interdisciplinary practice, Meyer discusses characteristics of the framing of knowledge, including its heregenousity within specific worlds and spaces, its necessity, its practice “within discourse” (p. 204),  its reliability and the establishment of boundaries (p. 205) and, simply, its problematic nature. Interdisciplinarity “in essence aims to avoid partial framings of problems” (p. 205), seeking to more fully conceptualize knowledge beyond application in specific disciplines. Meyer’s conclusion returns to the importance of the action of knowing and using what one knows: because of the complicated nature of our geographic, historic, and cultural “framed place[s]”(p. 209), “translating across disciplines, across academia, across the frame of our empirical data, is always a difficult enterprise” (p. 209)—almost an act of ‘translation,’ between parties that view “representation [as] a key element” (p. 210). Klein uses the term “accommodation” (p. 62) to describe liberal academics’ “contest of definition” amongst “institutional hierarchies.” Acknowledging “institutional culture,” Klien characterized the early 1990s’ culture surrounding interdisciplinary through borrowing George Levine’s comment that a “quiet scandal” existed, regarding the ‘borrowing’ of sources—a situation that may no longer be exactly the case, given our new accessible climate of information.
As presented in this unit’s video example from the University of Wisconsin, interdisciplinarity may be best applied to study and research related to environmental and sustainability initiatives: the physical conditions of our environment, and the preservation of the existing condition of our collective water, air, and earth may serve as a good example of disciplines’ uniting around a common (imperative) principle.

Klein, Julie Thompson.  “Forging Theory, Practice, and Institutional Presence.”  Humanities, Culture and Interdisciplinarity .  Albany:  State U of New York Press, 2005.

Meyer, Morgan. “Increasing the Frame: Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, and Representativity.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 32.3 (2007): 203-12.


One of Jacobs’ biggest charges in his 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education article may come in asking, “is an interdisciplinary structure likely to overcome division and provide a more synthetic understanding of our natural and social world?” Perhaps, in practice, this synthetic understanding, is less useful—as Dr. Piep noted, many “complex issues […] necessitate sub-specialization that perforce leads to academic fragmentation.” Were we to, in theory and reality, “overcome division” through interdisciplinarity, the framework for specialization across disciplines in higher education might upend and transform traditional notions of vocationalism at work at colleges and universities.

Is Interdisciplinarity a banner beneath which the liberal arts and technical-trade communities of educators at work in post-secondary institutions may rally, in theoretical solidarity? Cook-Sather notes Harvard’s 1972 “divorce” of anthropology, psychology, and sociology from a larger ‘umbrella’ Department of Social Relations; as a faculty member in Vermont Technical College’s Department of English, Humanities, and Social Sciences, such streamlining of material not included in any one student’s major (at my school, anyway) can be important and useful, but must be supported by an institution’s administration. My department is responsible for supporting students’ skills of written expression, through flavors of Freshman Composition and Technical Communication, but through offering a diversity of electives as well. Together these academic engagements sum to no “synthetic understanding” of the world, but an application of what our students’ employers have named “soft skills:” the ability to talk about what one has accomplished, its context, history, and to guess at its legacy and impact. Cook-Sather’s work is interesting for its interplay with and statements from “information technologists” and librarians during the 2004 syllabi-revision collaboration that she recounts, finding  that “[…] even if we were to move to a world in which the academic discipline that is assumed to be crucial to the interdisciplinary space is replaced by a wider conception, we are still left with the fact that knowledge production remains in the hands of a like-minded faculty” (Cook-Sather, p. 2). The schisms that exist between disciplines are essential, it seems, in Cook-Sather’s characterization, to interdisciplinarity: we must exist as separate that we may work together. After recounting dictionary definitions of discipline, Cook-Sather notes the challenge at hand for the contextualization of this field of study to be larger than language alone: “there are more than linguistic issues that stand between the interdisciplinarity of today and the way we would like to see it conceptualized” (p. 11).

I concur with a previous metaphor for interdisciplinary collaboration: as water, formless but for its environment, and the nature of its use. The willing and able application of work between disciplines—from one's  work on the environmental legislation to  discussions surrounding the renewed value of visual and creative art to medical doctorate candidates—is useful to discerning the theory of this established academic movement. Jacobs notes nanotechnology, homeland security, and American studies as examples of interdisciplinarity at work in institutions, but stops short of giving  any more claim to “a more unified vision of American culture than those of its closest neighbors, history and English.” An academic pragmatism may question students’ actual use of the “more unified vision” Jacobs sees interdisciplinarity as seeking; the unification of academic realms to achieve a common goal, over the accumulation and re categorization of knowledge, may be a useful criteria for identifying interdisciplinarity. I agree with Cook-Sather, in that this realm of academic study, research, and collaboration, may challenge the common language we use to describe the nature of our work.
Cook-Sather, A. (2007). "Breaking the Rule of Discipline in Interdisciplinarity: Redefining Professors, Students, and Staff as Faculty." Journal of Research Practice.  Retrieved from
 Jacobs, J. (2009). "Interdisciplinary Hype." Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from


There’s something important about Foucault’s rationalization, and how a decentralization of our strata of economic class became more evident in the tragedy that was the federal response to Hurricane Katrina: “something more systemic and deep-rooted was revealed in the wake of Katrina—namely, that the state no longer provided a safety net for the poor, sick, elderly, and homeless” (Giroux, p. 175). Through Giroux’s interdisciplinary lens, the inequities in the delivery of aid to victims becomes a clear characteristic of the federal and state response. Framing criticisms of the Bush administration, Giroux’s portrait of human rights is as dire as possible: “excommunicated from the sphere of human concern, they have been rendered invisible, utterly disposable, and heir to that army of socially homeless that allegedly no longer existed in color-blind America” (p. 175). The group most affected by Hurricane Katrina  was subject to what Giroux called a “new biopolitics of disposability” (p. 175). Do the machinations of our modern industrial complex welcome such disasters; are they profitable?
Foucault presents here not a “theory nor a methodology [but] to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects” (p. 777). Foucault identifies a “general theme” (p. 778) in his research: the legitimization of power, as the subjectification of humans continues across multiple axies. Foucault fears a generalized culture of rationalization, as Carmelita noted, but calls for the analysis of “specific rationalities” (p. 780) in the study of power relations and behavior. In Foucault’s discourse on the “struggle against the forms of subjection—against the submission of subjectivity” (p. 782), I first thought of the subjectification of identity, and perhaps the truly interdisciplinary nature of popular reality television shows like A&E’s Hoarders, Fox’s Cops, and the relic of my youth, America’s Funniest Home Videos. In these, the viewer is made witness to Foucault’s general theme, as the subjectification of the individual in mass media becomes the function of entertainment; a larger study may identify where, within our reality television culture, lies Foucault’s pastoral vision (the “modern matrix” he describes on p. 783). The value judgements that may be assigned to characters help frame and evolve our relationship to media, and how we are collectively willing to make a spectacle of ourselves, or be witness to one.  If subjectification of the individual—a repression of the spirit of not-harmful human expression—is determined by the nature of our participation in society, what we do with and how we apply this, Foucault’s lens of power dynamics becomes ever important.  
I appreciate the description of Foucault as empowering, and I would let Foucault’s phrase “a critical investigation into the thematics of power” to thread through my teaching and curricula. I find Foucault guilty of a selectivity in his argument; his disclaimer as to his intention—not a theory, not a methodology—is important, as Marsha’s discussion and contextualization of the civil rights movement in terms of Foucault’s three types of subjectification highlights the application of a theory as a pragmatic criteria. May us interdisciplinarians—those who seeks to conference-hop, who draw pedagogy from unexpected sources, or who provide new contextualization for important moments in our human history of ethics—maintain a more pragmatic place than any heightened philosophers. It is in our practice, our interactions across traditional structures of disciplines, that we might define how scholarship, and higher education as a whole, may invite and give voice to new paradigms of knowledge, understanding, and power.
M. Foucault (1982). The subject and power. Critical Inquiry, 8(4), 777-795. 

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