Saturday, November 22, 2014

Interdisciplinarity is the Utopian Dream of an academic culture whose time is rapidly running out

I was looking around over at danah boyd’s joint, apophenia, and came across an old post: identity crisis: the curse/joy of being interdisciplinary and the future of academia. Ah yes, by all means interdisciplinary, what’s not to like?

The Romance of Interdisciplinarity

Here’s the penultimate sentence of her first paragraph: “The last big explosion was really the French scholars circling around in 1968.” Well for me the year is 1966, that’s when much the same group of French scholars landed at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore at the (in)famous structuralism conference. While I didn’t attend the conference – wouldn’t have done me any good, as I don’t speak French – I was at Hopkins at the time and one of the conference organizers, Dick Macksey – though in those days it was “Dr. Macksey” – was my mentor.

And here’s the opening sentence of boyd’s last paragraph: “So, if i think about what the next revolution in academia will be, it will have to be interdisciplinary.” But, you see, that 1966 structuralism conference was sponsored by Ford Foundation money and that money was specifically interested in interdisciplinarity. That’s what that conference was about. And that’s what the newly-founded Humanities Center, which hosted those Frenchmen, was about.

How is it, then, that forty years after that conference danah boyd is looking to the ever-lovin’ future for interdisciplinarity? If interdisciplinarity really was the future, as seen from 1966, why is it still the future, both in 2005 (when boyd published that post) and even near the end of 2014 as I sit here at 6AM writing this post?
Question: What happened to the interdisciplinary future?

Answer: It’s floated down the river Styx into the 19th century past.
There has in fact been a great deal of interdisciplinary work since 1966, but it’s just not reflected in the names of academic departments. What you have are interdisciplinary centers of all kinds. Each draws on faculty from several departments and picks up funding wherever spare change drops off departmental tables here and there. But these “centers” don’t have the power to confer degrees. That power still remains with the academic departments, and they’re a legacy of 19th century academia.

What we have, then, is departments that are still committed to traditional avenues of investigation and still, for the most part, cranking out scholars most of whom see little choice but to color within those lines. But you also have folks like boyd, or Mark Changizi, or even a Steven Pinker who don’t play by those rules and consequently are frustrated. Boyd’s not in academia – or only marginally so – Changizi left a couple of years ago; and Pinker spends half his time writing for the general educated public.

Of course, boyd knows this.

A View from Engineering

Now, let me give you a different take on interdisciplinarity. My only academic job was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, aka RPI. RPI was then (70s-80s) and as far as I know still is, a second-tier science and engineering school. It is very good, yes, but it’s not MIT or Caltech nor perhaps even Carnegie Mellon. Another thing about RPI back then – I don’t know about now – is that the sciences played second fiddle to engineering. That’s not how things are at MIT or Caltech, where the scientific disciplines are every bit as important as the engineering disciplines.

The peculiar thing about RPI, at least back then, is that the faculty didn’t see interdisciplinarity in the utopian future the way they did at Hopkins or at SUNY Buffalo (where I did my PhD). At those places interdisciplinarity was something much to be desired. Not at RPI.

Why not? I wondered, why aren’t these folks caught up in the wonderfulness of interdisciplinarity? I don’t really know, but my best guess hinges on the fact the RPI was primarily an engineering school dedicated to sending young engineers out into the so-called real world to build things.

Well, building things in the real world is an inherently interdisciplinary activity. Toasters aren’t built of electrical circuits alone; automobiles run on more than wheels; and you need more than concrete to support a skyscraper. If you want to build things, you have to collaborate with people in disciplines other than your own. That’s just how the world is.

And if you’re on the faculty of a second-tier engineering school, the way you hold yourself above the muck and mess of the real world is that you adopt disciplinary purity as your utopia. That’s what I think was going on at RPI.

So, where’s utopia? In disciplinary purity or in interdisciplinary fecundity? I’ll tell you where it is, no-where. NO. F**KING. WHERE. Which, BTW, is what “utopia” means: from the Greek ou ‘not’ + topos ‘place.’

What Happens to the Dinosaurs?

Where, then, are we now? I don’t know. What I do know is that the world is changing in deep and fundamental ways. The academic world that I entered in the mid-1960s won’t survive past the middle of this century. Sure, many of the specific schools and research centers will still exist in some form, but they’ll be functioning in somewhat different ways, many of them in somewhat reduced circumstances.

Note, however, that there is a valid underlying logic to disciplinary specialization. The road to truth is to discern patterns in masses of detail. Without the masses of detail the patterns are empty nothings – and there’s plenty of that floating around in interdisciplinary academia – e.g. semiotics, systems theory, and areas of cognitive linguistics. The problem, though, is that there is no way to divide the world into piles of detail such that all the worthwhile patterns can be found in one or at most two closely related piles.

What happens is that once any one pile has been organized into patterns one starts bumping into patterns that want to stretch over into a neighboring piles of details. Even worse, as piles become organized into patterns, we begin finding details we never dreamed of, details that don’t fall into any of the existing piles. What do we do with them?

In principle computers give us the means to sift through and reorder piles of detail. But who’s going to direct that activity? That’s where the problem lies, in the minds of the researchers. I see no way to solve that problem but to create new forms of social organization, at least some of which will be mediated by online communities of various kinds.

As I never tire of pointing out, the Catholic Church was the institutional center of Western intellectual life during the Middle Ages. Along comes the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution and the Church is pushed to the side. It didn’t disappear, but it was no longer the institutional center of thinking: teaching and research.

The world is now again changing, and as deeply as the West changed back then. New institutions will arise to side-line the current university system. Indeed, they are arising even now, we just don’t recognize them as such. For at the moment they are still small and weak, like little mammals, while the universities are dinosaur-like in size and resource consumption.

And we know what happened to the dinosaurs, don’t we?


  1. I think that nothing stops elites maintaining obscure initiation rights into their secrets. I fear that academic/publishîng/political cartels have strong motivations and weapons to maintain power.

    Dinosaurs were less resourceful.

  2. Our local Godzilla certainly is getting out of hand gobbling up land, destroying communities etc.

    On a land grab, difficult to get planing for community things like schools as the uni wants the land so massive delays, balance in housing, rather than having the traditional mix of all social classes (and this is a really old thing here) and the integration and learning that brings, turning into a giant dorm for the vast ever expanding debt farm down the road.