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Department and punish

A longer followup to yesterday’s post (you knew that was coming, right?).  In comments, FrogProf directed me to this discussion of Mark Taylor’s essay, which takes apart Taylor’s proposal for replacing departments with temporary topic-clusters with seven-year sunset clauses:

I’m at a loss to explain where all these interdisciplinary experts will get their disciplinary expertise. Yes, a significant part of grad school involves exploring new questions. But another significant part—the part he skips—involves getting grounding in the history of a given line of inquiry. Call it a canon or a discipline or a tradition, but it’s part of the toolkit scholars bring to bear on new questions. Abandoning the toolkit in favor of, well, ad hoc autodidacticism doesn’t really solve the problem. If anything, it makes existing grads even less employable than they already are. I need to hire someone to teach Intro to Sociology. Is a graduate of a program in “Body” or “Water” capable? How the hell do I know? (And even if I think I do, can I convince an accrediting agency?) Am I taking the chance? In this market? Uh, that would be ‘no.’

I agree that Taylor’s proposal is unworkable, but I have a tangential-but-related point.  Challenging the departmental structure of universities (whatever you might think of that project) isn’t the same thing as doing away with disciplines.  People elide the two all the time, and it makes me fidget and squirm in my seat and exhale loudly—not least because lots of people in the humanities are responsible for the confusion. Especially those of us in cultural studies.  For a couple of decades now, we’ve prided ourselves on being not merely interdisciplinary but “post”-disciplinary and “anti”-disciplinary.  “Disciplinarity” basically became a dirty word, associated with stodgy, stultifying bureaucracy and, oh yes, punishment (for this I blame Foucault, of course), so that being post- or anti- it seemed like a Good Thing at the time.

But at some point in the late 1990s, while I was just minding my business directing a humanities program (and hey!  check it out! their theme for the 2008-09 year is “disciplinarity”!), it finally occurred to me—well, actually, it occurred to me during a lecture by anthropologist Richard Handler—that 96 or 97 times out of 100, when people complain about “disciplines” they’re actually complaining about departments.  Think of it this way: wherever you see the term “discipline,” substitute “intellectual tradition,” as Dean Dad does in the excerpt above.  Now, what’s coercive or stultifying about an intellectual tradition?  Not much, really.  You want to learn about sociology following Durkheim or Simmel?  Go right ahead.  You want to immerse yourself in the history of object relations theory or ego psychology?  Be my guest.  Disciplines are pretty fluid that way.  For example: let’s say that one of the great literary critics of our era, perhaps one of the founders of queer theory (PBUH), decides one day to engage with the work of Sylvan Tomkins.  Who’s gonna stop her?  You?  The discipline?  I don’t think so.  Or let’s say that a bunch of sociologists, psychologists, rehabilitation counselors, queer theorists, and disability-studies types decide over the course of a couple of decades that Erving Goffman’s work could be really important to them.  Does any discipline have an exclusive claim on Goffman?  Are there intellectual-property statutes involved?  No and no.

Now, I’m not saying that disciplines are infinitely flexible, or that they’re simply a matter of reading this or practicing that; they do indeed have institutional incarnations, and it’s possible for the International Association of Stodgy Stultifiers to bar people from the annual conference program on the grounds that they are no longer “doing” Stodgy Stultifying the way the Association thinks it should be done.  (Not to single anybody out, of course, but surely you remember the days when people would say, “Richard Rorty, PBUH, doesn’t really do philosophy.”) I am, however, saying that (a) disciplines and departments aren’t the same thing, and (b) the former are far more flexible and capacious than the latter.  As for (a): the Department of Anthropology does not consist of one discipline; nor do the Departments of Sociology or History.  The discipline of literary criticism, loose and baggy as it is, is practiced in more than one department: not only in English but in all the modern languages and Comp Lit too.  And English, for its part, houses literary critics and creative writers and rhetoric and composition and sometimes even film scholars (though this “film” fad will surely pass—it’s not really an art form, after all).  As for (b):  becoming interdisciplinary involves training in more than one intellectual tradition; becoming interdepartmental means dealing with a lot of stodgy, stultifying bureaucracy (like figuring out who’s supposed to conduct your pre-tenure reviews and whether a 50 percent appointment translates into 50 percent voting rights).

So the next time someone complains about the constraints imposed by disciplines, ask yourself (or them!) whether they’re not really complaining about the constraints of departments.  And the next time someone claims to be post-disciplinary or anti-disciplinary, ask yourself (but probably not them!) what it would sound like to be “post-intellectual traditions” or “anti-intellectual traditions.” And then pick up a copy of this illuminating collection of essays, which I blurbed enthusiastically some years ago (as Amazon duly notes) for what will now be obvious reasons.

x-posted for xtra feedback.

Posted by on 04/28 at 02:27 PM
  1. All your appointments are now in Bolivarian Studies!

    Nice work with Arlen Specter.

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  03:56 PM
  2. Good point about departments v. disciplines.  I chair a Music Department, and I don’t know how to count the number of disciplines we contain.  (Is conducting a discipline?)

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  04:07 PM
  3. I don’t know if conducting is a discipline, but don’t get me started about that ethnomusicology of yours (actually, I just heard a paper about the influence of cultural studies on ethnomusicology).

    And Colin, I dunno about this Specter you mention.  It’s kind of like getting a paperweight for your birthday—not really what I wanted, but, uh, thanks. . . .

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  04:25 PM
  4. Here’s some comments that I posted over at Tim Burke’s most excellent blog in response to his post on Taylor:

    Tim Burke: Certainly my feeling about undergraduate study in the humanities is that the more directed it is towards onward progression into graduate school, the more it is completely missing the point.

    BB: Yes, humanities education as a preparation for life is rather different from humanities education as a preparation for graduate school.

    Tiom Burke: If you tried to be a public intellectual with a generalist sensibility now, before or after tenure, you’re something of an odd person out–but tenure itself is not what causes that to happen.

    BB: It seems to me that this was one of the issues in play between Larry Summers and Cornel West at Harvard, no?

    * * * * *

    G. Weaire says: I was also annoyed by the nasty swipe at a colleague who thinks that studying Duns Scotus’ use of citations might possibly be worthwhile.

    Yes. The fact of the matter is that intellectual risk is intellectual risk. Tayler made this project sound like old-fuddy-duddyism. Maybe it is. And maybe it’s an exciting project about the circulation of ideas, intellectual influence, and its institutionalization. It’s hard to tell.

    I was just at a conference where I listened to a presentation on paint, chemical dyes, and color reference in late 19th century American literature. Sounds rather specialized and dull, no? NO. It was fascinating.

    * * * * * *

    I’m deeply in favor of doing something about disciplinary rigidity, but I thought Taylor’s remarks were half-baked. I’d like to see him sketch out a 10-year plan that leads from Columbia as it is now to Columbia without departments. Or, if not a 10-year plan, how about a novel in which that happens.

    If you really want to make graduate education and research more fluid you have to allow faculty time for tooling-up in new areas. When you’re tooling-up you aren’t cranking out publications. If you are, maybe you aren’t tooling-up in a deep way. Learning new ways of thinking is difficult.

    * * * * *

    I was on the faculty of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for a number of years (until I failed to make tenure). As some of you may know, it’s a very good school, but nonetheless, it’s a second tier school behind MIT, Cal Tech, and Carnegie-Mellon. One thing that struck me about the place was that interdisciplinarity had a very different valence there from what it had at my undergraduate school, Johns Hopkins, or my graduate school, SUNY Buffalo. Those places had strong departments, as that’s how things are done, but there was interdisciplinary work being done and in recognized centers. This work was regarded as cutting-edge and high-risk.

    Not so at RPI. There interdisciplinary work was regarded as ho-hum and conservative. The bold and the brave craved disciplinary purity. (Note that this was over two decades ago. I don’t know the present mood.)

    Why the difference?

    I don’t really know, but my guess goes like this: RPI was really an engineering school, and the engineering disciplines are practical disciplines. Out in the field engineers in one discipline have to collaborate with engineers from other disciplines because real products, whether they be consumer appliances or 100-story mega buildings, require the coordinated and collaborative efforts of people with many different intellectual skills. So, at RPI interdisciplinarity was the stuff of the work-a-day world, the mundane world. If you’re one of the privileged ones working in the academy, however, you should aspire to disciplinary purity.

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  05:23 PM
  5. Oh, and about the distinction between discpline and department: yes yes yes!

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  05:25 PM
  6. Could we start a “department” for the latest fad “area of study”?  I only ask because I was at a conference this weekend and one of the presenters talked about evolutionary psychology as being, essentially, pop psychology that had little to do with evolution or with psychology.  So, how about Department of Interesting Stuff?  Or maybe Post-Specificity Studies?

    Posted by Derek T.  on  04/28  at  05:29 PM
  7. What, the Department of Elvis Studies is too 1985?

    Posted by Michael  on  04/28  at  07:00 PM
  8. Mm, yes, ethnomusicology.  We actually contain a credentialed ethnomusicologist, teaching an instrument, but our World Music course is taught by a half-timer with a masters degree in not-ethnomusicology. She needs the course to maintain status.  I don’t know if that says anything relevant to the degrees-preparing-one-for-teaching-positions discussion.

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  07:24 PM
  9. Derek: Evolutionary psychology is not to be so easily dismissed. Not with Stephen Pinker continually on the NY Times bestseller list, and not with ev psych (and human behavioral ecology for that matter) raising huge amounts of research funds.

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  11:16 PM
  10. CT:TRoH:22: In the East I rate it as Boston, Pittsburgh or Washington (possibly Carolina)


    [But this other stuff is fascinating. Do go on.]

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  12:03 AM
  11. ad hoc autodidacticism

    My remedial MO, belated and lame as usual.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  04:51 AM
  12. Or maybe Post-Specificity Studies?

    My undergraduate institution had substantial general education requirements.  They wouldn’t let me study anything specific.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  10:22 AM
  13. FrogProf, c’est moi.

    Yes disciplines aren’t departments, but they exist a messy symbiotic relation that makes it difficult to disentangle them. Departments train, hire, and tenure people according to disciplinary standards and thus shape the future of disciplines. So no they’re not the same thing, but the vicissitudes of departmental bureaucracy surely have *something* to do with the (albeit more flexible) character of the disciplines.

    Am I’m not really comfortable substituting “intellectual traditions” for “disciplines,” unless we understand the former term to encompass not merely methods and objects, but also the institutions and practices which determine what those methods and objects will be-including, but not limited to departments, professional organizations, peer editing, publishing, etc.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  10:28 AM
  14. I’m not really comfortable substituting “intellectual traditions” for “disciplines,” unless we understand the former term to encompass not merely methods and objects, but also the institutions and practices which determine what those methods and objects will be.

    Understood, but I hope you take my (heuristic) point about seeing disciplines as intellectual traditions before seeing them as institutional practices.  And my point about how one department can house many disciplines, and how some disciplines can be found in many departments.  Which doesn’t mean they can be disentangled in any easy way.

    Posted by Michael  on  04/29  at  11:09 AM
  15. It’s ye olde Poet OR Propeller-head debate.

    That said most propeller heads, ‘fore they enter the Industrial Military Complex, could use a bit of latin (or at least latinate, spanglish, etc), maybe semester in Henry Miller studies, or Dept. of Interesting Stuff . 

    We here at the College of Henry Miller are proud to announce the scholarship in Cunt Studies goes to.......

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  04/29  at  11:15 AM
  16. Oui oui.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  11:15 AM
  17. JPRS: The Evo-Psychos are not my own particular sparring partner.  It was John Horgan who gave the talk.  Here is a link to a truncated version on his blog.  I personally have far more to say (elsewhere) about the work being done in STS, which is far more entrenched in the academy.  But I’ll leave that for the journals.

    mds: You poor soul.  Let’s petition Michael to change his title to Professor of Post-Sellout Iggy Pop Studies, so that he can teach us all something VERY specific.

    One final thought: given the order of things in the world right now, do economic history scholars have to start talking about post-post-scarcity?!?

    Posted by Derek T.  on  04/29  at  12:08 PM
  18. [Aside: Derek T., did we attend the same conference over the weekend, the one at Stevens Institute?]

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  12:26 PM
  19. [Extra Aside: That was the one Bill!  Did we meet?  I met so many folks… The conference went right to the heart of this discussion over discipline, I think.]

    Posted by Derek T.  on  04/29  at  02:25 PM
  20. [Continuing aside: I looked you up in the program, and notice that you’re from Auburn. I’m guessing you’re the one I told that I’d been to Auburn over a year ago to speak in the Littleton-Franklin series.]

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  03:00 PM
  21. Evo-psych might not be the best exemplar given all of the baggage it carries right now, but I’m curious as to whether there are any patterns to where currently established, but relatively new fields (or at least ones that started out as “interdisciplinary”, as a lot probably do.) got their start and/or first gained academic respectability (and suspect that would often be at different places). What are even good examples? Environmental Studies, Women’s Studies, Neuroscience? Bio-engineering?

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  03:53 PM
  22. Well, JP, here’s a story about “cognitive science.” The term itself was coined by Christopher Longuet-Higgens in 1973. I don’t know when it got its own professional society and journal, probably later in the 70s or early 80s. I know of at least one cognitive science department, at Case Western, and that’s relatively new; Johns Hopkins may also have a cognitive science department, though I’m not sure. For the most part, however, cognitive science exists in colleges and universities as an interdepartmental program, drawing mostly on faculty in psychology, computer science, philosophy, and linguistics.

    The neuroscience story would be interesting as it’s grown tremendously in the last three decades. Are there departments of neuroscience? I’m guessing those would be few and far between. Mostly neuroscience people will be in psych and biology departments, biophysics too. But there’s the medical side as well. Surely neurology departments have neuroscientists, psychiatry too, maybe radiology too (all the brain imaging stuff).

    As for Ev Psych, my guess is that those folks are most likely to be in psychology departments, some in biology departments, and perhaps anthropology (on the physical anthro side).

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  04:11 PM
  23. Wasn’t sure if there were actual departments of neuroscience, but in my role as parent of consumers of college education, I had come across several places that had well-defined undergraduate majors in neuroscience which surprised me a bit (especially several that were small liberal arts colleges).

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  05:16 PM
  24. Well, JP, I have no trouble imaging that neuroscience majors exist at the undergraduate level. The question is whether or not the major is being offered by a traditional department (psych or biology most likely), a neuropsych department, or is an interdepartmental offering. I find the 1st and 3rd most likely, but I don’t really know. The existence of an undergrad neuropsych department would be interesting.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  06:49 PM
  25. Looking at it a bit closer, I see that although the departments are not big; Amherst, Carleton and Oberlin look like they have separate departments and staff for neuroscience, and Oberlin and Amherst awarded 15 and 14 degrees respectively in 2007. (I’m sure there are much bigger undergrad programs at some of the research universities.) Not a big deal, just an example that I found a bit surprising in the degree that it looks to be established.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  08:18 PM
  26. Yes, Bill, we did meet.  Sorry, it was quite the (informative) whirlwind weekend.

    And I live with a clinical psychologist...she tells me that evolutionary psych is not taken that seriously among practitioners of the psych disciplines.  I don’t know exactly where they rank next to, say, Dr. Phil, probably not that low, but still not central to psychology.  Of course, cognitive is another matter entirely.  “Cognitive” is an important part of the psychology curriculum, and probably many others.  I reserve any qualitative statements, though.  And whether or not it is its own department anywhere I couldn’t testify to.

    Posted by Derek T.  on  04/29  at  08:30 PM
  27. Derek, “cognitive psychology” and “cognitive science” are not the same thing, with the former predating the latter; cognitive psych was well-recognized before “cognitive science” was coined. There are nuances. Somewhere on the web you’ll find the philosopher Jerry Fodor pointing out the most cognitive psychologists have not yet gotten on board with cognitive science.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  08:57 PM
  28. mark taylor is terrible.  i can’t believe he won, and i sure can’t believe anybody would pay to hear him.  he’s so obviously shallow and unoriginal, and i much prefer kat mcphee or kelly clarkson or even clay aiken.

    oh, mark taylor?  sorry, i thought you said taylor hicks.

    Posted by skippy  on  04/30  at  03:31 AM
  29. Humor, the divine butcher as Padre Corso yawped once. 

    Does a Pinker offer something beyond what the french professor provides, or what neurology people do?  (could Stevie conjugate preterite of ser y estar, o etre et avoir?un f-n likely)

    The proliferation of disciplines--er, the balkanization of disciplines--should not be assumed to be valuable in itself.  Pynchons, not Pinksters.

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  04/30  at  10:52 AM
  30. It can be really difficult to maintain this whole discipline/department distinction.  It’s like they’re overlapping sets, or something:

    The interdisciplinary research programs of Yale neuroscience faculty are central to Yale’s Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program (INP).

    Absolutely central, I tell you!

    This unique, broad-based training program can best be described as a “department without walls,”

    Of course, as has been pointed out already, an interdisciplinary/interdepartmental program is actually the default, and it’s separate neuroscience departments that are the standouts.  But “usual” doesn’t read as well as “unique.”

    The training program draws on the knowledge and expertise of 99 faculty members, representing 20 departments in both the Faculty of Arts and Science and the School of Medicine, ranging from psychiatry to pharmacology, from cell biology to computer science.

    Okay, that’s pretty interdepartmental, all right.

    Although each faculty member has strong department affiliations,

    Oh, I’ll bet.

    the INP faculty functions as a cohesive and collaborative unit

    Oh, I’ll bet, sarcastic remix version.

    But at least

    The INP seeks to produce neuroscientists with both specialized knowledge and a broad-based understanding of the discipline.

    pays lip service to the toolkit.  The thing is, after a very small number of common core courses, the students are free to run off in any direction, be it neuroimaging, behavioral neurocience, cell signaling, etc.  So it’s still not entirely clear to me what’s gained by this particular arrangement, as opposed to, say, studying with a neuropharmacologist in the pharmacology department.  Especially given how physically separated the School of Medicine is from the relevant components of Arts and Sciences.  Meaningful ongoing interdisciplinary communication is often difficult to achieve during graduate school in the sciences; heck, getting adequate fresh air is a problem.

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  11:47 AM
  31. It might be interesting to compare an interdisciplinary field that ultimately failed to hold together with some that succeeded.

    I think that cybernetics is a good case in point. It was hugely trendy in the 50’s and early 60’s. And it wasn’t just an empty fad, the folks who considered themselves “cyberneticists” produced many significant advances and solid results. Not to mention, I believe, the government was pretty enthusiastic and eager to lend financial support.

    And yet the field ultimately vanished and was subsumed by other disciplines. The major results from cybernetics are now considered part of information theory, or statistical mechanics, or control theory or whatever. There aren’t departments and graduate programs in cybernetics, even though it was once envisioned that they would become widespread.

    Compare this with biochemistry or neuroscience or biophysics, all of which have become stable stand alone disciplines.

    My uneducated, amateur sociologist of science guess to explain the difference would be that there was no body of technique specific to cybernetics. To work in the field you needed you needed a solid background in math and/or physics, and you can get that from the math and physics departments.

    With, say, biochemistry or biophysics, much of the day to day work involves techniques and concepts that you just wouldn’t learn in a traditional chemistry of physics curriculum.

    I’m not sure whether this example is at all relevant to interdisciplinary work in the social sciences or humanities.

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  01:18 PM
  32. Well, there’s semiotics. My impression is that semiotics is often a topic in some other course, or a course or two in some department. They’ve got professional societies and journals, and perhaps an interdepartmental program or three. But if there are departments, they’re more likely in Europe than North America.

    I’d say the problem with semiotics is that it tried to become a Theory of Everything (especially under Indiana’s Thomas Sebeok, hence the pejorative term “sebeotics").

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  01:31 PM
  33. Thanks for the clarification, Bill. I was conflating the two in my mind.

    Posted by Derek T.  on  04/30  at  02:02 PM
  34. You’re welcome, Derek. I don’t know when cognitive psychology became a recognized subfield of psychology. I’m guessing the middle or late 50s, more or less when cybernetics was kicking up its heals. Some cognitive psychologists went on to align themselves with cognitive science, but not all of them. And cognitive science picked up philosophers, linguists, and computer scientists as well.

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  02:15 PM
  35. Hmmm, sorry to interrupt the tea party.  But as a gender studies person, I love departments.  I love *my* department, English.  Why?  Because I’m watching the “programs” proliferate, all of which draw upon faculty in the departments’ completely unremunerated and unacknowledged labor for seminars, committee work, and advising.  These non-department interdiscipline thingies have another name: speeding up the work process.  F--- that, I say.

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  10:05 PM
  36. I hear you, Beth, and I think things would be vastly different if the programs had the power to hire and tenure.  Because right now, yes, they’re parasitic on departments, and we do unremunerated labor for interstitial interdisciplinary thingies while picking up our (big fat hairy!) paychecks in departments.  But mightn’t that be the case because departments have arrogated to themselves all the power of the purse?

    Posted by Michael  on  05/01  at  10:05 AM
  37. Oh, and just last month I learned what a “tea party” is.  Revolting!

    Posted by Michael  on  05/01  at  10:07 AM
  38. I think some of what Beth has observed can arise from what I was (very obliquely) getting at in my rambling neuroscience program comment.  Too often, it seems that interdisciplinary efforts do not arise from the bottom up, as like-minded faculty seek one another out to share knowledge and other resources for tackling problems of common interest.  Rather, there is a top-down corraling of people from disparate departments into programs based on the view that “interdisciplinary” is one of those sexy terms like “synergy.” I suspect that many of those Neuroscience faculty wouldn’t even recognize one another.

    Another anecdotal example: my final graduate program was in a Biophysics department.  The faculty came from a variety of disciplines, and both faculty and students were a small enough group, sharing the same area, that most people knew and communicated with everyone else.  If one needed to attack a problem from a different angle, one knew whom to call.  Then, one day, the new CEO (already a bad sign in academia) decided that we needed “synergy,” and that there were too many departments.  So Biophysics was acquired by Biochemistry in a hostile takeover, because he’d seen that most schools combined those two.  Whereupon the more physiology-minded faculty jumped ship promptly, and many of the rest looked for greener pastures in a few years, given that Biochemistry faculty were entirely uninterested in our intellectual tradition or methods.  So by historical accident and “bottom-up” networking, a department had already achieved an interdisciplinary happy place, which was actively destroyed by a “top-down” imposition of a model which yielded little-to-no interdisciplinary rewards to students or faculty.  Yet now they could brag about the breadth of disciplines represented by the new departments.  And that’s when I abandoned statism for left-libertarianism.  Seriously, though, I now have grave doubts whenever someone says, “Here’s what X institution should do.” Even when they’re not as obviously concussed as Taylor.

    Posted by  on  05/01  at  12:40 PM
  39. Tea party? That would be like an Ivy League literature FAC, n’est ce pas, with say Hostess Barbara “Babylonia” Johnson and her pomo palsies.

    Maestro Berube sounds more apparatchik-like with each post......... at least he quoted Quine once in a while on the old blog . (I mean that in good way of course MB)

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  05/01  at  01:53 PM
  40. He sounds more like a pre-meal drink?  (But not a gin and tonic, because that would still contain Quine.)

    Posted by  on  05/01  at  02:07 PM
  41. You have some other definition for “apparatchik,” Doc MDS? Cyrillic I do not know, but most of us ‘mericans use it as synonymous to like marxist- bureaucratic puerco, or something, or just east coast literati as a whole. 

    The philosophy of WVOQ Quine may have had certain shortcomings, but his logico-naturalism does, arguably, prevent the proliferation of bureaucratese and excessive lit-speak for that matter.

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  05/01  at  02:20 PM
  42. I am happy to say that with regard to the charge of having quoted Quine, I am completely innocent.

    Posted by Michael  on  05/01  at  04:22 PM
  43. "Yields complete innocence of having quoted Quine when appended to its quotation” yields complete innocence of having quoted Quine when appended to its quotation.

    Posted by  on  05/01  at  06:14 PM





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