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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

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 Michael on 04/28 at 02:27 PM
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