Talking interdisciplinarity with Laura Otis

No one has a precise definition of what interdisciplinarity means (except maybe the number-crunchers at the Council of Graduate Schools), but if we had to find an exemplar among Emory faculty, Laura Otis will definitely be one of the first names that comes up. Dr. Otis is the Director of Graduate Studies in the English department. As a graduate student, she transferred from neuroscience to comparative literature, and completed her dissertation under the ILA’s Sander L. Gilman. Currently, she teaches or co-teaches classes like Images, Metaphors and the Brain, Cognitive Science and Fiction and Healing Narratives in the Health Sciences. Her courses are regularly cross-listed in English and Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology (NBB), and between the College and the Graduate School. All of which leaves us convinced Dr. Otis will make a fine leader of the new committee on Interdisciplinary Scholarship and Teaching. We are not without our anxieties, since one purpose of the committee is to set the course for the future of the ILA. Or, at least, to make recommendations.

My department colleague Aaron and I spoke with Dr. Otis today about her plans for the committee. She intends to bring together scholars with a wide range of institutional backgrounds, who have taken part in different kinds of “interdisciplinary” organizations around the world. As for the future of the ILA, ideas the committee will discuss include a group of affiliated faculty from other home departments…a body devoted to visiting scholars and postdoctoral researchers…even a modified PhD program. Nothing remotely official. We emphasized the unique history and departmental culture of the ILA and discussed the precarious position of its visiting lecturers and assistant professors.

We shared several of our fears and frustration and found a sympathetic ear. Specifically, what is the fate of interdisciplinary projects that don’t involve neuroscience, China, or big grants? Is it constraining to insist upon “digital” scholarship without regard to the historical relations between an object of study and technological media? (Or, for that matter, to embrace digital communication with one hand while cutting language programs with the other?) With the ILA in mind, but thinking about all our investments in the liberal arts, we wondered: Does Emory risk replacing an interdisciplinarity rooted in a desire to take account of a messy, multidimensional world for an interdisciplinarity that looks only at the bottom line?

Edited to correct a few minor details and phrases, with Dr. Otis’s input.

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One thought on “Talking interdisciplinarity with Laura Otis

  1. This is great – as students of literature, we are taught to underline words that tend to be weighty, and then look at them long and hard to figure out what exactly carries this weight, and what they are saying beyond their immediate meaning. I cannot stop obsessively underlining every instance of the word “interdisciplinary” and thinking that it can be little more than a stand-in for something that it is not.

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