Tag Archives: interdisciplinarity

Two faculty manifestos

Two distinguished professors, formerly of the ILA (and currently in English, Comparative Literature, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies), have published their thoughts on the meaning and value of interdisciplinary work in the liberal arts in a time of combined austerity and administrative bloat.

First, Walter Reed, laying down some Luther- or Spinoza-inspired “Theses on the Liberal Arts” for Durham University’s Centre for Humanities Innovation:

3.1 Teaching is the transmission of information, knowledge and (ideally) wisdom, either as ends in themselves or as the means to other ends. The traffic moves in both directions on this highway as well—from the masters to the disciples and from the certified professionals to those in training for certification, but also from the disciples back to the masters, from those in training back to the professionals. The balance between teaching and learning is dynamic and inherently unstable….

3.1.3 This dynamism and instability carry over to the relationship between emerging disciplinary specializations (new sub-fields within a discipline) and the disciplines as already established. New specializations both instruct and depend on older ones, though a balanced appreciation of the new and the old is difficult to maintain for those most closely involved. A similar dynamic instability informs interdisciplinary initiatives setting up shop between established disciplines. (Interdisciplinary inquiry is not the same as undisciplined study.)

And Michael Moon comments on “English Departments at a Crossroads”:

What some administrators currently mean by an “English department” seems to me in the main not to be a place or a project that serves the intellectual and professional needs of my students or myself very well. English departments turned out to serve the needs of faculty and students in queer studies for the first twenty years or so of my career in large part because many of them had – often through a process of prolonged conflict and division – turned themselves into major seedbeds of interdisciplinary growth during the 1970s and ‘80s, so that many fields which have since developed in varying degrees into autonomous disciplines, departments, and programs (critical theory, gender studies, lesbian and gay studies, queer theory, film and media studies, the whole spectrum of ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, cultural studies, etc.) spent their first decade or so as emergent academic fields as flourishing sub-projects of this or that English department.

So one feature of the current academic landscape that disturbs me is the relentless shutting-down of anglophone literary studies as the kind of expansive set of interdisciplinary intellectual spaces which they’ve provided at many universities for the past several decades….

Professor Moon’s piece comes courtesy of U to the Rescue, a blog curated by scholar-activist Christopher Newfield.


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David Mullins: Complexity pedagogy must define the university

David Mullins, an undergraduate student of comparative literature and one of the SRC’s most visible representatives, has sent us the text of his presentation at the symposium.

“Complexity Pedagogy Must Define the University”

Many commentators tend to talk about science and math as if they were neatly separable from language, liberal arts, and literature. That we can shorten column B (say liberal arts) and lengthen column A (say, science or business) and then we will have less B and more A. This presentation will argue that this is a bit of a devil’s bargain, and we will end up losing both. We will lose both because something that might be called complexity is both what the liberal arts excel at navigating, and that which underpins breakthroughs in science and business. so it is not that the liberal arts are somehow parasitic on scientific or economic breakthroughs, it’s actually precisely the opposite. That complexity, and creativity in the face of complexity, is the basis of groundbreaking investigation in all three: the liberal arts and the sciences, and economics and that the liberal arts, because they do not have this input/output fixation, this focus on efficiency they are in a privileged position because generally better situated than a Management 101 class to navigate complex systems, which have multiple and sometimes unknowable variables, not just one variable that we might call profit or empirical success, empirical success from the perspective of a rather naieve sort of modern, pre-Einsteinian, pre-quantum physics science.

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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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