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Thoughts on the end of disciplines

Three things have made me think about disciplines lately. First, some colleagues and I got a substantial amount of money to create a laboratory for a Working Group in Digital and New Media. Next, I've been invited to give a talk next week at our library here that would animate in some way the work of the Working Group. And finally, I've been reading Louis Menand's new book of essays called The Marketplace of Ideas , and it has two chapters that deal with various issues facing the disciplines. All of this is topped off by a buzz on campus about synergistic activities.

I have three thoughts on the role of disciplines within the academy:

1. Menand has caused me to think through the origins of disciplines again and their link to the professionalization of the university and academic professions at the turn of the century. He pointed out, quite rightly, that the creation of professional disciplines from fields of study depended in part on an industrialized view of knowledge production. In particular, he tied professionalization and the emergence of disciplines to the division of labor within market economies (as well as toward the university's role in creating a more democratic society). In this way, Menand has argued little different from P. Novick in his work, That Noble Dream. Menand goes on to emphasize how these professionalized disciplines then created complex and exclusionary systems designed to provide credentials for participants in these emerging professional disciplines; the most obvious credential even today is the Ph.D., but there are a whole series of less obvious mechanisms that also exert control over access to academic life.

2. Menand also points out — and he's not unique here — that over the last 40 years activity within the disciplinary themselves have challenged the foundation of disciplinary integrity. Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and scholars throughout the social sciences and humanities have increasingly come to rely on epistemologies that increasingly reject an industrial view of knowledge production. In its place, scholars like Michael Herzfeld have looked to craft production and the practice of artisans to understand how embodied knowledge is passed down from scholars to students. Such distinctly pre-modern modes of production have traditionally produced highly integrated systems of embodied knowledge that, while every bit as specialized, are far less fragmented and discourage the division of labor. This epistemological disjunction between the methods and goals of the academy and the methods and goals of the individual disciplines has pushed some area of study into a kind of post-disciplinary status where eclectic, post-modern, and extensive systems of knowledge within traditional disciplinary fields challenge of the overarching model of the modern university.   

3. The result of this is a kind of hybrid academy which relies upon both disciplinary and post-disciplinary approaches to function. As so many hybrids, this is an especially destabilizing state of affairs. Pressure to be inter/trans/cross disciplinary is, in effect, pressure to undermine the traditional boundaries established to preserve the professional integrity of disciplinary authority. In other words, it asks us to conceive of authority in the academy in a different way. The cynic in me recognizes that undermining disciplinary authority plays into the hands of administrators who increasingly assert the privilege of speaking for the Institution of Higher Learning. As we undermine the foundation of the disciplines within the university, our authority will increasingly come to rest not on professional expertise but on the strength of the institution as the source of authority. This is bad because it puts more power in the hands of local administrators and takes it away from the broader community of professionals. The less cynical side of me, however, sees the break down of traditional disciplinary barriers as a step toward a more democratized form of knowledge. As with all processes of democratization, this will involve ceding authority and this will inevitably involve the sacrificing of some kind of privilege. This is never an easy pill to swallow for any group, and it might even be harder from academics in traditional humanities fields who feel that they have already sacrificed so much and do what they do for so little (money, respect, authority, et c.).

Ok, back to work on my paper for this afternoon!

Categories: Academia
  1. February 24, 2010 at 9:13 am

    A bunch of F&M faculty are starting a Menand reading group in March. I’m looking forward to reading it.

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