Seeing the World by unknow

Seeing the World by unknow

Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9780691158693
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Published: 2017-01-15T07:00:00+00:00


Numbers and Languages

Academics have long mused and often worried about their own intellectual cacophony. Clark Kerr, a chief architect of the California Master Plan for Higher Education, famously remarked that faculty had little more in common with one another than shared grievances about parking. He suggested that the organizational complexity of modern universities succeeded at least in keeping different kinds of scholars side by side.1 At the height of the Cold War, British novelist C. P. Snow cautioned that academics had self-segregated into “two cultures”—one scientific, the other humanistic—harboring reciprocal incomprehension and mistrust.2 The 1980s and ’90s witnessed a swell of calls for collaborative inquiry across disciplinary divides that many view as inimical to revelatory or even relevant scholarly insight.3 Interdisciplinarity is now one of the official goals of US higher education, joining a family of others—usable knowledge, innovation, diversity—that provosts and presidents rarely miss an opportunity to declare.

When American university leaders chose to organize curriculum and research into disciplinary departments at the end of the nineteenth century, they created a system for the reproduction of scholarship that has had deep influence on academic careers ever since. Departmental organization by discipline strongly biases inquiry toward disciplinary abstractions—toward certain kinds of knowledge defined in disciplinary terms. Academics came to presume that their official discourse was primarily and even properly among disciplinary specialists. Other audiences and conversations became secondary. Young recruits to each discipline were encouraged to direct their inquiries neither on higher orders of generality nor on particular problems as they presented in the world beyond the academy. Mentors told them that problems defined in disciplinary vernaculars were the ones most valued by journal editors and faculty hiring committees.4

This system is very good at maintaining cumulative traditions of inquiry over time, but at any given moment the disciplinary bias can inhibit other important things from getting done. University patrons often want to pay for scholarship in the service of real-world problems: cooling the planet, curing cancer, winning wars. This is why administrators do not just talk about interdisciplinarity but actively encourage and enable it. Funders and donors would rarely have it any other way.5

Not-departments have been powerful tools for enabling teaching and scholarship trained on substantive rather than disciplinary problems. They provide a great deal of flexibility to ambitious administrators and entrepreneurial faculty who seek resources from outside the university. Not-departments facilitate intellectual commerce between academic units, providing highly legitimate platforms for communication and collaboration across disciplinary and other kinds of divides. So far we have emphasized how the United States academy’s dual structure of departments and not-departments enables cooperation. But its capacity to do so has limits.

As incarnated by Title VI funding, area studies centers have been paradigmatic instances of the not-department form. Title VI was intended specifically to put disciplinary expertise in the service of geographically focused scholarship that might inform international policy. Yet even while the centers courted humanists and social scientists alike and were ecumenical about method, they have been utilized much more by anthropologists, historians, and humanists than by economists, political scientists, and sociologists.


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