Saturday 30 January 2010

The Plenary Speech

Joe Moran 'Interdisciplinarity: Problems and Possibilities'

Having graduated from a 'rather dry' first degree in history, he decided to do a masters course in English. At 1991, he ended up in Sussex, which at that time had a hugely high powered and 'glamourous' interest in theory. Moving into American Studies showed him a different model of interdisciplinarity, which was more grounded and local than the English department.

He realised that he wanted to apply this grounded approach to his own country, and while he still teaches American Studies, his publications and links have enabled him to establish thematic courses which cross the boundaries between literature, cultural theory and history.

He doesn't consider his work 'theorised' interdisciplinarity, but he does see his work as naturally eclectic. He hasn't made what you might term an intellectual commitment to the rather strange idea of a discipline of interdisciplinarity, rather, he considers himself accidentally interdisciplinary. It is just what he is.

His book, Interdisciplinarity, argues that people have used the term without really thinking about what it means. Everyone knows why it is supposed to be a good thing, being able to de-ossify established hierarchies and transcend traditional exclusions and limitations.

Wikipedia has identified 42 (yes, the ultimate number) disciplines. It is ironic that a form that has been lauded and vilified for being the ultimate in 'hodgepodge' gives such a definitions.

But what does the term actually mean?

Disciplinarity refers both to a body of practice or knowledge, a recognised mode of learning, but also control. One of the earliest referals was 'The Discipline of the Secret'. The critique of the 'disciplines' for their exclusivity and boundedness is longstanding. But the term 'interdisciplinarity' was first used in the social sciences in the 1920s.

Partly, it is related to the search for a more generalised, all inclusive way to knowledge, but it also relates to what can be known, and the methods by which it can be found. In this, it relates to epistomology. The more evangelical mode of interdisciplinarity can be used to break down these boundaries and enclaves of study.

What is studied in universities is, as ever, a political problem. In recent years there has been a backlash against interdisciplinarity's claims to be more transgressive and inventive than other modes of thought. Bill Readings, in 'The University in Ruins' challenged the grandiose claims made by many proponents of interdisciplinarity. He suggested that it could be related to the market oriented university's aims of commercial growth and the quest for a rather nebulous idea of 'excellence'. Merging departments into interdisciplinary studies is related, in a North American context, to cost cutting and university administration.

Many have been concerned that a move straight into interdisciplinary work results in over eclectisism and an intellectual free for all. However, many of these critiques recognised the potential benefits of the idea - but they also recognised it's limitations. They seemed to consider that it represented the future of intellectualism, but recognised that individuals really needed to understand those disciplines that they were crossing.

The concerns of Reading and others are now being felt outside North American. Thomas Docharty, writing in the Times Higher, claims that interdisciplinarity can be traced back to the radical 1960s assumption that disciplines were hindering, blinkered, and needed breaking down. Interestingly, interdisciplinarity has now become part of the establishment. Strange, isn't it, how that happens? The desire to break down boundaries is not always about liberation. Revolutionary ideas have been appropriated for the advantages of the cultural denziens and those in power.

Current fashions for thematic 'sandpits', and interdisciplinary partnerships, especially amoung the research council can actually be rather limiting. There is, Docherty argues, nothing wrong with disciplinarity in itself. Interdisciplinarity has been appropriated for its own sake, not because of any external value. It's hard for an individual to be 'interdisciplinary'. There's a reason for the 'artifice' of the disciplinary model.

Stanley Fish has called for literary critics to become more disciplinary. These calls are now being made by less conservative people, such as the Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton.

Hardly any of the students that Joe has taught had learned the same kind of literary criticism that he did. They conduct content analyses - and what gets left out is the literary element. They do not write why poets choose to write in a form where the lines do not reach to the ends of the page. Eagleton blames, not interdisciplinarity itself, as much as Capitalism. If capitalism is a place in which 'all that is solid melts into air', we need more disciplinarity.

But many of these criticisms overestimate the decline of disciplines, Joe argues. This is espeicially apparent in this country, where centralised funding and the difficulty of getting a job without being located within a discipline. League tables, Research Excellence Frameworks, reviews and performance indicators reproduce and market recognised degrees and departments - and indeed are often controlled by individual disciplines. Peer review remains the most important form of recognition. In a competition to sell degrees to the undergraduate market, and the marketability of individuals to the graduate market depends very deeply upon specific, disciplinary, almost commercially recognised characteristics.

It is true that the research, especially theoretical, of departments spans disciplines. It is true that the technological advances of the recent years and the rise in the digital humanities has served to change ideas about the boundaries of disciplines. But disciplines still exist within these.

Interdisciplinary work still needs a home. It needs a place in which to site itself so that it can truly move beyond that. If you have no identity, you cannot combine with something else without becoming that thing. Identities are what make us individuals and surely, what makes us interdisciplinary is our ability to bring together and celebrate those differences for mutual benefit, without loosing that sense of the self.

Joe has a blog here!