Thursday, March 31, 2011

Stifling minds: a pettiness of academies

My university is a bit of a Frankenstein. It can be loosely split into two groups, one being comprised of traditional disciplinary departments and faculties (e.g. philosophy, sociology, English, etc) and the other an often unwieldy cluster of "interdisciplinary" faculties containing objectively interdisciplinary departments. They don't. They are simply departments containing scholars of different disciplines who do not necessarily work together. For example, it is very hard to get a neoclassical economist fond of calling sociologists "Leninists" to work with one, or vice versa. Or to watch another respected scholar invited to a panel discussion after a guest lecturer critical of their orientation, show up late (missing the guest lecturer), and loudly and rudely dismiss the guest and refuse even to engage the material.

I've got a very bright friend. She is a natural and instinctive intellectual, is quite literally leaps and bounds ahead of her masters level peers and has at times a much better grasp of the material than some of her professors. But she's stuck. She's moved disciplinary departments twice so far because her thinking began to challenge the intellectual climate of her previous department. For example, she got her hand slapped in _____ because she started linking the abstract dead white guy material to contemporary 'real world' issues, and attempted to bring in dead Asian guy and living person material. "That's not what we do here," they told her before returning to their abstracted circular debates about Kant and Nietzsche. So she moved on to another humanities department and is finding herself in the same boat: "This is not ___" she is being told once again. In the midst of all this, she has managed acquire two to three times the course requirements for thesis based masters, and at least the requirement for a course based masters. She really ought to be doing a PhD, but a PhD at this university in that sort of environment would wreck her. Me too for that matter.

If she wants to move again, the new department will likely make her take all their course requirements, and then complete a thesis which basically means starting a whole new masters. They won't count her baker's dozen 500 to 700 level courses and her perfect GPA. They will tell her she doesn't qualify by their metrics and extract money and mind from her while indenturing her to their department. She is competent enough that she could challenge most courses at better than par if they gave her a week with the assorted syllabi.

At heart, I might describe my friend as an interdisciplinary theorist. The sort of person who is intuitively able to recall and draw on a rich and vast knowledge of social and philosophical theory, describe the linkages, and apply it with nuance to real-world challenges.

Unfortunately, my university, which seems to make great hay about the need for interdisciplinary thinkers and attracting the brightest minds does not practice what it preaches. Graduate school, which ought to be an enriching home such people, is beset by the credentialist mindset which, through course work and other formalities, seeks to equalise the playing field (and I suspect fund itself). This state of affairs, sadly, caters to the average and the brighter students suffer. There is no flexibility built into the system, and the academic culture seems to thrive on maintaining anachronistic boundaries of thought. For example, I know of a highly specialised department in what must be its 2nd or 3rd multi-year attempt at securing a name change reflective of what that department actually does. Past attempts have been quashed by the traditional departments which saw this is some sort of threat.

I recently presented at a very fulfilling interdisciplinary conference in the US attended by world class scholars (e.g. a recent Nobel economics winner) and the top minds in my field.  I was struck at how open the natural and social scientists were with each other. We attended each others paper presentations, commented, challenged, and questioned each other, but no one stood up and told anyone they couldn't say something because they weren't a ___ologist. No one said "that's not what we do here". I was surprised at how, as the only social scientist speaking at one of my sessions, the natural scientists engaged my material and I was approached by several later. That wouldn't even happen in my own department!

The contrast between the institutional climate my friend and I live in, and the vision espoused by places like Arizona State University, couldn't be greater:

Knowledge knows no boundaries. The core disciplines are but one element of our intellectual identity. The traditional disciplinary organization of universities may not be the optimal way to organize knowledge, or to organize the institution itself, or to teach students, or to solve the social, economic, and technological challenges confronting institutions in the regions in which they are located. Accordingly, I encourage teaching and research that is interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary. I encourage the convergence of disciplines, where appropriate, a practice that might more accurately be described as intellectual fusion. Programs that involve multiple departments and schools, that bring together scholars from different disciplines, have unique strengths. In order to overcome the limitations inherent in traditional scholarship, I would like to see ASU undertake strategic recombinations of complementary academic units to create programs that both maximize core strengths and facilitate the creation of new knowledge. ASU already has a number of such programs and schools, and has built a tremendous base of convergence, particularly in the sciences and the arts. These programs represent intellectual fusion at its best. The motivation in creating interdisciplinary programs is not to eliminate disciplines as we know them, or to transform core fields, but rather to advance knowledge in the face of its rapidly changing nature, the explosion of new knowledge that characterizes the academy in recent decades. It is no longer adequate to neatly equate disciplines with departments. Rather we must think in terms of programs comprised of disciplines construed across departments and schools.
I recently heard a member of our political science faculty lament that no other department of political science can “out-Michigan Michigan.” In response I would suggest that we would rather wish to “out-ASU ASU,” and to build a department with its own unique strengths, and its own connections with other disciplines at ASU, focused on problems of regional importance. By encouraging intellectual fusion, both core departments and interdisciplinary programs at ASU will become greater than the sum of their parts.
Unfortunately, such a vision needs people with open minds willing to embrace it. Not petty, jealous, and often rudely condescending professors who view other modes of thought with contempt.  It needs people willing to transgress disciplinary in-group boundaries. People willing to thwart the gang mentality that others those not like them. People open to challenge and willing to drop the jargon that acts as a boundary to understanding. People willing to read widely, and go where the thought and data take them. People willing to take someone like my friend and say, "yes, wow, that's amazing, we need people like you!" instead of telling her she's not wanted because she doesn't fit some archaic and rigid institutional paradigm.

Hard to find these people here.

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