'Undisciplining Knowledge'

Author discusses new book that considers both the positive and negative impacts of an interdisciplinary approach.

September 10, 2015

Interdisciplinary is both an idea and a buzzword in higher education. Many professors find that their research and teaching interests take them far afield. But it's hard to find consensus on what the term really means. And some fear a loss of disciplinary knowledge that leads to interdisciplinary work. A new book, Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press), considers what interdisciplinarity really means, and both its positive and negative impacts. The author is Harvey J. Graff, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and a professor of English and history at Ohio State University. He responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: Many people talk about interdisciplinarity (usually praising it) but not necessarily meaning the same things. How do you define it?

A: Interdisciplinarity, much too often, seems to depend on which way the wind is blowing. It is riddled with myths of its novelty, necessity, power or its fallacies and failings. In that, it is very much a sign of our time in higher education, research and the sociology of knowledge. Consequently, it is among the most misunderstood and abused terms in recent years. This is equally true among proponents and opponents. Much writing about interdisciplinarity ignores the issue of definition almost entirely. At the same time, we have endless lists of typologies and almost 57 varieties, ranging from pre- to postdisciplinary, and rather astounding things in between (adisciplinary, antidisciplinary, metadisciplinary, supra-interdisciplinary, omnidisciplinary, transdisciplinary). I am a careful but enthusiastic -- within limits -- supporter and practitioner.

My own approach is historically based. It derives from the mediation between my own experience as an interdisciplinarity scholar, teacher and program builder across several fields and disciplines, and what I learned from studying historical efforts across the sciences, humanities, social sciences and professions, from late 19th- and early 20th-century genetic biology to more recent organizational research, materials sciences, cultural studies and bioscience. There are similarities across fields but there are also key differences. Too often, for example, academic humanities ape outmoded images of large-group, well-funded science.

My definition emphasizes approaches to and efforts at asking questions and solving problems, both old and new ones. It focuses on the development and application of conceptualizations, theories, sources and methods that are drawn from different scholarly areas (that may be disciplines, subdisciplines or different areas of disciplines) and aim at their integration in efforts to develop new approaches and resolve problems in novel ways. In understanding this, I am especially concerned with questions of conceptualization and definition; actual relationships within and across disciplines -- the most critical elements; location of programs and research intellectually and organizationally; and the organization of research and teaching within institutions.

Q: What do you see as the main benefits of interdisciplinarity?

A: Careful, well-grounded and knowledgeable interdisciplinarity can be -- but is not guaranteed to be -- a valuable route to answering important questions and resolving or at least redefining problems, both new and old, large and small. It can propel teachers and researchers toward fundamental and more particular criticism and rethinking. It can lead to new approaches to old questions. It can promote conversations and collaboration, but not require groupthink or group work. It can promote learning if researchers and teachers do their homework and learn at least the basics of the different fields in which they seek to work, integrate and contribute. This is a matter of concept, theory, method, findings and arguments, as they shape and reshape each other. Interdisciplinarity is hard to do well, but worth the effort, even when the results are not the “breakthrough” too often overoptimistically promised.

Q: What are the cautions you have about fully embracing the trend?

A: I am unsure about “the trend.” There is significant concern over and also resistance and criticism of at least some interdisciplinary efforts. Even more important, we must acknowledge that interdisciplinarity is not new. It is rooted in the very development of modern higher education and central to the history of modern research and teaching institutions.

My concerns include the many myths of interdisciplinarity, from assertions of its novelty to confusions over both the structures and operations of disciplines and promoted interdisciplines. Among the confusions that have a palpable consequence in research and education today are failure to distinguish between or to differentiate among general education at the undergraduate and high school level, and advanced research across the disciplines and what I call clusters of disciplines (sciences, humanities, arts, social sciences, professions, etc.)

Even more worrisome to me is faddish, “faux” and unknowledgeable purported interdisciplinarity. This is much too common, as Undisciplining Knowledge shows. It involves taking conclusions from a field (often, at present, cognitive science or evolutionary biology) and “applying” them to almost any other time or place or question with scant concern for the basis of those arguments, their credibility or their relevance. This is imaginary or free-floating interdisciplinarity. It is poor scholarship. And it is harmful to the cause of serious interdisciplinarity. On the other side is the now old condemnation that “interdisciplinarity is impossible because no one can master more than one discipline.” Can anyone “master” one discipline? Regardless, interdisciplinarity is not about “mastering disciplines.” It is about answering questions and solving problems.

Finally, it has become common to oversell and inflate the claims and promises of interdisciplinary research. This is most common but not exclusive to “big science.” It is wasteful and has negative consequences politically, publicly and professionally, as well as intellectually. Especially egregious are the “wars” on medical and social problems, all but guaranteed to fail, with negative consequences for science and scholarship and the public. Yet nonscientists continue to imitate what they believe is the social organization of “big science,” itself often no more than a stereotype or illusion. There is no one organization or approach to interdisciplinarity.

Q: Some college presidents have pointed to interdisciplinarity to justify the elimination of separate disciplinary departments or programs. What do you make of these moves?

A: They are ignorant, ill founded and anti-intellectual as well as an assault on the faculty. They seldom if ever have to do with interdisciplinarity or, for that matter, education. They have to do with cost cutting and failure to share governance. They are not intellectual moves. Eliminating departments and programs must be distinguished from alternatives in the social organization of teaching and research.

Often related is the fashionable practice of renaming and supposedly reorganizing programs, departments, and colleges within universities. Trendy terminology and frequent use of “X and Y” as one unit instead of several mark these efforts. They have been analogized to a “redesigned” or “reinvented” American university. What has really changed other than names? Greater care must be taken. Name and shell games help few of us. Caveat emptor.

Faculty and our representatives, including senior university administrators, need to do a much better job at explaining our work and our needs to the public and politicians.

Q: Can interdisciplinarity thrive without strong disciplines?

A: That, at last, is an easy question! Interdisciplinarity -- of any stripe or variety -- depends on disciplines. Interdisciplinary efforts and disciplines are inseparable. Interdisciplinarity is founded and practiced in relationships among approaches and fields of knowledge. This is a fact of theory and practice, and of the history of higher education. We cannot have one without the other. This fact also shows the limits of the typologies of the “many” interdisciplinarities. We err when we oppose and dichotomize disciplines and interdisciplines.

This is central to the story I tell through a dozen case studies in Undisciplining Knowledge.

Q: Should the interdisciplinary trend change the education of doctoral students?

A: My short answer is yes and no. A full answer requires far more space than I have. Suffice it to say that there should be a firm place for careful, grounded, knowledgeable and relevant interdisciplinarity in all programs. Students should be introduced to the benefits and the complications/contradictions of interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching. This will differ from discipline to discipline and field to field. It will also depend on the knowledge and responsibility of their professors and advisers. It requires that faculty and graduate students be more aware of relevant research and both faculty and students in other programs (which, for example, my Ohio State University LiteracyStudies@OSU program emphasizes).

Interdisciplinarity for the sake of “interdisciplinarity” and for currency or faddishness should be avoided.


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