Dialogue, Education, Humanities, Interdisciplinarity, Universities


Sunday, 11th November 2018
A Chronicle of Higher Education article on English departments, discussing among others Julie Thompson Klein and Jonathan Kramnick (and, btw, I’d love to sit in on a discussion between these two on interdisciplinarity). It is a plea for collaboration, in part, which is something foreign to most humanities scholars, but which I agree would be well worth exploring.
I’m not in an English department, but as a philosopher I recognize the impulse to want to curate cultural significance. We were the ones doing that, in the distant past, before we were moved from the center of the discussion, in ways that anticipated the story told here in this article. We were the ones who suffered from our own success – the trajectory from the division between natural philosophy and moral philosophy toward the proliferation of disciplines today, most of which see little point in engaging philosophy anymore, is one which sees philosophy trying to buttress its claim to centrality in the mission of the university. If literature thinks that it is the beating heart of the university, it is only because it learned from (stole from?) philosophy’s moral mission. And, if the authors of this piece are correct, neither literature nor philosophy are right about these self-conceptions, to the extent that they are still held.

To the extent that there is a take-away from this article, it comes at the end:

The now hackneyed talk of “silos” is one attempt to address the problem of proliferating disciplines that no longer equate with departments. This will not be solved by a reversion to core principles. Humanists have for decades engaged this issue as if it were an intellectual dilemma, as if finding just the right pitch would unify “the humanities” and clarify relations among the disciplines proper to them. It would be good, for a change, to confront the organizational problem head-on.

Scholars disagree about premises, methods, objects, and styles — it’s what we do. If we are to grapple with the university in which those perennial debates take place, however, we need a way to work together with faculty members and administrative colleagues within as well as outside our disciplines.

Cooper and Marx ask for collaboration. Is this like asking for dialogue? And is dialogue really any easier these days in the university than in the rest of society? Perhaps we don’t have the same head-on assault on reason and evidence that we do in politics and the wider culture, but we do have other tensions that make real collaboration very difficult. I know – it’s my job to try to facilitate collaboration, as a co-director of a humanities center. We’re supposed to establish projects and exploratory work not only within the arts and humanities, but beyond them. And I have to say, nothing makes me happier than when I find someone in the sciences or medical fields or other areas who is not only willing to consider that the humanities might have something to contribute to a project other than copy-editing grants and press releases, but is also willing to make their own projects more complicated by including people in the humanities who might raise questions that don’t easily fit into carefully defined categories and terms within their disciplines. These people exist, but they are few and far between.

Past the difficulty of finding collaborators in other disciplines, we also face the demands of upper administrations who structure universities to privilege the short-term over the long, the academic quarterly bottom line over the riskier investigation, the applied over the “pure” (whatever pure is supposed to mean anymore), and the productive over the creative. This is, perhaps, the real difficulty in collaboration – when the university’s infrastructure balloons with offices, procedures, accountability mechanisms, and the like, all intended by well-meaning administrators to facilitate collaboration, but which collectively make it all but impossible, we face the challenge of finding ways to construct new knowledge which does not on the one hand represent a retrenchment of the traditional discipline-bound scholar producing little-read books and articles, or on the other hand represent a trade-off of the good for the possible, as bureaucracies and grant structures come to define what counts as the advancement of knowledge (and at the same time de-incentivizes real risk-taking).

Collaboration is a great thing to talk about, but as with dialogue it is both the precursor to the production of knowledge and also an object of inquiry in itself, in the sense that its conditions are being negotiated and discovered at all times, and it is always a risk. The best collaboration is the one in which no one in the room on day one knows exactly where things will end up, because no one is going to own the concepts, the language, or the methods for engaging something. Everyone is asked to move beyond their comfort zone. I have been on projects like this – they can be exhilarating. And, they hardly ever happen, because there is usually some imperative that gets the conversation going. There’s a reason why places like the Institute for Advanced Study exists, or the Santa Fe Institute, or other places like that – some people realized that the most interesting stuff happens when you fan the flames of real collaboration, and they had the clout to make those visions a reality. This kind of collaboration is almost impossible to duplicate within existing university structures, for both structural and cultural reasons.

So, the request in the article that we “confront the organizational problem head-on” and find a way to “work together with faculty members and administrative colleagues within as well as outside our disciplines” sounds fine, as if we could just snap our fingers and make it happen. But it is on par with the requests to have a dialogue in a fractious society. Aren’t we trying that, all the time? Some are, at least. Some started out unwilling to talk to anyone but those of their own tribe, and some have come to that position, worn out from the effort. There’s no snap of the fingers that will just make all of this better. In fact, much of what English departments were concerned with throughout the 80s and 90s, in what has become derided as “theory”, was precisely the difficulty of the task of dialogue and by extension of collaboration in a world of inequality, in a world of entrenched meanings of words and practices, of politics which operated to preserve the positions of those already in power.

Cooper and Marx aren’t wrong, but their article covers the easy part, and leaves off just when the real work needs to begin. It’s all risky – some of the best people I know are people who aren’t necessarily the superstars in their fields. They have spent most of their time striving to do something unique and creative in a space essentially hostile to it. They might be recognized someday, or they might not. Or, they might lay the groundwork, and someone else might get the credit for doing something truly creative. Real collaboration is risky.

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