This was going to be a short post about a couple ideas from a single article. It … became more than that. I have not sat with some of these ideas for long, so they may be full of obvious holes, mistaken assumptions, and barmy conclusions. (“Barmy Conclusions” is my stage name.) There are definitely ideas that need to be more fully fleshed out, connections that need to be made, metaphors that need to be replaced or at least reconciled with each other. I offer this here as a moment of thinking and with the hope that it will inspire some other moments of thinking for readers. (Heraclitus: “The river we stepped into is not the river in which we stand.”)
In The New Yorker, there is a long and depressing article titled “The End of the English Major” by Nathan Heller, an article that explores the fast decline in enrollment in English majors and classes at schools throughout the United States. It’s well researched, and doesn’t entirely fall into the standard media trap of basing all its ideas on things happening at the famous wealthy schools that do not educate the majority of American students. (Like Heller, most reporters for influential media outlets like The New Yorker went to those famous and wealthy schools, and most such reporters seem incapable of understanding that their experience does not translate to that of the majority of college students or faculty.) Though Heller writes of his own experience at Harvard and interviews students and faculty from that place, he also spends good time at Arizona State and gets quotes from people at schools that reflect the more common student experience in the U.S.
Much can and will be said about Heller’s article, which is not only about the decline of the English major per se but about the decline of the humanities, the quantification of everything, and perhaps the complete death of intellectual culture. (Fun!) However, my own interest was drawn to two ideas, perhaps because they are directly applicable to my own school’s situation. Those ideas are disaggregation and making. If there is hope for the humanities, and for intellectual work generally, these two ideas might help us find it.
Heller draws the idea of disaggregation from Robin Kelsey, an art historian who is also Harvard’s dean of arts and humanities whose goal is to “disaggregate what departments do”. The idea is one familiar to contemporary higher education — my own school officially got rid of “departments” in a (continuing) effort to do something like this. Since departments are human constructs created, in the way we currently understand them, in the late 19th century, and brought into their most recognizable form in the 20th, they are ripe for remaking. I am myself pretty much neutral on the question of departments and disaggregation. Administrators tend to like the idea because they see it as a way to save money: if you take the Department of Things and meld it with the Department of Stuff, you can get rid of all the staff necessary for the two departments and have one single Department of Things & Stuff! This is the concept of consolidation beloved of many business gurus. It may sometimes work, but in my experience it is a nightmare of unforseen consequences, with all sorts of institutional knowledge lost.
This does not mean disaggregation is a bad idea. What we need to do is start thinking about what we are disaggregating, what the units are, and how we might re-aggregate in exciting and productive ways.
Often in these discussions — at least the discussions I’ve been part of — we forget what the basic units we’re talking about are. Let’s start there: credit-bearing experiences. Most of the time, these are classes. They can also be internships, practica, independent studies, etc. A modern and effective school needs its credit-bearing experiences to be highly diverse while also maintaining the academic integrity of both the experiences and the institution.
Then we have the students, the receivers of credit, and the faculty, the granters of credit. (I know that some schools have systems in place for students to receive credit in other ways than just a faculty member in some way or another granting it. There’s much to be discussed there, but I am wary and skeptical. I think one of the strengths for any academic institution, and for academic freedom generally, is that the people granting credit are the faculty. I would understand if you think I am nostalgic for the idea of The Faculty as a body. I kind of am.)
We organize faculty into departments and disciplines because of shared objects of study, shared vocabularies, shared methodologies, and shared epistemologies. These are scholarly affiliations and not necessarily administrative ones. However, they become administrative when questions of evaluation and promotion come up. There is significant difficulty in evaluating the scholarly work of someone whose object of study, vocabulary, methodology, and epistemology are significantly different from your own. There is also a problem of, for lack of a better word, enthusiasm. For most people, it is easier to care about and be enthusiastic about scholarship that is legible and meaningful to us ourselves. I may not myself be a scholar of illuminated manuscripts, I may not even know very much about illuminated manuscripts, but because my training and passion lie in the realm of literary history, I can pretty easily find ways to learn and care about the work of my colleagues who are scholars of illuminated manuscripts. Scholars of quantum physics … it’s harder. This has practical and administrative repercussions. It makes sense in many ways to organize faculty within groups where they can express the greatest solidarity with the least effort.
Students are organized differently, though our administrative systems sometimes hide the difference. We organize students within majors (and minors, options, certificates, etc. Let’s just use one word for the sake of clarity here). Majors are administered by departments. There are good arguments for disaggregating majors, making them more modular. However, it seems to me that it still makes sense not to disaggregate departments, at least not wholly. To understand why, let’s talk about identity.
Identity. Youdentity. He/She/It/Theydentity.
I would not normally head toward the word identity. The way the word is used in current social and political contexts makes it unappealing to me on a basic philosophical level: identity as something whole, coherent, and longlasting within a personal self. My own philosophy owes at least a little something to thinkers like Heraclitus, Dōgen, and Deleuze, among others — philosophers of change, flow, impermanence, and becoming. Such a philosophy complicates (to say the least!) any relationship to identity as a category.
However, reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay in the new issue of Daedalus, “Care Is a Relationship” (a response to another essay in that issue, “Caregiving in Philosophy, Biology, and Political Economy” by Alison Gopnik), I was struck by the productive ways she uses identity to mean something more than personal identity:
As physicist and ecologist Fritjof Capra describes it, the semipermeable membranes between cells are “not boundaries of separation but boundaries of identity.” They keep the cell distinct as an identifiable part of the whole but simultaneously connect it to the other cells, connections that it requires to survive and flourish. Just so, my identity as a family member — mother, wife, sister, daughter — means that I am both distinctly myself, with my own goals and interests, and simultaneously part of a larger entity that defines me and determines a different set of goals and interests that unite me with others.
This is a powerful way to think about disciplines and interdisciplinarity. Whatever we think of as our home discipline (for me, literary studies) is a bounded identity, a cell — but one with semipermeable membranes, and interdisciplinarity exists in the ways the membranes between cells allow exchange, growth, and transformation. Disciplinarity — identity — is a kind of precondition. Interdisciplinarity is not only an action, it is also a relationship.*
A school that has healthy interdisciplinarity is an institution that allows identities to exist but also to keep their membranes semipermeable. It allows people to remain distinct in their interests and scholarship while simultaneously encouraging them to build beyond those interests and scholarship toward the institution (and even farther), which itself is perhaps something like Gopnik’s “larger entity that defines me and determines a different set of goals and interests that unite me with others.”
Something I, as a Director of Interdisciplinary Studies, have to say with disturbing frequency is: You can’t have interdisciplinarity without disciplinarity. Despite being a noun, interdisciplinarity is not a thing, it is an action. This is what I wrote in 2021 in a post titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Interdisciplinary”:
Among interdisciplinarians, I am in the camp that believes strong interdisciplinarity does not work without strong disciplinarity. Disciplines may be fuzzy, with some disciplines having an inherent interdisciplinarity of their own, but we can get a somewhat clearer view if we see disciplines as like nouns and interdisciplinarity as a kind of verb: we have disciplines, but we do interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity does not have its own content, method, and epistemology. It uses the content, methods, and epistemologies of the disciplines, putting them into action together.
If we were to throw caution to the winds and create a major in Things & Stuff, the things and stuff would have to come from somewhere. (This is frustrating to think about when you are trying to save money by cutting expenses such as faculty who teach classes in things and/or stuff. Or when trying to save money by canceling low-enrolled courses in things and stuff. Or ending low-enrolled majors in Things, Not Stuff. Why can’t we just have courses of at least 100 students each and then we’d only need, what, a total of 10 or 12 faculty members for a school of 4-5,000 students. Perfect! But I digress…)
In my idea of disaggregation, students are the re-aggregators. Through the process of re-aggregating, they build their own identity as scholars. Still, they need something, and somewhere, to re-aggregate from. They need, in other words, a good range of credit-bearing experiences that they can then weave together into a single, unified learning experience.
This is all threatening to get too abstract, so let’s put it on pause for a moment while we move to the next concept I was attracted to in Nathan Heller’s article: making.
One afternoon, I visited the chair of Harvard’s comparative-literature department, Jeffrey Schnapp, who is involved in Kelsey’s disaggregation. … “I always thought that the models of the humanities that we inherited were open for expansion and innovation,” he said. … [H]e picked up a brightly colored paperback, which he co-wrote, called “The Electric Information Age Book.” “This is a book on the history of experimental paperbacks, like Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Medium Is the Massage,’ ” he said, and leafed through, revealing pages of wild typefaces and pictures. Another volume he had co-written used “little microsessays connected to the future of libraries and library furnishings,” and was published with a deck of playing cards. “ ‘Making’ can mean writing books, but it can also involve other forms, such as building software platforms infused with values from the humanities,” he said…
The idea of making may be a fruitful one when linked with interdisciplinarity, and it may help us negotiate the rough terrain of underfunded higher education today, when students quite understandably want to graduate with a degree that will help them attain both useful and fulfilling work. The persistent equation of college with job training is painful to many of us in higher ed, who want a degree to mean more than certification of employability. I am a deep believer in the life of the mind, an advocate of uselessness, but I also believe that to be successful in the current landscape of education, we’ve got to meet our students where they are. We need to acknowledge and address both their fears and desires. The concept of making might be one way to do that.
Imagine asking a prospective student not, “What do you want to major in?” but rather, “What would you like to be able to make?”
I would like to make a porcelain cup. I would like to make a cure for cancer. I would like to make someone feel less anxious and alone. I would like to make a computer game. I would like to make a solution to homelessness in my town.
Usually, we ask students, “What do you want to be?” But why start with a question most of us can’t even answer? (Nor should we. See: Heraclitus, Dōgen, Deleuze.) Sure, sometimes students have a clear idea of a career field or identity that they want to work toward, and that’s wonderful, but most of us need to start at a different spot.
I myself knew only one thing about my educational desires when I applied to colleges: I wanted to make plays. (I wanted to write them, direct them, act in them. I went to the Dramatic Writing Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for 3 years until I decided I no longer wanted to make plays, I wanted to do something else, though I wasn’t sure what. Turned out, I wanted to make time to read more and I wanted to make short stories and essays. I also discovered that I wanted to make new scholars by teaching students — or, rather, I wanted to make students less afraid of and more passionate about reading and writing. I wanted to make a space wherein I could share my interests and knowledge and learn from other people’s interests and knowledge.)
The concept of making is itself interdisciplinary because one great commonality across disciplines is making. Nonetheless, let’s not make any claims of a grand unifying theory here. The concept could be too easy to reduce to the idea of making a thing. That would exclude a lot of valuable practices and even whole disciplines. But perhaps it is worth thinking more broadly about what it is we can mean by making.
I have just gotten a copy of Peter Turchi’s new book, (Don’t) Stop Me If You’ve Heard This Before & Other Essays on Writing Fiction. Turchi is the author of two of the most interesting and innovative books about fiction published in the last 25 years: Maps of the Imagination and A Maze and A Muse. I haven’t read all of the new book yet, but I did root around in the appendices in the back, including “Appendix A: Out of the Workshop, Into the Laboratory”. Mostly, this is a description of how Turchi runs a writing workshop these days after 40 years of experimenting with that complex and controversial form of pedagogy. He says at one point (the point that gives the appendix its title) that the term workshop for this thing isn’t really accurate. “Perhaps something more like a laboratory, a place where hypotheses are tested, experiments are carried out, beakers sometimes explode, fruit fly colonies hatch unexpectedly, and people stand around, examining projects in various stages, rubbing their chins, saying, ‘Hmmm’ and ‘What if we try this?'”
The laboratory idea is as useful as that of making, because a laboratory is both a place to learn about and experiment with making something as well as a place where some things are made — and not just physical products, but knowledge.
All of this talk of making and laboratories has me thinking of an editorial I read in Nature a few weeks ago. Titled “Is science really getting less disruptive — and does it matter if it is?”, the editorial reports on a large study that claims that science has, generally, gotten less visionary. I’ll leave the arguments about whether it is or not to the scientists, but I think it is worth pairing this editorial with another from Nature, one from a couple months earlier titled “In praise of research in fundamental biology”. The final paragraph in that earlier editorial is a cri de coeur for less instrumentalized, less utilitarian science:
Nature has been publishing curiosity-driven research for more than 150 years, and readers will not need convincing of the work’s value. But we implore colleagues in the wider science ecosystem — the policymakers and those in science-funding agencies who expect to see direct benefits of research investments — to resist the temptation to push for quick returns. We appreciate that pressure to do so will only grow as countries confront economic recession and cost-of-living crises. But, wherever possible, this pressure needs to be resisted. Basic research must be allowed to thrive.
As Nature notes, the pressures against visionary, potentially “useless” science are many, the incentives few. I can’t help but think that all of this is related to at least some of the forces killing the humanities and filling our students with anxiety about getting exactly the right major for exactly the right job so they can get exactly the right paycheck and exactly the right life.
Innovation is a word that is beloved of business schools but even in business schools there is a recognition that the systems are failing it. In 2019, Harvard Business Review published an article by scholars from Duke University and the University of East Anglia titled “Why the U.S. Innovation Ecosystem Is Slowing Down”. These authors are not some wild-eyed marxists reminding us of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall; these are people who support theories of capitalism and innovation. Some of the forces they identify in universities are similar to those identified by the editors of Nature. We have built institutions that incentivize safe thinking.
To bring us back to our primary topic: the best argument I can think of to encourage interdisciplinarity, disaggregation, and making is that doing so might be a good strategy to bring innovation back as a key value for both research and teaching universities. As the editors of Nature show, we cannot do that by jettisoning the fundamentals. We need those building blocks, that protection of scholarly identity. We need science (and everything else) based purely on curiosity if we are going to have a solid foundation from which to innovate.
Visions don’t just appear. We have to do the legwork to create an environment in which visions are possible.
Toward a Visionary Institution
Let’s return to the familiar pieces in our puzzle of the contemporary institution of higher education: credit-bearing experiences, students, and faculty. (This is not to diminish the importance of administration, staff, or community! We’re thinking about one strain in a complex system here.)
Especially for underfunded institutions to survive in the current climate, a climate quite hostile to the idea of the public good, we need credit-bearing experiences to be as diverse and flexible as possible. Students want lots of options and modalities. There is no way to have integral interdisciplinarity without meaningful, often upper-level, courses and experiences with real depth. Interdisciplinarity requires a broad range of disciplinary expertise to draw from. We need lots of cells if we’re going to make the most of permeable membranes. We cannot be more membrane than cells. (Truly valuable interdisciplinarity may, for that reason, demand more resources than disciplinarity.)
For credit-bearing experiences to be diverse and flexible, we need to think carefully about how majors are structured. Let’s be honest from the standpoint of your local finance office: we need a way to get the most number of students (within reason) into the fewest number of classes. Yet from an academic perspective, we need the option to run low-enrolled courses, particularly upper-level courses.
This becomes a less intractable problem if we think first about teachers and not about either majors or departments. The goal is to maintain a teacher-student ratio that does not bankrupt the school. (I think there should be a goal to do that with as many tenured or tenure-track faculty as possible. Otherwise, we end up with the kind of terrible exploitation we see at most universities in this country right now, with the majority of classes taught by the least-paid and most-precarious employees.) To achieve this, we need students from multiple majors to take classes with faculty who may themselves be part of a single department. This is especially important for faculty whose departments are associated with low-enrolled majors. The courses themselves don’t always need to be the cells — they can be the membranes. The faculty and students can be the cells. The institution provides the environment that keeps both cells and membranes healthy.
Let’s talk about majors for a moment. Here’s an idea: a healthy and innovative modern university finds a way to offer as many low-enrolled majors as it possibly can. Why? Because this is what students want. We get told all the time to stop thinking about universities in the old medieval way and to start thinking about students as customers. I bristle against that idea for all sorts of reasons, but there’s nothing wrong with thinking about what can attract students to an institution and provide them with the sense of purpose and belonging they need to stay till graduation. I think when it comes to reflecting on what makes an institution attractive to students these days we can say with some confidence: flexibility. All sorts of high-paid consultants will tell you that today’s students want their experience to be as flexible and customizable as possible because that’s what they want from everything.
And in this case I think we should give it to them as much as we can.
Recently, I had a conversation with a prospective student who was disappointed that our school no longer had an anthropology major. We will probably lose that student, and if they were interested in doing a pure anthropology major, we should lose them, because they won’t be happy at our school. However, I was able to point to ways to incorporate elements of our anthropology minor into other things and put together either an interesting major-minor combination or a customized Interdisciplinary Studies degree. Having those options helped. But I began to think of what else I would have liked to be able to tell that student.
Our school is not going to add a bunch of anthropology courses. We have too much trouble maintaining enough student demand to justify it, despite some awesome teachers. But note what I just wrote. Awesome teachers. We do not want to lose awesome teachers! Further, we need awesome teachers and interested students to work together. We ought to have, at the ready, a plan for students to mix anthropology with other stuff.
There are various ways to do that, including ones we are already doing, and I don’t want to get into the weeds of it all here. (What we need to focus on doing is making it all simpler and clearer on the student side.) But I do want to advocate for not just creating work-arounds, but creating intentional flexibility that is invigorating to students, faculty, and the institution as a whole. It needs to be not, “Ugh, sorry, no we don’t have enough students interested in it to have anthropology major, but we can cobble some stuff together for you maybe if you don’t mind taking a bunch of independent studies?” and instead be, “No, we don’t have anthropology major. Other schools do, and if anthropology as a discipline is primarily what you’re interested in, we’re probably not the school for you. But we do have anthropology teachers. And we have a lot of flexibility in moving pieces and modules of majors together to create something interdisciplinary. Faculty know how to do that here and they like doing it because it keeps their jobs interesting. So if you’re interested in learning an anthropology core with a surrounding series of courses in, for instance, psychology or business or sustainability or history or biology or criminal justice — that we can do. Our limits are only the classes that we offer, but it helps that most of our classes are designed for this kind of work. Very few of even our highest-level courses are limited to one major. Call it interoperability. It’s what we do.”
This is not, in and of itself, all that innovative. However, it is part of an environment that is friendly toward innovation and that seeks to reduce the risks and costs of experiment, which is — not coincidentally! — a key element of both innovation and learning. An environment that promotes and supports its students and faculty experimenting together not just in lab classes but at the very level of the credit-bearing experience itself … is an environment that will promote innovation. Real innovation. Maybe even new visions of what learning and teaching can be.
*This is too specific to keep in the main text, but I can’t help wanting to put it somewhere: Within Gopnik’s schema (pp. 73-74) of reciprocity…mutuality…solidarity…identity, interdisciplinarity is what exists in the middle: mutuality (“overlapping identity and shared interests”) and solidarity (“a sensation or emotion of unity” that draws from partially separate identities). Reciprocity is one form of multidisciplinarity, when two separate disciplines work together but maintain their separations; identity is the complete fusing of disciplines to the point where they are no longer distinct.