Academic Exchange October/November
2000 Contents Page
Last spring, James Gustafson,
formerly the Luce Professor of Humanities and Comparative Studies,
returned to Emory to address a gathering of faculty participants
in the Luce Seminars. From 1989 to 1996, Emory conducted this
series of interdisciplinary faculty seminars under Gustafson's
leadership. The seminars were held annually each spring semester.
The following is an adapted excerpt from his retrospective reflections
on the seminars.
In my late thirties, I was
seared by academic politics in New Haven and kept as far away
from proposals for institutional and educational reform and other
matters as I could for the rest of my career, often to the annoyance
of colleagues. Now that no one can make a claim on me to get
involved in the grit of institutional change,
I have thought more about some institutional implications of
what we did together here during the decade I was with you, and
I want to remark briefly on interdisciplinarity.
I never thought interdisciplinarity was an end in itself. Indeed,
I never uttered that word, to the best of my memory. In response
to a request to appraise many documents from an institution that
is discussing a possible Ph.D. in "interdisciplinarity,"
I had to become more explicit about why. I learned how ignorant
I was of a body of literature, including at least one journal,
which I guess I should have read while conducting the Luce Seminars.
The best "end-in-itself" reason I ever gave for our
work here was the sheer intellectual joy of expanding our reading
beyond our fields, and of engaging other minds which had been
honed by different interests and different training. I do not
demean that end-St. Augustine's amor frui, in contrast to amor
uti, loving something as a good in itself and not because it
is useful. For most of us, the intellectual job was very satisfying,
if not fulfilling.
The intellectual joy of our Luce Seminars carried over, I always
hoped, into some modification of our activities beyond and after
a session or a semester of sessions. One thing that irritated
me about the materials sent for my appraisal was the absence
of any discussion of reasons why the intersections of various
disciplines might be worth relating to each other. The program
proposed was to begin with a seminar on "interdisciplinarity"
and to culminate in another seminar by the same title. There
weren't even any examples of the materials that would be used
in seminars, of which disciplines on which topics would be explored.
There was no indication of awareness of different comparative
dimensions, of which matters needed precise and careful attention
when the methods of one discipline confronted the dimensions
of another. I saw no signs of the intellectual rigor that is
required to understand differences between disciplines-something
I would think essential before one thought about synthesizing
them. Painful reminders of persons I have known came forward--persons
who were very adept at talking about the relations between ideas
and other materials with only a minimal knowledge of what was
The documents were all about processes and nothing about substance.
They left the impression that the aim of interdisciplinarity
was to encourage synthesis of whatever unnamed subjects were
to be studied, as if graduate students and faculty members of
no greater capacities than any of us were all geniuses who might
integrate diverse knowledge in a unique and earth-shaking way.
I remembered when I had
to read catalogues of institutions in 1954 and found that at
Drew University, one man had the title, "Professor of Comprehensive
Retrospectively, I had some anxiety about this assignment. I
wondered if I had been asked to review the program because our
work here at Emory had a reputation for endorsing "interdisciplinarity"
as an end in itself, whether at a faculty level, in graduate
education, or in the college. Like other legitimate aspirations
of academic and intellectual life, interdisciplinarity can become
a fad--and this progressive institution is about to help lead
the way. The end is not, except perhaps for the very, very rare
genius, some grand synthesis at whatever point or level the genius
can make all abrasive things friction-free, all incoherences
cohere. And it certainly is not that for graduate students or
college students. Limited effective outcomes based on rigorous
and sustained interactions of disciplines at points where they
address the same or similar phenomena, texts, or events, is preferable
to breezy, oily (note the differences in my adjectives-suggesting
a bias) breakthroughs that cannot sustain severe critical analysis.
Imagination is valued, highly valued, in interactions across
disciplines, or within specializations with them. Being able
to image forth different pros-pects and possibilities is essential.
But so is critical rigor that comes from training in the methods
and procedures of a traditional discipline. The effects, as least
for most of us, are expansions and alterations of what we have
mastered best, what we have learned to be and to do.
Avoid "interdisciplinarity" (I still choke a bit on
the word) as a process which is its own end.