The State of the Disciplines

The Differences that Divide Us
Is talk of reconciliation in the academy only talk?

By Amy Lang, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts



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Field dispatches

This year, the Academic Exchange introduces a new series of essays under the rubric “The State of the Disciplines.” We are inviting faculty members from a variety of fields to take a broad view of their disciplines: What are the major debates and emerging topics? The trends in funding? The status of graduate and undergraduate education in the field.
The impact of technology? To introduce this series and to begin to explore some of these matters, we asked Amy Lang, an associate professor in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, to permit the Exchange to publish an edited version of her remarks from last January’s Reconciliation Symposium session on “Reconciliation in the Academy.” Taking an even broader view (from a humanities-based perspective) of cross- and interdisciplinary work, Lang comments on the problematic nature of conversations “across the continuum” from the hard sciences to the humanities.

Let me begin by saying that I come to this symposium—and this session—deeply skeptical about the project of reconciliation. Reconciliation implies deep and abiding differences in need of repair, and while the university certainly suffers no dearth of these, the language of reconciliation seems designed to exact unity where there may be none, in places and ways where, in fact, we may want none. More to the point, mending the rifts in the academy requires the careful articulation of what the differences are that divide us—their sources and their ramifications—and, likewise, requires some fundamental agreement about the nature and kind of those differences.

I confess that I am dubious about the importance of the difference around which this session is organized, or rather, the framing of it as a disciplinary or an intellectual issue. That the humanities, in contrast to the sciences, are rapidly being depleted of resources, faculty, and what in some circles would be called “cultural capital” is unquestionably the case; the reasons for that depletion are not, I suggest, largely intellectual. They have, in fact, less to do with shifts in the theory and practice of, say, literary studies than to do with the way money currently flows into and through institutions of higher learning (reductions in federal funds for the humanities and arts, the redirection of money toward profitable sectors/disciplines, the dumping of corporate money into marketable research), with the broad phenomenon of “corporatization,” and with the systematic attempts by the far and not-so-far right from the early 1990s on to discredit new forms of scholarship (especially in the humanities) and with it a generation of scholars. The culture wars may be over, but we in the humanities are living in a postwar economy.

To be perfectly blunt, I don’t think the intellectual distance that separates the “megadisciplines”—the humanities, social sciences, and sciences—is a first-order problem. My experience at Emory is that faculty are quite willing to make contacts across disciplinary boundaries when these are important to their work. But that is not to say that no problem exists. On the contrary, the differences in the quotidian forms of our work across the continuum from the “hard” sciences to humanities, the differences in the languages we speak, the differences in the institutional status we are accorded, and most important, the different material conditions under which we labor mediate strongly against these interactions.

Let me offer an example. When I met with the two other faculty members on this panel, the question of scholarly collaboration arose. One professor, from the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, told a story: he described himself as pondering a problem, realizing that a colleague in another scientific discipline might have insight into its solution, consulting that colleague, and ultimately, co-authoring a paper with that colleague. As the other professor, from the Department of Philosophy, and I explained, this describes a scholarly universe entirely unlike the one we inhabit. On our side of the campus, the administrative demands on our time have so escalated—and, it must be said, are distributed so inequitably—that the likelihood that she or I would have time, regardless of inclination, to pursue this kind of potentially fruitful collaboration is very small. But even were we to find the time, collaboration of the kind this scientist describes is not rewarded—is often in fact punished—in our disciplines and departments: the co-authored paper that brings credit (and admiration for its interdisciplinarity) in his world is, in ours, discrediting. It is taken to imply some lack—of energy, creativity, independence—on the part of the scholars involved.

No sensible young scholar in the humanities, hoping to be tenured, would indulge in such a collaboration. At the same time—just to finish out this illustration—the standards against which humanists are judged are increasingly drawn from a science model. All of which is to say, the differences that make a difference may not be the ones we most readily or willingly acknowledge.

Having said this, I want briefly to pursue two issues. First, I want to propose that the range of approaches the various disciplines employ, and their sometimes incomplete articulation, which some have read as confusing to students, could be read otherwise. It could, in fact, be read as a productive tension of the kind we once understood to enliven the university, a tension that arises when students are called upon to adjudicate between different ways of understanding questions that are, while not identical, nonetheless not unrelated. After all, rational choice theory, feminist literary theory, and Plato all aim to address “real” problems in the world, albeit different problems. The university could be viewed—indeed it could ideally be viewed—not as a place in which differences must be reconciled but rather as a place which embraces the greatest possible array of competing claims. Critical thinking, the skill we claim we most want to inculcate in our students, seems to me to require such a place. But if what we want is a university that is socially engaged, contentious, diverse (not only in its population but in the range of views it grants expression) then, I propose, we have to recognize not only the intellectual but the material conditions that transform fruitful debate into rancor, on the one hand, and the clamor of ideas into corporate hush, on the other.

Which brings me to my last point. It is, I think, only to be expected that in the face of depleted resources, greatly diminished opportunities for secure employment, and lessened prestige, professional societies in the humanities and social sciences are increasingly called upon to abandon their traditional scholarly and pedagogical mission and instead advocate for their members—particularly given the absence of any other quasi-representative body to act on their behalf. Likewise, resistance to interdisciplinarity is surely to be expected when people believe themselves to be under siege, as many in the humanities do. Every-thing around us—from the outsourcing of campus labor (food services, bookstores, housekeeping) to diminishing staff numbers, to the use of casual and grossly underpaid labor in the classroom, to escalating administrative demands on faculty, to the new rhetoric of “courseware,”to the savvy marketing of the university “brand”—suggests the subordination of the scholarly and pedagogical activities of the university to the corporate values of efficiency, rationalization, and profit.

These trends may not reflect the attitudes of any given dean, provost, or president, but they surely describe current practice in the university. That gestures toward interdisciplinarity—however highly we may value the intellectual cross-fertilization it allows—and toward formal reorganization—however necessary we think it might be—are greeted warily in such a context seems hardly surprising. Unlike the centrifugal forces to which Chancellor Bill Frye has alluded, the ones at work in the university cannot be answered simply by invoking a “common enterprise.” They are not intellectual, not the product of the limited vision, the dogmatism, or the commitment to fashion of faculty. Rather they are economic, political, structural—they are “real” in precisely the sense that the “real” problems of the world that might be answered by interdisciplinary inquiry are “real.” Until the university names and addresses itself to those “real” forces that produce disharmony, talk of reconciliation can only be talk.