Test of Time
departments, and the changing landscape of knowledge at Emory
program does not necessarily become its own field or discipline
or department. The test really is time.
Sanders, Professor of English and African American Studies and Chair
of the Department of African American Studies
its an emergent property of the people who are here, a program
can respond to and provide the most cutting-edge intellectual environment
at that moment.
Lennard, Director of the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral
ought to be something in Atlanta.
a program became a school
and programs featured in this article
The activism that gave rise to
African American studies and womens studies in higher education
first stirred on the margins of academia some three decades ago.
In marches, sit-ins, and protests against university administrations,
scholars asserted their identities. Scholarship was published
on departmental mimeograph machines. Tiny programs with shoestring
budgets, cramped offices, and faculty more tenuous than tenured
defended their existence year after year. Their new methodologies
and interdisciplinary models faced skepticism in the traditional
How things have changed. Last September, three new departmentsAfrican
American studies, womens studies, and film studiestook
their place at the intellectual center of the arts and sciences
at Emory, as they have elsewhere. Their faculty are published in
the fields premier presses and journals. African American
studies and womens studies both moved into elegant and spacious
suites in the newly renovated Candler Library on the Quadthe
symbolic heart of the academy. And in those three new departmentsas
well as the Department of Environmental Studies, established in
2001interdisciplinary work is a chief form of inquiry.
At many levels, those departments represent the changing landscape
of knowledge and scholarship. But how do scholars in a relatively
new, perhaps experimental program know when it is time to seek the
permanence of departmental status? When is it better simply to remain
a more fluid, provisional programor to phase out
altogether? As scholars at Emory are coalescing along new inquiries
and issues that reach beyond traditional departments, how are the
traditional disciplines changing in response?
Is the reorganization of knowledge a recipe for chaos?
The birth of the environmental
studies department at Emory illustrates one such tectonic shift.
In 1987, the Department of Geology, which had five tenure lines,
an undergraduate and a graduate program, and an entire building,
Of the four basic scienceschemistry, physics, biology,
and geologygeology is probably the most mercurial, says
Bill Size, professor of environmental studies and then chair of
the geology department. A lot of what we do is applied in
fluctuating markets. In 1987, the oil market was down worldwide,
exploration was down, and so was the hiring of geologists. Its
the same with mining.
But geology wasnt an academic fossil yet. As the Department
of Environmental Studies was created by combining the stripped-down
geosciences program (which replaced the geology department) and
the small Program in Human and Natural Ecology, geology was redefining
itself. Medical geology is one of the hottest fields going,
Size says. It deals with epidemiology, the spread of disease
pathogens through groundwater and rock material. The profession
has changed as social needs have changed, and rightly so. Were
trying to train people in more than one discipline to meet those
The core faculty of the Institute of Womens Studies sought
departmental status when they realized that their inter-discipline
was becoming a discipline. Womens studies is no longer
just a loose confederation of people interested in certain problems,
says Pamela Hall, associate professor of philosophy and womens
studies and chair of the new department. It has its own methods,
theories, debates, and priorities.
African American studies chair and English professor Mark Sanders
stresses that the debate over field or discipline is ongoing. Disciplines
become disciplines over time, he says. You have on the
one hand intellectual or theoretical claims. And on the other there
is the accumulation of institutional structures, like conferences,
journals, and jobs to which your students can go. And at some point,
a field reaches a critical mass of both people and these structures,
and then it becomes a discipline.
If that debate is unresolved, why was African American studies ready
to codify as a department? Being a department would free us
up to chart our own intellectual, pedagogical, and scholarly course,
Sanders explains. One of the things that distinguishes African
American studies from other, long-standing disciplines is its twin
mission of academic excellence and social responsibility, a yoking
of the intellectual life with its application to communities and
lives beyond the academy. We thought wed be better able to
strike our own balance between these two pillars in, for example,
tenure decisions, with the autonomy of a department, rather than
counting on the benevolence of other departments that were the tenure
homes of our joint faculty.
That autonomy became increasingly necessary, says David Cook, professor
and chair of film studies, as his program added four faculty lines,
an administrative staff, and degree programs. Film studies began
in the English department in the 1980s but was part of both the
theater studies department and the Graduate Institute of the Liberal
Arts before last September. There was always this possibility
of being melted down into whatever department housed us. None of
us would mind teaching half our courses for the host department,
but it meant that we couldnt staff our major.
Autonomy also meant legitimacy, adds Frances Smith Foster, Candler
Professor of English and past chair of womens studies. In
the larger world, programs are temporary and departments are real.
When other universities had departments with tenure homes for their
core faculty, the perception was that our university didnt
support us as well. We were graduating the best womens studies
Ph.D.s in the country, but theoretically none of them could
be hired at Emory.
But does creating new departments drain the older ones of resources
and break down order in the academy? The question of whether
there are too many programs is an issue, but I wouldnt say
there ever was universal agreement about the matter, says
Emory College dean Bobby Paul. I did not want these changes
to do damage to other departments. That was the subject of intense
negotiation. In all three cases, each program was already operating
in effect as a department. Each had its own administration, faculty,
curricula, budgets. Most programs are nowhere near being like departments.
On the other hand, Paul continues, change is inevitable. The
disciplines are not written in stone. They were only invented early
in the last century. Knowledge has expanded in such a way that the
traditional departments dont meet all the intellectual needs
Whether it is activism, illness, or new media, those needs almost
always stem from a hue and cry beyond the academy. And that urgency
calls for a flexible structure that can change or go away just as
easily as it came into existence.
The faculty who form the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral
Biology NBB have made it clear that our evolution is not toward
becoming a department, says Paul Lennard, director of the
five-year-old NBB. The university has a limited set of resources,
and they have to be used across the whole community. If you structure
an interdisciplinary program so that it provides a minimum workload
and a maximum scholarly interface, you can build a very large, dynamic
organization that does not compete with the traditional departments.
All interdisciplinary approaches really borrow from the strengths
of the traditional disciplines.
Allan Levey, professor and chair of neurology and director of the
three-year-old Center for Neurodegenerative Disease, identifies
another advantage to the more permeable models: The rate of
change of knowledge in biomedicine is more rapid than ever. The
amount of information gained in the past year probably exceeds that
of the past five years. To keep up with the pace as all these different
disciplines advance rapidly, we have to break down departmental
barriers. If you change slowly, you are going to be extinct. The
opportunities for cross-fertilization multiply, however. A.O.A.