The Test of Time
Programs, departments, and the changing
landscape of knowledge at Emory

 



The Test of Time
Programs, departments, and the changing landscape of knowledge at Emory

Every program does not necessarily become its own field or discipline or department. The test really is time.
Mark Sanders, Professor of English and African American Studies and Chair of the Department of African American Studies

Because it’s 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.
Paul Lennard, Director of the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology

“There ought to be something in Atlanta.”
How a program became a school

Departments and programs featured in this article

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The activism that gave rise to African American studies and women’s 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 academy.

How things have changed. Last September, three new departments—African American studies, women’s studies, and film studies—took 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 women’s studies both moved into elegant and spacious suites in the newly renovated Candler Library on the Quad—the symbolic heart of the academy. And in those three new departments—as well as the Department of Environmental Studies, established in 2001—interdisciplinary 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 “program”—or 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?

Reorganization and autonomy

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, was closed.

“Of the four basic sciences—chemistry, physics, biology, and geology—geology 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. It’s the same with mining.”

But geology wasn’t 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. We’re trying to train people in more than one discipline to meet those needs.”

The core faculty of the Institute of Women’s Studies sought departmental status when they realized that their inter-discipline was becoming a discipline. “Women’s studies is no longer just a loose confederation of people interested in certain problems,” says Pamela Hall, associate professor of philosophy and women’s 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 we’d 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 couldn’t staff our major.”

Autonomy also meant legitimacy, adds Frances Smith Foster, Candler Professor of English and past chair of women’s 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 didn’t support us as well. We were graduating the best women’s studies Ph.D.’s in the country, but theoretically none of them could be hired at Emory.”


Department drain?


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 wouldn’t 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 don’t meet all the intellectual needs of the
present.”

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.