Letters to the Editor

The Virtues of Interdisciplinarity

January 10, 2010

To the Editor:

The tone of alarmism surrounding the wholesale reorganization of academia is unnecessary. Jerry A. Jacobs's thought-provoking article ("Interdisciplinary Hype," The Chronicle Review, November 27) counts most of its supporters in the field of the sciences, and practically all at the professional research level. I would at least make the case for interdisciplinarity at the undergraduate level.

Graduate schools will train their students in the applied methods of their fields. Indeed, I agree with Professor Jacobs's assessment that the creation of "centers" and "institutes" most likely embodies the most practical solution to the interdisciplinary debate at the professional research level. There is evidence that during students' introduction to higher education, however, it is helpful to cast a broader net. Take the example of medical schools, which are famously admitting more and more students with undergraduate backgrounds in the liberal arts and humanities—fields that Professor Jacobs has shown to exhibit significantly higher rates of cross-disciplinary citation.

Regarding American studies, Professor Jacobs inappropriately assumes that the goal of American studies has been to identify a "unified theory of American culture." That idiom, echoing the storied "unified theory" in physics, reflects the science-centered perspective of the current disciplinary conversation. In American historiography, the "unified theory" equivalent is known as "consensus history," and has been intellectually out of fashion since the middle of the 20th century. It is clear that American studies gives space and voice to groups in American society that have been marginalized by traditional American historians. Relegating those scholars and their subjects to "area studies" (the return to monodisciplinary scholarship) only supports the feeling that, while their stories are valid, they are somehow not "American." Therefore, indeed, good American-studies scholars would balk at the advancement of a unified theory.

I can only hope that undergraduate liberal-arts institutions like the one I am privileged to work for continue to lead the way in valuing the intellectual diversity of our interdisciplinary faculty who, after all, are training the students who so eagerly seek positions at the feet of you established university professors.

Adam Rosenzweig
Admission Counselor
Pitzer College
Claremont, Calif.

 

I studied in interdisciplinary B.A. and M.A. programs; my Ph.D. is in comparative literature, a field that could also be considered interdisciplinary. As a student in each of these programs, I had the opportunity to explore ideas across a variety of conventional disciplines. The value of this type of work—which is, incidentally, reliant on the work of conventional disciplines—follows directly from the complex understanding a student acquires through research.

Privacy, for instance, an idea that I researched for my dissertation in fields of law, journalism, biomedicine, and literature, looks and feels very different across these disciplines. For the purposes of my project, I needed to discern what distinguished privacy in law from privacy in journalism, biomedicine, and literature and to examine what connected notions in all four. Not only was this research extremely time-consuming, but it was also intellectually challenging in ways that I could not have predicted when I started out.

Examining the debates about privacy in one field was taxing enough; however, doing so in four disciplines proved close to overwhelming. When I began this part of the research for my dissertation, I didn't even know how to search for law-review articles, legal cases, or legal opinions. I also didn't fully comprehend the importance of legal precedents. So to do this part of my research adequately, I had to make a commitment to learning more about law than I had initially intended. Anyone undertaking interdisciplinary work must make a similar commitment; otherwise, an interdisciplinary project can sacrifice rigor, favor or appear wedded to the perspective of one discipline, or end up too general, making no particular and substantial contribution to any of the disciplines under investigation.

Jerry A. Jacobs's article and the few others in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the topic of interdisciplinary study have perplexed me, since they seem to focus on the downsides without sufficiently examining the advantages of inquiring beyond disciplinary boundaries. It's true that interdisciplinary work does not suit every student or every faculty member. However, examining the ways in which wisdom leaks from one discipline to another and tracing the effects of that leakage can prove exhilarating—and at times, for some, transformative. For me, it was just that.

Even as a student, though, I realized that I was disadvantaged in the company of my peers who could claim, as I could not, that they had achieved mastery in one discipline or another by their senior years. Now a faculty member, I still struggle with this; I do not have a conventionally defined area of expertise. I have what some others do not, however—tools for inquiry that permit me to investigate ideas that exceed or permeate disciplinary parameters. These tools are useful since many intellectual and practical problems do not sit comfortably within borders; simply understanding a problem often requires input from more than one area of expertise.

Carra Leah Hood
Assistant Professor of Writing
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
Pomona, N.J.