identity crisis: the curse/joy of being interdisciplinary and the future of academia
“Who’s the future?” It was a simple question that my friend asked but it has now bugged me for months. He wanted to know who the future of academia is, who will shift academia as the likes of Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc. We started thinking of current scholars who really made huge shifts in academia – Butler, Haraway, … There are some brilliant scholars out there, folks who have really dove in and clarified an area of academia, developed new algorithms, etc. but have not really exploded the intellectual sphere. The last big explosion was really the French scholars circling around in 1968. Of course, there was a lot going on that year, a lot of reasons to really rethink everything.
As the conversation unfolded, we started talking about interdisciplinarity being the key to the next intellectual shift. The problem with disciplines is that they’re too narrow and all you can do is improve in one little niche arena. The key to intellectual shifts is the key to creativity. Ronald Burt talks about how social network bridges are super creative because they draw on ideas from disparate parts of the network. Of course, this is why i love the idea of apophenia – making connections where none previously existed. It’s all about building synaptic connections between things that were otherwise unconnected.
So, i’ve attended 10 job talks this semester in two purportedly interdisciplinary departments. I have to say, i’ve been utterly disappointed. Each scholar talked about a very very niche body of research that, at best, simply didn’t fit into other disciplines. None were revolutionarily new ways of thinking, not even close. These were job talks at a premier academic institution and some of the candidates couldn’t even make an argument. Only one did i really think that i would learn quite a bit by (although i disagreed with the premise of his argument and thought that he was fantastically utopian in his understanding of sousveillance). Why aren’t there scholars right now who make my jaw drop?
I think that it’s hard to be interdisciplinary. I think everyone *wants* to be interdisciplinary but that seems to mean draw haphazardly from different disciplines, throw into the blender, add a few spices and voila interdisciplinary gazpacho. I want a chemical reaction dammit.
The problem with being interdisciplinary is it that means staying in a state of perpetual identity crisis. I think that this is fundamentally hard for academics. Many of us grew up as ostracized freaks and geeks and felt such glory in fitting in. There’s something desperately comforting about fitting it, about being amongst peers. Staying in-between, outside and perpetually bridging any dichotomous definitions is exhausting. I think about how many people i know who identify as someone in-between (fe)male but eventually chose to identify as one or the other. Alternatively, i think about inter-racial identities and how some of my friends happily proclaim the identity of hapa. When no identity out there works, you end up developing a new one. Of course, this happens in academia all the time. There are new interdisciplinary departments popping up daily in academia.
Of course, what does this solve? Most of the times, interdisciplinary schools spend years trying to resolve their identity. I’ve taken place in plenty of these conversations because they’re intellectually engaging – what is information? what is hci? what is performance? what is new media? They never actually get resolved.
I think that i relish staying in a perpetual state of identity crisis. Well, i go back and forth. Sometimes, i desperately want a cohort, a community. But every time a journalist asks me how to label me, i laugh. I’m certainly not a computer scientist any more. I’m definitely not a librarian and while i can swallow labels like sociologist and anthropologist, i’m sure that everyone who actually identifies as such rolls over in their graves when they see that label placed on me. Maybe my label should be a symbol – i can be the Prince of academia.
So, if i think about what the next revolution in academia will be, it will have to be interdisciplinary. It will not be possible to label the next round of revolutionary scholars and they won’t be trapped up in conversations and defining disciplines or securing methods. You still can’t really label Foucault and if you talk about his methods, it all gets very hairy. I like to say that he does hypertext. But seriously, who is the next Foucault? Who will help me see the world from an entirely new perspective? And what is the future of being interdisciplinary?