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?

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35 thoughts on “identity crisis: the curse/joy of being interdisciplinary and the future of academia

  1. joe

    What I see being really tough is that the students of today are pretty damn interdisciplinary… however, our advisers and elders are not so. Many of them have a very strong disciplinary biases, although my adviser and others I know have an equally insatiable desire to know more about other subjects (and I’d like to think that we drive a bit of this).

  2. stefanos

    perhaps foucault, as did sartre, always anticipated future philosophers and a different phenomologic experience: it is unfortunate that the last explosion occured without the french mathmeticians of the french revolution: as our world becomes a finite mathematics world, applications of relationships, with all social interactions able to be represented mathematically, creates the social tensions of all things remembered, imploding the limitations of pscyhoanalysis and the proustian dream scape of being:

    brain mapping and freudism will converge with all things remebered conflicted with the natural flux of not being.

    It is quantifying nothingness that is to be unanticipated by Sartre: freedom becoming an electric body, and a self configured and reconfigured to endure the many roles of our daily life.

    all of life becomes recorded, seeing becomes recording: and it is outside the media where we may find truth: I think that is why Steve Mann is so focused on taking everything off and running through fountains. It is the moments one has all electronic devices turned off, and the chains of a pervasive computing enviroment subjegated to the freedom of human existence

    The contempory philosophers who emerge from era will be very different and very able to tap into the datashere to get at all sorts of subjects beyond there individual ability: like the Uberhuman of thus spoke zArathstra: we will approach a god like arrogance, as we recreate ourselves into prisons of security and pleasure.

    What will be different is the human centeredness of sousveillance: those individuals enhanced to be humans, with the freedom to err, will be free and real. There will be truth in human error only.

    So hence, a multi displinary approach will be beyond the multi cultural approach, and will consolidate the movements forward that are changing our language towards a more visual and mathematic language that is in contrast to the broca wernike conceptions of the past: we will say more in numbers and in pictures, and the words we speak, will need to be very individualistic, and interact with a global hegemony (the new latin or greek) with the distinctly idiomatic of sub groups and virtual communities. We will speak a multicultural glocal dialect that all can understand.

    I find the lessons of Keirkegaard helpful here; the emphasis of the tower of babylon in the fear and trembling premise: that as we challenge nature, that there will be a consequence. We will crave a utopia again as we cycle through this pre war society, with the tools of humanity awaiting to be unleashed again against itself.

  3. Doug Tygar

    “Each scholar talked about a very very niche body of research that, at best, simply didn’t fit into other disciplines.”

    I can’t talk about any job candidate, for obvious reasons. So let me speak in generalities.

    Good Ph.D. theses are narrow — the hottest new doctorates on the markets are inevitably those who are the world leaders in a very narrow band of research. Narrow is not mutually exclusive with interdisciplinary. One uses tools and concepts from different disciplines to address a very narrow topic.

    The incoherent comment above name-drops Kierkegaard. Actually Kierkegaard’s dissertation is a great example. You can find it easily — it is called “Concept of Irony” and is still a good read today. It had a very narrow focus and yet was also interdisciplinary. Incidentally, it is impressive that such a young researcher could produce such an insightful work.

    Job talks, which often discuss just one aspect of a thesis, are even narrower than a dissertation. In other words, it is a false inference to conclude that a narrow talk implies a narrow furture.

    Moreover, interdisciplinary departments don’t even always want interdisciplinary researchers. Think of business schools — these are exemplars of interdisciplinary departments, yet many of the people they hire — sociologists, psychologists, economists, IT specialists — are firmly grounded in traditional disciplines.

    Turning now to the “jaw dropping factor”, I think many grad students in SIMS aspire to tenure track faculty appointments at top tier universities. Now, if a grad student believes she is at that level, isn’t it natural that her jaw may be able to stay in a normal position through many talks — the grad student know how good she is and it is human to rank people against ourselves (or at least our images of ourselves.)

    Furthermore, having over my career met with about 200 to 300 candidates on job interviews, I can assure you that one is not at one’s best when interviewing for a job at a super-competitive place like Berkeley. Usually the candidate is nervous. And just think about the faculty in SIMS — what a wide variety of territory they cover — the difference in their research styles — and yet our standards are quite high.

    I can assure you that the correlation between quality of job talk and quality of faculty member is less strong than one might think. Hal Varian wrote a funny paper that touches on this — see section 8 of his “How to Build an Economic Model in Your Spare Time.”

    I do think you did yourself a world of good by attending all those job talks. It upsets me that so few Ph.D. students attend them — not to learn about research, but to learn what works and doesn’t work in a job talk. Who looked silly or shallow? Who had nervous ticks and how much did the audience notice them? Who lost the audience, who bored the audience, who kept the audience? Who used slides effectively and who just demonstrated that they new how to use basic PowerPoint? Since by the time you go on your own job talk, it is too late to figure this out (one rarely gets frank critical comments on job talks) your best bet for mastering the genre is to watch others succeed or f(l)ail. If you do this enough you’ll realize that one way young researchers flop big time is by proposing grand theories that should be jaw dropping … but inevitably make them look like dilettantes.

  4. zephoria

    Doug – this is very good perspective so thank you. I think that i understand the narrowness of the SIMS applicants far more than the narrowness of the New Media candidates. Obviously, i’m speaking in broad generalities in this forum but i’d be happy to talk in more detail in the hallways. The SIMS candidates were supposed to be young scholars and i didn’t expect them to speak to broad research, although i wanted more vision than i got. The New Media hire is supposed to be the director and all but one candidate were decades away from their dissertation. Perhaps i’m a fool, but i definitely expected those candidates to give me a sense of the vision of new media, how their research fit into it and how they could pull together a disparate collection of highly independent people.

    As far as attending talks, you’re completely right – i gained *so* much from that process that had nothing to do with research. Most of what i gained had to do with presentation – how to structure a talk, how to answer questions, how to present interdisciplinary data and move between fields. I used to attend computer science job talks as an undergraduate and i’m still startled at the difference between disciplinary and interdisciplinary job talks. It’s much easier to focus squarely on the research in disciplinary talks and i was far more forgiving of the lack of social skills in CS than i am in an interdisciplinary talk where i expect faculty to have to negotiate on an entirely different level. Of course, my judgmental tendencies here are probably going to kill me.

    I am quite bothered by this statement: “Moreover, interdisciplinary departments don’t even always want interdisciplinary researchers.” I would really like to not believe you but you have hit a chord. I think that the humanities are far more open to this than anywhere else – Rhetoric is the island of misfit toys afterall. But social sciences are obnoxiously territorial, engineering believes in making everything structural and then there is science. If i think about the key “interdisciplinary” zones that i spend time in, they come down to:
    – HCI: social sciences & engineering, (art)
    – New Media: art & humanities & engineering, (social sciences)
    – Information: social sciences & engineering, (humanities)

    At my gut, i think that the next iteration of academic progress will require breaking down those walls as well, the walls of art, humanities, social sciences, sciences, engineering. That’s not going to happen in the humanities’ interdisciplinary spaces, but where? I’m very appreciative of SIMS but its interdisciplinarity is pretty limited to social sciences and engineering. It’s scary to me to realize that the Media Lab could’ve, should’ve been the answer but situated at MIT, it quickly lost its ability to deal with humanities and social sciences and art was losing ground as i was leaving.

  5. stefanos

    danah: the walls are going to come down with gorilla art: graffiti and latter day beatnick street poetics is where there is real and uncontrived art. I spoke with elizabeth goldring who is also very concerned about the lack of aesthetics coming out of the Media lab who agrees with your assesment: I think that persons like Butch Morris, or your girl, Ani Difranco, are more authentic artists, and create real philosophy.

    Butch really touches upon the collective experiences of contempory poets as they become musical instruments. All the human themes, and conflicts are sampled….you simply cannot get this in the current academic world: I learned more about Sartre, Foucault, and radical anarchism on the streets when I tried being a homeless poet between med school and residency. It was not pleasant dealing with nyc rats in the cold, hence my retreat to my yuppie life style that allows be to post on your blog.

    Lacan and Butch

    More Insights into a Chorus of Poets: not wagner, but damn close given the host of swindlers, and famous anonymous persons…all too rebelious for the ivy tower.

  6. barb dybwad

    Firstly, I’d like to thank the scholar formerly known as danah boyd for capturing the precise reason I’m still in the “never going back” mindset. 😉 I would also like to nominate hugs as your symbol ((())).

    Everything you said about how difficult it is to be perpetually in-between is spot on, and speaks to a context much larger than academia. The Western worldview is still heading pell-mell in the opposite direction, actively squashing all of the ambiguities, inconsistencies, and messily entangled processes where all of the great truth lies waiting to be noticed and played with.

    So there’s that — then there’s the culture of managerial expertise and professionalism that proscribes the ways in which people can prove themselves competent in an academic (or a business) context. There’s a picture of what the professor or the CEO is supposed to be, and people spend a lot of time fashioning themselves in that already-established image instead of keeping their ears and eyes and minds open to re-imaginating what those roles could or should be. If you’re a candidate vying for a job/career, you’d better make sure you spend as much of your time as possible making yourself look like what the hiring committee expects — and maybe you’ve spent your whole life making yourself look that way, so much so that you’ve forgotten to imaginate who you really are. If there were a candidate that really dared to challenge that paradigm — would they be hired?

    Maybe the next great thinkers won’t be academics at all. Maybe the only people who will feel free enough to tinker with the ideas and make real chemistry out of them instead of just soup will have to be the people whose livelihoods don’t depend on producing output inside any particular discipline or system. In the past, the intelligentsia entered the academy because it was the only place to go to get access to the kind of information and connections one requires to keep expanding and recombining thought and ideas, but today that information lives elsewhere, and is easily accessible to anyone with a web browser. I think there is less reason to even need the academy to support this kind of intellectual exploration, as the barriers to participating in the discourse keep coming down.

    Screw interdisciplinary — found the undisciplinary department! 😉

  7. David Molnar

    I second the comment on going to job talks. I started attending them this season…and it’s been eye-opening. Just watching the members of the department interact with the potential hires, how the candidate answers questions, and so on is fascinating.

    The other part of the process that I’m glad I’ve taken advantage of is the student interviews with potential candidates. Aside from getting a lot of time with the candidate (which has already led to some interesting research ideas), it’s a preview of what a department might be looking for from me on the other side of things. Not to mention there are some questions that get asked over and over again…I can be sure now to have some kind of answer for these when it’s my turn.

    As for the bigger question of “who will change the world?”…it’s hard to say. Sometimes you do see work from a PhD student that changes the way you think about things. For one example, in theoretical computer science, Boaz Barak’s non-black-box arguments fit this (and he won an ACM Dissertation Award for it). Is this on the same level as writing Discipline and Punish? Maybe, maybe not (it’s too early to say), but it has changed the way I think about computation.

    In other cases, though, the big idea comes long after the thesis is done. Dave Patterson’s Recovery Oriented Computing and Reliable Adaptive Distributed Systems initiatives are Big Ideas that seek to change the way computing is done, but Patterson is certainly not a fresh PhD! So looking for this from a new PhD may be expecting too much.

  8. Dan

    I don’t believe that identity crisis is the problem with being interdisciplinary – at least, it isn’t the main problem. The main problem is that that it’s so damn hard to be at home in several disciplines. You can only read so many papers in a day, and it takes a lot of work to keep current in just one field.

    As for ‘looking for the next Foucault’: – you don’t really expect to hear about the next big thing right away, do you? It’s taken decades for the work of Foucault and Derrida to filter into US/British academia. It’ll take decades for whoever is hot today to get properly noticed. We’ll only recognise them in hindsight.

  9. zephoria

    Barb – i think that there are other reasons that the intelligencia went into academia, namely the permission to advance knowledge of the sake of knowledge. Of course, i think that your (intentional?) collapsing of the CEO/professor points to one of the problems of the current academy. I may not be responsible to a corporation, but i am responsible to an institution who has decided there’s only value in that which is directly and obviously applicable. Academia has become more practical over the years, a pain that the humanities in particular feel on a daily basis.

    I’ve had the fortune of being able to work with data that can be interpreted for practical as well as theoretical purposes. (Of course, i admit that i’ve been far less successful at focusing on the theoretical side which is becoming a huge problem for me personally.) Unfortunately, my more theoretical-only friends are getting hammered left right and center and there’s definitely a class structure in academia based on externalized ideas of value. I mean, seriously, i live a pretty posh life for a grad student which gives me the freedom to work on what i want. (Of course, as we all know, this also means that i have the freedom to shoot myself in the foot which i’m super good at.)

    You’re probably right that the current state of academia is not conducive to conceptual innovation, but i’m definitely not convinced that industry is any better. I personally find my days in industry mentally and emotionally exhausting and the narrowness of what i produce is not really going to expand thought very far. Of course, the hoops required by academia are equally exhausting but in a different way.

    Perhaps i simply need a sugar momma. Hmmm….

  10. stefanos pantagis

    Not Black Box is really confusing. As ordinary persons outside of academia google search and stumble into these arguments, many who know about foucault will say, yes, who will be the next foucault. But this dissertation is not contextualized in the history of ideas. There is laminal metaphore in listening to something Like Ani Difranco that is more real and imediate: just as the benzene molecule was discovered during restless sleep, so too do most Phd, or just plainly restless independent intellects, wrestle with thoughts and ideas that mirror and explain our world. Pirmordial snakes and dance, as random in a world of thoughts and representations. I choose Ani here cause it is a referential point for the author of this particular blog: others may listen to other artists and music, but what I am articulating is that art can get you closer to the infinte of imagination than can the finiteness of today’s scholarship.

    Yes, there is a philosphical implication to the ideas of Von Neuman/MOrganthou, which intersect with the other ideas from the Manhatten project that go beyond blowing things up. It is these ideas, converged with Derrida and Foucault that are coming into being, and hence the field of the evolving new Foucault. Perhaps the new Foucault will be more loosly a series a questions and answers that occur with the randomness of bloggers just blogging the topic with the right search engine that lays out a series of ideas within a wiki stuctured that is taylored to their own understanding and personal context. Perhaps something like this and the imagined polycephalic, and imaginary mathemetician, Bourbaki, invented by a group of mathmeticians up in chicago and around the world during the 1920’s.

    It is unfortunate that books like Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umerto Ecco deevolve into a very personal paranoia. The same can be said about the Divinci Code. Books like Create a Paranoid sensationalism as well. I find Howard’s Smart Mob Blog, and Book as more informative, and fairer, with a better handle on all the human aptitudes towards a collective Geist. I think Howard IS THE NEW FOUCAULT; and a great journalist! I don’t think he has a Phd, nor an academic title.

    A history of mathematics is quickly becoming a history of computing science, as mathematic books are now being writen more and more by computer and electrical engineers. Philosophy is imploding into art and situationalism. It may only be percievable just as the complexity of modernity was experienced in very old theatre, such as Antigone, or Iphigenia.

    Mixing Virilio (Dromology and the speed of Politics) with Hedigger (who cares about this guys name being spelled correctly, damn fascist: and I purposesly have mispelled him out of the google search dialectic, like sousaveillance, instead of sousveillance?) ideas of being and authenticity, creates the imaginative tensions that is part of creating and recreating the self: sometimes being public, and sometimes being private. I think this non black box argument, and similar gaming and encryption intersects, are similar in the raw, as where the ideas of Lagrange, or Laplace, or Fourier in during the French revolution.

  11. Danila

    Interesting how this post is related to your 6-year old musings about your gender identity. 🙂

    Then: and yet, i feel as though i am being forced to belong, which is only making me more depressed and frustrated. i just want to be myself and be accepted. but isn’t that the cry of most people?

    Today: 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.

    It is absolutely normal to not fit. In fact, this is expected for people who are not ordinary. So just don’t worry and do what you fancy doing.

    I empathise with you regarding fitting. Just yesterday I was relentlessly fighting my aunt, who was trying to call me a scientist, a scientifically minded person, etc. Yeah, I got a Ph.D. a month ago (in finance), but I feel like I am so much more than a scientist (and absolutely most definitely not just an economist). The fact that I value facts and like the scientific method doesn’t mean that I can be neatly classified as “a scientist” and dealt with.

    I share your feelings about interdisciplinarity – I feel like it’s the only worthy way of living/working/thinking – surely not yet for everybody but the aspirations of doing “things that matter” force one very strongly to be an interdisciplinary generalist or something.

    The Degree Programs page at Acceeleration Watch gives an interesting outline of what areas are important for understanding the change/future/life today/Big Picture/etc.

  12. Irina

    Although I am convinced that interdisciplinarity is the future of research, I think Dan hit on a good point. As a graduate student, it is nice to aspire to be interdsciplinary, but in many cases this may result in simply dabbling in many things. A dissertation is the one chance to spend an enormous amount of time on one single project and become a real expert in one thing. You are unlikely to get this chance ever again. That thing is rarely a “field” it is a slice, a question, an idea – narrow enough to be a research project. It also requires an enormous amount of work. A dissertation is a hard thing to do (as it should be). A reasonably interdisciplinary research project is just that much harder. Because you have to cover a lot more ground and there is a lot of research out there in different fields, a lot of thought that you know nothing about at the start. First you have to find the right sources and if your advisors are not interdisciplinary, then the search is really simply your own. This is not a big problem, but it may lead to a lot of oversight.

    On to job talks. I have attended a few over the last few years and the department here is quite interdisciplinary (or at least it likes to think that way). The talks made me realize that as a newly minted phd, it is frightening to go into a talk in this department. Just think – there are lifelong experts there on nearly *every*! aspect of your interdisciplinary work. Some may be more expert than you are. They are also usually quite opinionanted. This, I think, is the point of hiring non-interdisciplinary trained people into an inter-disciplinary department. They come there because they want to work with people from other fields, to conduct interdisciplinary collaborations, but they are fundamentally of their own discipline, which means that you can rely on them being an expert. If someone has interdiscplinary training, however, it is very difficult to understand just how much they know in any one of the fields they span. It is likely, however, that they know less, which may be a problem when they teach their own students.

    As my time as a student is drawing close to an end, I now understand that I can’t simply go on as is if I want an academic career. I have to think how to “style” myself. I have to make myself attractive to a particular displine by focusing my work and (the thing that matters in academia unfortuantely) where I publish my work on what the fields that I think would be likely to give me a job, actually value. In a sense, I have to look less interdisciplinary than I am, using interdisciplinarity as an additional “feature” rather than the main component. I believe this is true even for departments that are interdisciplinary. They still tend to hire “types” of academics, selected by “area of knowledge”.

    Another problem is what do I talk about? If I give a talk to an interdisciplinary department I will have to look narrow and focus on my strengths because my weaknesses will be immediately exposed by people who will know much more than I in one field or another. It is not about finding identity anymore, it is simply a survival strategy. At the moment, the field simply not ready to accept interdsciplinary as it is. There are too many dogmatic tenets set within each discipline as a matter of course.

    Interdiscplinary scholars also probably will have much longer “growth” time and many phd programs are not set up to support something like this quite yet (although they are learning). As such, an interdisciplinary phd should be a bigger commitment than one based in a single displine, but the current “interdisciplinary” departments do not allow for this to happen. Prior to emergence of these department, people who were interdisciplinary either did more than one phd (talk about commitment) or taught themselves fundamentals of another field as they moved in that direction. Either process is extremely slow and few people did it. Now interdisciplinary departments are all the rage, but I think that in order to really be interdisciplinary, it has to be more work, there is no way around it. It is hardly possible to pump out phd students in the same 5 years and call them interdisciplinary. My department, for example, does not understand this. to them, you are automatically interdisciplinary if you’ve taken a class in a field other than your main focus and you give nods to whisps of literature and shades of questions from other disciplines in your dissertation.

    I think you are right, the interdisciplinary vision will come and that is what will move research and shake up thinkers in the future. These changes are transitions, and I don’t think they happen often. We may be due for one, but maybe not just yet? I think you are a little ahead of yourself. You do have a cohort. The misfits, stuck in interdisciplinarity, wanting to understand where they belong, often failing. Eventually, I hope we can shake things up a little ;). It will take time.

  13. Danila

    A dissertation is the one chance to spend an enormous amount of time on one single project and become a real expert in one thing… That thing is rarely a “field” it is a slice, a question, an idea – narrow enough to be a research project.

    But often the particular problem that you select for your dissertation can be approached from multiple angles, often from multiple fields. It isn’t necessarily more difficult to do interdisciplinary work.

  14. Joley

    I’m in the midst of my PhD program’s dissertation seminar, getting in on the ground floor of these discussions, and thankfully, our seminar director is blatantly open about the fact that the dissertation is first and foremost only a document that proves you can do insightful work in a field and teach a survey. It’s something you have to do to just prove this aspect of your academic life; full professors won’t always be teaching intro courses and surveys, they want assistant profs for that. The diss will be there with you for the next decade, but the only thing it shows is that you can sustain a focused argument across a significant length of space, which departments –no matter what they do –need to know before they hire.

    I’ve found that interdisciplinary work needs to be very gingerly approached. I’m in English, later 20th C. Anglo-American fiction, but have done a lot with film and comics. I can’t just talk about a film or graphic novel I dig just because it has some connections to other fiction; I have to make the argument based on some theoretical framework that creates a kind of dynamic argument. That’s hard, and is in part why I think some grad students end up re-focusing to be more genre-specific. But it also allows for some real interdiscipinary work to follow; if I can make the theoretical argument stick, it should be applicaple to other fields/genres as well.

    As far as I can see, departments are pretty staid right now, but it’s more from a kind of historical inertia than conservative desire. I know a prof who’s worked on 19th C and Renaissance lit who spent a good deal of time writing on The Simpsons and The X-Files. Another prof in my department has shifted focus toward pedagogy, while another has moved from Romanticism to digital media and digital text. A fantastic prof I had who moved to Berkeley did quite a bit with intersections of literature, music and film. It was possible, but it took some time (none of them did that sort of thing with their diss), in part because, like someone mentioned above, it takes some time to develop the interdisciplinary arguments one wants to make.

    But don’t let it get you down –it can still be done, and it might be easier once you’ve got the stability of a job and secure backing.

  15. barb dybwad

    danah – I agree with you, industry is equally problematic (hence, the collapse) — I’m definitely not suggesting it as a solution. I would say I’m waging a parallel struggle inside of it. The reality of economics just does not cater well to polymathy. I think finding a sugar momma is not a bad strategy… an alice b. toklas couldn’t hurt, either. 🙂

  16. jeremy hunsinger

    Interesting overall. I wonder whether or not this fixation on identity really matters? I’ve said this before though, i think it comes down to ‘show me what you’ve done’. I’m at what is perhaps one of the most interdisciplinary programs around, STS at Virginia Tech, where we are required to take courses in 4 disciplines and focus either in one, or as an interdiscipline. One Must choose either History, Philosophy, Social/cultural studies, Politics and Policy studies or STS. Personally, I don’t worry about my scholarly identity, I just do what I want to do and help where I can. In short, for me, work defines scholarly identity. This is the same in our department too, people focus on something that interests them, that directs their studies, and their track, and eventually they get a degree or leave to do other things. Are we Interdisciplinary? yes, some of us are even transdisciplinary, mastering one or more disciplines and applying both.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, lots of people do quite a bit of flailing about trying to define STS and to define their work, especially when they go on the market. Unsurprisingly, I’ve had three interviews and no one has asked me yet to explain what STS is or what it does, and if they did, i would talk about what is represented on my vita, and in terms of what they are looking to hire. Am I interdisciplinary, sure, am I disciplinary sure, am in in your discipline, then the discussion begins.

  17. museumfreak


    I work at the USC Nanocenter. I can say fairly confidently that the future is NOT nanotech. Nanotech is attempting to be a model of this breaking down of disciplinary boundaries, but it isn’t working. Yes, in nano there are people working in a number of different scientific fields, and they tend to work more closely with the people who do STS. Ultimately, though, the science people go to the science talks, and the STS people go to the STS talks. They are physically located near each other and interact socially, but that’s really the main thing.

    However, worse, nano right now is a nightmare as far as representing radical, minority, women’s, and other kinds of voices. I actually heard people with disabilities referred to as crippled and handicapped by one speaker (who I chewed out, politely, but still chewed out, immediately after his talk). There are very few women in the nanoSTS field, and many of the ones who I have seen seem to survive by being as non-feminist/feminine as possible. I worry especially about this because nanotech is probably the next thing that will try to seize control of women’s bodies, and I’d kind of like to see some people ready to talk about it. Also, I think that nano may be one of the technologies that will drive increasing class divisions that are happening now and in the future, and we need scholars ready to talk about that too.

  18. museumfreak

    danah–you are the little child who says the emperor hasn’t got any clothes of academia!

    jeremy–i agree, disciplinarity is based on communities of practice. you might be interested in Michael Mahoney’s article Software as Science – Science as Software. It is linked from his homepage here (because he’s got the articles opening in pop-up windows instead of pdfs for no obvious reason I can’t really link you to the article directly).

    i’m still trying to think about how to make an overall response to this. i’ll let you know when i figure it out

  19. Prentiss Riddle

    Very good questions. I can relate, even though I’m just a temporary dabblerin academia (Fook who?). I do want to say that this parallels questions I’ve had about academic discourseas opposed to other forms of writing, notably blogs.

    Meanwhile, a very conservative question: what was the pre-postmodern scholarly solution to a need for breadth and depth outside the walls of one’s own discipline? I’m thinking, say, of social scientists who needed languages, history and literature in order to study a narrow question in an unfamiliar time or place. Or let’s say an archeologist who needed all that plus some working knowledge of geology, chemistry and agriculture. I’m sure you can think of better examples. Did they wring their hands about being neither fish nor fowl? If not, was there something different about the institutions of the day that saved them that grief?

  20. Joley

    Prentiss —

    Early on (19th C. academia), I’d say philologists were the most interdisciplinary. Philology has basically been busted up into cultural anthropology, literature, languages, comparative literature (and sometimes mythology), history of languages and linguistics, it was just this whole magilla of things that were snapped apart once the university as an institution began to expand and specialize.

    Nietzsche was a philologist, Freud started there, I think Jung did too, J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist, there were a bunch of them. I don’t really know of any contemporary scholars who would fit the same bill. Baudrillard comes to mind just because of his intense engagement with semiotic representation and culture, but he doesn’t have the same sort of historical engagement.

    Maybe some of the post-colonialist scholars, like Homi Bhabha or Paul Gilroy, but have fun getting through Bhabha. Gerald Graff at UI-Chicago has a great article about the myth of acadmic difficulty. Bhabha is not what he had in mind.

  21. Prentiss Riddle

    Thanks, Joley. 19th-century biologists and social scientists did a lot of cross-training, too, which at its worst led to Pygmies in cages at zoos and at its best gave us the golden age of cultural anhtropology.

  22. fling93

    zephoria: At my gut, i think that the next iteration of academic progress will require breaking down those walls as well, the walls of art, humanities, social sciences, sciences, engineering.

    Hmmm. Does this mean that the current hierarchy of academic departments will be replaced with tags? Navigating through a course catalog like that would be pretty cool. Dunno how budgets would be handled, though.

  23. Ian Wojtowicz

    Interdisciplinarity is so tired. It’s an institutional catch phrase that’s been so overused in the last few decades that it doesn’t really mean that much anymore. I see it all over the place but all it inspires in me is yawns. I think it’s much more interesting to speak about specific problem domains, or about new frameworks, new disciplines. The world is interdisciplinary, universities are interdisciplinary, people are interdisciplinary. What we need is not to be less disciplinary, but less boring. Less conventional. Find the edge of sanity, take a step back, slow down and look around a little.

    Change will probably come from individuals choosing activities that take them outside of their prescribed spheres and by keeping connected to a few disparate networks. It’s about scientists going to art openings, artists learning math, biologists reading Sylvia Plath, and economists writing screenplays. It’s about traveling, wandering through new spaces and being ready for inspiration when it arrives. Always keep a notebook handy, having random conversations with strangers, looking-up old friends and not being afraid of absorbing knowledge from places off the grid.

    I decided to leave my work as a software developer, go traveling and apply to art school because I wanted to innovate and create in an environment like the Media Lab. But the Media Lab is changing and the world is changing and in some ways art school can be one of the most liberating laboratories around, with very little restriction on form and content of research. It is what you make of it. Autodidactic heaven.

    But you’re talking about next big scholarly thing. I’m saying maybe it won’t come from the type of school you’re looking at. Find the pulse, follow it to the zeitgeist and talk to the people there.

    I wonder what a map from here to there would look like. Ideas?

  24. tony


    Thanks for the info-really kind of sad. I do see how a class of elitists could corner the uses of nanotech and worse constrict it’s uses to their own means.

  25. jeremy hunsinger

    one issue that one might take up is this whole idea of the ‘next big thing’ and the wow factor. first, the major question is ‘why?’…. why do you want to be wowed? why do you think someone that has spent the better part of their lives in normalizing institutions will ‘wow’? how can you judge ‘wow’ before it is popular? and better before it is fully developed and tried against many audiences?

    if i had to say what the next big thing is… i would say that it won’t really involve interdisciplinarity as much as internationalism. most of the big things are acts of cultural embeddedness being translated, appropriated, and popularized.

    both the frankfurt school and the 1968 grops arose this way, addressing a different audience, and then launching onto the international stage.

  26. zephoria

    I want to be wowed because i want my understanding of the world to go through a major shift. But i definitely agree international is critical.

  27. meta

    Oh crap, this is an awesome post d. I’m trackbacking because I have too much for a comment.

    Oh, it’s “hapa”, btw. 🙂

  28. metamanda>>weblog

    being interdisciplinary

    So, zephoria posted about interdisciplinarity and set me off thinking about what it means to be interdisciplinary, and what is a discipline anyway. Now, given what the topology of my mind is like lately, it takes just the slightest nudge in that direct…

  29. jeremy hunsinger

    but for wow…. the question is ‘how do we know it is ‘wow’?’ because, i think that the more that we learn, the less we see as wow-like. or maybe it is that the more ways of thinking one can use, the less likely they will see a new one, or perhaps see the merits of a new one. what are the questions that ‘wow’ answers would address?

  30. paul moody

    I too have an interdisciplinary identity crisis – after nearly 25 years in software design, people still don’t get that design is not a single ‘science’ that can be pigoned-holed. it is interdisciplinary at its core. worse, i don’t even have a ‘mash-up’ degree like your MS MA. Your post reminded me that every job i’ve ever been offered was some ‘special case’, or at least ‘the first of its kind’ such as my current research position. oh! to be misunderstood.

  31. Guitef

    Revue : Moyens de pression via Internet

    Cueilli sur le Web : • Les moyens de pression Internet! (Sacco) • Les parents auront un droit de regard (Le Soleil) • Education, infrastructure top Ontario’s budget agenda (Globe and Mail) • ‘Interactive teaching’engages learners (eSchool News) • Hand …

  32. Shannon Clark


    I’m outside of academia but have just finished running MeshForum ( a conference on Networks where we made a lot of effort to bring together a truly wide range of academics, business people and government experts around multiple aspects of and views on Networks.

    From this a few thoughts – I would argue that the growing study of and understanding of networks which has blossomed in the past 5 years represents a truly interdisciplinary and important development. Social scientists, physicists, economists, and dozens of other fields finding a common language and means of collaborating together to address very real and important problems.

    At MeshForum we had a number of people who’s careers illustate real work across disciplines:

    – Dr. Anna Nagurney of U. Mass – Amherst. Dr. Nagurney is an economist but has professorships in both the school of management and the school of engineering. She has published and/or edited 8 books on Networks – including works specifically on transportation networks and Network Economics. Her talk at MeshForum brought together work from operational engineering, transportation, economics, and many other fields.

    – Dr. Noshir Contracter, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Contractor is in the school of communications, but his research interests and works (over 250 papers and books) have been with researchers from many other fields.

    – Dr. Eivind Almaas, University of Notre Dame. Dr. Almaas is a physicist but his research at Notre Dame in Dr. Albert-Lazlow Barabasi’s lab is on biological networks. Dr. Barabasi’s work (see his book Linked) includes studies of computer networks, social networks, and physical networks.

    Just a few examples from speakers we had – our other speakers are also great examples.

    My own interes (well one of them) is in studying economics through a lens of networks. To do this, I am learning as much as I can about networks in every context – social, physical, biological, technical etc. I expect to adapt techniques from many fields to address the issues I’m studying.

    Hope this helps,


  33. Lester Spence

    This is the absolute wrong approach. The question isn’t WHO is the next big thinker. It isn’t even whether the route is interdisciplinary or not.


    We seem to be forgetting that the questions and the landscape we stake out through those questions are what drives the academy. (Well of course there is more than that, but you know what I mean.)

    Once that question is answered, we’ll know WHO the thinkers are (because they’ll either ask the questions, or answer the questions we’re interested in), and we’ll know whether interdisciplinary or intradisciplinary routes are best.

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