Department and punish

by Michael Bérubé on April 28, 2009

In <a href=””>comments to a post</a> over at my newly-renamed Other Place, a person by the handle of FrogProf directed me to <a href=””>this discussion</a> of <a href=””>Mark Taylor’s recent (and very strange) <i>New York Times</i> op-ed</a>.  Taylor’s essay is modestly titled “End the University as We Know It,” and the response, from (as it says on the blog banner) a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990’s who has since moved into academic administration, takes apart Taylor’s proposal for replacing departments with temporary topic-clusters with seven-year sunset clauses:

<blockquote>I’m at a loss to explain where all these interdisciplinary experts will get their disciplinary expertise. Yes, a significant part of grad school involves exploring new questions. But another significant part — the part he skips — involves getting grounding in the history of a given line of inquiry. Call it a canon or a discipline or a tradition, but it’s part of the toolkit scholars bring to bear on new questions. Abandoning the toolkit in favor of, well, ad hoc autodidacticism doesn’t really solve the problem. If anything, it makes existing grads even less employable than they already are. I need to hire someone to teach Intro to Sociology. Is a graduate of a program in “Body” or “Water” capable? How the hell do I know? (And even if I think I do, can I convince an accrediting agency?) Am I taking the chance? In this market? Uh, that would be ‘no.'</blockquote>

I agree that Taylor’s proposal is unworkable, but I have a tangential-but-related point.  Challenging the departmental structure of universities (whatever you might think of that project) isn’t the same thing as doing away with <i>disciplines</i>.

People elide the two all the time, and it makes me fidget and squirm in my seat and exhale loudly — not least because lots of people in the humanities are responsible for the confusion. <i>Especially</i> those of us in cultural studies.  For a couple of decades now, we’ve prided ourselves on being not merely interdisciplinary but “post”-disciplinary and “anti”-disciplinary.  “Disciplinarity” basically became a dirty word, associated with stodgy, stultifying bureaucracy and, oh yes, punishment (for this I blame Foucault, of course), so that being post- or anti- it seemed like a Good Thing at the time.

But at some point in the late 1990s, while I was just minding my business directing a <a href=””>humanities program</a> (and hey!  check it out! their theme for the 2008-09 year is “disciplinarity”!), it finally occurred to me — well, actually, it occurred to me during a lecture by anthropologist Richard Handler — that 96 or 97 times out of 100, when people complain about “disciplines” they’re actually complaining about <i>departments</i>.  Think of it this way: wherever you see the term “discipline,” substitute “intellectual tradition,” as Dean Dad does in the excerpt above.  Now, what’s coercive or stultifying about an intellectual tradition?  Not much, really.  You want to learn about sociology following Durkheim or Simmel?  Go right ahead.  You want to immerse yourself in the history of object relations theory or ego psychology?  Be my guest.  Disciplines are pretty fluid that way.  For example: let’s say that one of the great literary critics of our era, perhaps <a href=”″>one of the founders of queer theory (PBUH)</a>, decides one day to engage with the work of Sylvan Tomkins.  Who’s gonna stop her?  You?  The <i>discipline</i>?  I don’t think so.  Or let’s say that a bunch of sociologists, psychologists, rehabilitation counselors, queer theorists, and disability-studies types decide over the course of a couple of decades that Erving Goffman’s work could be really important to them.  Does any discipline have an exclusive claim on Goffman?  Are there intellectual-property statutes involved?  No and no.

Now, I’m not saying that disciplines are infinitely flexible, or that they’re simply a matter of reading this or practicing that; they do indeed have institutional incarnations, and it’s possible for the International Association of Stodgy Stultifiers to bar people from the annual conference program on the grounds that they are no longer “doing” Stodgy Stultifying the way the Association thinks it should be done.  (Not to single anybody out, of course, but surely you remember the days when people would say, “Richard Rorty, PBUH, doesn’t really do philosophy.”) I am, however, saying that (a) disciplines and departments aren’t the same thing, and (b) the former are far more flexible and capacious than the latter.  As for (a): the Department of Anthropology does not consist of one discipline; nor do the Departments of Sociology or History.  The discipline of literary criticism, loose and baggy as it is, is practiced in more than one department: not only in English but in all the modern languages and Comp Lit too.  And English, for its part, houses literary critics and creative writers and rhetoric and composition and sometimes even film scholars (though this “film” fad will surely pass — it’s not really an art form, after all).  As for (b):  becoming interdisciplinary involves training in more than one intellectual tradition; becoming inter<i>departmental</i> means dealing with a lot of stodgy, stultifying bureaucracy (like figuring out who’s supposed to conduct your pre-tenure reviews and whether a 50 percent appointment translates into 50 percent voting rights).

So the next time someone complains about the constraints imposed by disciplines, ask yourself (or them!) whether they’re not really complaining about the constraints of <i>departments</i>.  And the next time someone claims to be post-disciplinary or anti-disciplinary, ask yourself (but probably not them!) what it would sound like to be “post-intellectual traditions” or “anti-intellectual traditions.”  And then pick up a copy of <a href=”″>this illuminating collection of essays</a>, which I blurbed enthusiastically some years ago (as Amazon duly notes) for what will now be obvious reasons.

<a href=””>x-posted, too.</a>



Henry 04.28.09 at 8:16 pm

We had a post on intellectual defences for disciplines a few years ago – see here and here for an interesting Susanne Lohmann paper.


Michael Bérubé 04.28.09 at 8:53 pm

Thanks! And my apologies for reinventing the disciplinary wheel here at CT. This bit from Susanne Lohmann seems directly on point:

Internal competition can be achieved by piling cross-cutting structures on top of the departmental structures. For example, an interdisciplinary program might draw on the discipline-based departments to staff its courses.

I’d argue that’s exactly what Humanities Institutes and Centers for the Study of This, That and the Other are trying to do. Would that they had more contact with undergraduate education, though — something I never managed to pull off in my own term as institute director.


Ben Alpers 04.28.09 at 9:26 pm

An excellent post on an issue that shouldn’t be arcane and yet, in practice, seems to be.

The interdisciplinary Film and Video Studies Program at my institution, the University of Oklahoma, for years obsessively and irrationally defined “interdisciplinary” as “interdepartmental.” I only caught the tailend of this when I arrived about ten years ago, but it was an incredible breath of fresh air when we got new leadership that realized that something could be interdisciplinary without involving faculty from more than one department.

In fact, the reverse is also true. Here at OU, History is officially in the social sciences, History of Science is in the humanities. The supposedly interdisciplinary courses in our College of Liberal Studies are required to have two faculty from different areas of (e.g. two out of the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences). Thus an “interdisciplinary” CLS course could be offered by a professor from History of Science teaching with a professor from History.

On the other hand, let me give at least two cheers to traditional, discipline-defined (however imperfectly) departments. We all know that they can be irrational and dysfunctional places. But they can also be very good at what they do. And the department is a structure that offers some real benefits to faculty.

For the last decade my primary appointment has been in an interdisciplinary unit, the Honors College, that is not strictly speaking a department. The chief difference between my life and that of my department-bound colleagues in other, more traditional units is that my HC colleagues and I enjoy much less authority over the direction of our unit. We have no chair and have no real say in the appointment (or even reappointment) of our immediate supervisors within the College.

Give me a traditional department any day!


SusanC 04.28.09 at 9:58 pm

I’d say that it’s disciplines that are the problem, not departments.

Now, OK: departments pay people’s salaries, receive grant money, own lecture theatres, are responsible for students, and (de facto, if not de jure) award degrees. But if you’ve got a cool idea for a research project that crosses departmental lines, the adminstrative aspects like “whose seminar room do we get to use” are really easy to deal with (at least in the institutions I’m familiar with).

The much harder problem is the disciplinary one. People from different disciplines have serious difficulty understanding each other. It’s not so much the technical content of the discipline that’s the issue, as the unstated assumptions (of fact, of theory, of method, of the area of interest, of ethics) that are shared between adherents of the discipline but are likely not shared by other disciplines.

Suppose you’ve got in your seminar room economists, anthropologists, computer scientists: you rapidly find that each is in the habit of making assumptions about human beings that the others find totally implausible.

I’m inclined to think that it’s a good idea to be regularly exposed to other academics who think your own discpline’s basic assumptions are false or ridiculous.


Jonathan Mayhew 04.28.09 at 10:14 pm

To place a high premium interdisciplinarity is to imply the value of disciplines themselves, as stand-alone entities. Otherwise doesn’t all so-called interdisciplinary work converge into some variety of dilettantish cultural history? The danger is excitedly meeting the anthropologist and realizing that the anthropologist pretty much knows the same kind of things that you, as literary critic, know. After all, you’ve been reading Clifford Geertz and the anthropologist has been reading Foucault, etc… In other words, if you share the same epistemology it doesn’t matter whether you share the same discipline: there won’t be a conflict. On the other hand, if you don’t share epistemology (literary critics and economists) you can’t really collaborate in an interdisciplinary way. For example, linguists and literary folk don’t often collaborate even within the same dept.

The other model is where one of the collaborators brings in some hard disciplinary expertise, the way that a statistician might be brought into a project.


SusanC 04.28.09 at 10:41 pm

As an example, “surveillance studies” is fashionable right now. As topical issues driving the research questions, you might look at the US illegal wiretapping scandal, Phorm, UK identity cards, CCTV systems, “reality” television. A computer scientist would probably tell you how changes in the technology people use to communicate have changed what the government is physically capable of intercepting. (Here you can take a quick pause to wonder whether a Marxist and computer scientist mean the same thing when they say “infrastructure”). The guy from the law faculty is probably going to tell you about the UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and also about the development of the notion of a “right to privacy” in US and European jusriprudence. The public choice economist is going to construct a model of how technology companies persuade government officials to spend millions of pounds on surveillance systems that don’t work. The criminologist will want to experimentally measure whether criminals are, in fact, deterred by all this surveillance. The Mary Douglas-influenced anthropologist will wonder whether privacy activist groups are structured in a similar way to environment activist groups. The guy from the English department will have read Foucault.

Sorting out the administrative issues with your respective departments is the least of your problems.


Marc 04.28.09 at 11:21 pm

The good professor Taylor appears utterly unfamiliar with the sciences. Replace chemistry with air, earth, fire, and water? And I’m also quite skeptical about how well graduate students would fare. The typical departmental oversight on treatment/mentoring of students is blurred in interdisciplinary programs. (I’m assuming competence in the departments themselves; I’ll grant that this may be unwarranted at times.) It can be hard to keep students on track if no one is sure who is responsible for checking on them, especially in larger programs.


Bill Benzon 04.28.09 at 11:33 pm

Another angle.

I was on the faculty of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for a number of years. As some of you may know, it’s a very good school, but nonetheless, it’s a second tier school behind MIT, Cal Tech, and Carnegie-Mellon. One thing that struck me about the place was that interdisciplinarity had a very different valence there from what it had at my undergraduate school, Johns Hopkins, or my graduate school, SUNY Buffalo. Those places had strong departments, as that’s how things are done, but there was interdisciplinary work being done and in recognized centers. This work was regarded as cutting-edge and high-risk.

Not so at RPI. There interdisciplinary work was regarded as ho-hum and conservative. The bold and the brave craved disciplinary purity. (Note that this was over two decades ago. I don’t know the present mood.)

Why the difference?

I don’t really know, but my guess goes like this: RPI was really an engineering school, and the engineering disciplines are practical disciplines. Out in the field engineers in one discipline have to collaborate with engineers from other disciplines because real products, whether they be consumer appliances or 100-story mega buildings, require the coordinated and collaborative efforts of people with many different intellectual skills. So, at RPI interdisciplinarity was the stuff of the work-a-day world, the mundane world. If you’re one of the privileged ones working in the academy, however, you should aspire to disciplinary purity.


MadeOutOfPeople 04.29.09 at 12:02 am


Another angle, on your other angle. Halfway through my grad program, I transferred from UC Berkeley to UC Irvine. I found Berkeley to be strongly disciplinary: they were hesitant to examine new areas of research that fell outside of the tightest traditional lines; when the sociologists wanted to talk to the computer scientists, the discussion had much more to do with “do we get the prestige of cross-listing with your classes?” and less about “how do our fundamental assumptions differ?”

In contrast, Irvine was proudly multidisciplinary. Centers for X and Y everywhere. Computer scientists, sociologists, criminologists, and far more all worked together on departmentally-approved project.

As far as I can tell, the major difference was that Berkeley was the best school in lots of stuff. Top ten in all the rest. They always recruited the hottest researcher, the best-known person, and the top graduate students, and they followed the formula: do the state of the art, but better and newer, and you’ll win. There was real risk in betting wrong: it would expose them to ridicule.

In contrast, Irvine, a second-tier school, knew that they couldn’t possibly win. They would never have a better anything department than Berkeley. But they could certainly attract people who wanted to do something different. And while ridicule would be ignored, a daring breakthrough could really gain publicity, attract new faculty and students.

It’s pretty much Clayton Christensen all over again.


harry b 04.29.09 at 12:29 am

Agree completely with Susan C. Or perhaps not. Is the problem you describe the disciplines, or is it the people, who don’t really believe that they have anything to learn from people within the other disciplines. They are, if you like, trying to colonize. I participated recently in a fantastic study group, which produced no actual research (wasn’t supposed to), but worked brilliantly because all the people in it were modest, and modest about what their own discipline could contribute. The ability and willingness to listen and learn is a key to succeeding.

And on that point, while I believe that much of what Rorty did post-P&TMON was, sort of, philosophy, I’m not infrequently struck by people in other disciplines who say that what they are doing is philosophy, or ethics, and who neither seem to have much grasp of ethics/philosophy as a discipline, nor seem to have sought out people who actually do those things to talk to. Me, I have never done any actual social science, I simply consume it for the purposes of what I actually do, but it never occurred to me that I could consume, let alone do, it, without a great deal of study and a fair amount of discussion with people who do it.


Kaveh Hemmat 04.29.09 at 2:12 am

@9 Perhaps those comments about philosophy have more to do with the difference between laypersons’ definitions of philosophy (in other words what they think philosophy encompasses, as an aspect of our intellectual lives), and the discipline of philosophy and the boundaries it has claimed for itself. In other words, philosophy is not like science where you have a more strict boundary between what is science and what is not science.


Michael Bérubé 04.29.09 at 3:20 am

SusanC: Suppose you’ve got in your seminar room economists, anthropologists, computer scientists: you rapidly find that each is in the habit of making assumptions about human beings that the others find totally implausible.

I’m inclined to think that it’s a good idea to be regularly exposed to other academics who think your own discpline’s basic assumptions are false or ridiculous.

Me too, which brings me to yet another thing I’ve been complaining about (quietly) for ten years: the idea (again, especially prevalent in cultural studies) that you should want to have interdisciplinarity in one person. (Sometimes, that interdisciplinarity turns out to be “literature and film.” Spanning the globe!) It’s much more instructive — and sometimes fun — to have interdisciplinarity in ten or twelve people, and get them going around the seminar table. My best experience of this? The year the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities took “cities” as our theme, and our Fellows ranged from literature to architecture. If only I’d managed to get some undergraduates involved in that as well. . . .


anonymous 04.29.09 at 4:13 am

Here is a thing that is different than just being bothered by departments and it is one thing I’ve always been curious about. My discipline has a particular cabal who police the discipline very successfully. That is, some of them have the power to make it difficult for people who do not conform to what they regard as appropriate methods or topics. Usually, people who notice this or complain about it are working outside the boundaries. I’m not so much. I am within the discipline but I have observed the effects of this policing on others. The reasons for the intense policing and the vehemence and even rage at those who violate what some think of as the norms of the discipline are not really knock down reasons. Also, it is highly moralized. Usually the argument is that this or that is stupid and wrong but often this is said about things they couldn’t possibly know much about. I haven’t thought so much about this but it seems like the tetchiness is that any kind of alternative perspective or method is really sort of a threat to the discipline itself–because what are the norms for if they are not the right norms and a discipline needs norms, doesn’t it? In that sense, the people with the greatest vehemence are a little bit like Edith Wharton characters. A certain kind of violation and the whole house of cards could come down. If social position is not to be arbitrary it must be based on some sort of superiority. So certain kinds of behavior cannot be permitted because that would reveal the arbitrariness of the scheme.

This sounds like such a crazy hypothesis, now that I read it. I’d like to know some other explanation. Like I said, I haven’t thought about this much.

One thing I’ve always been curious about is whether all disciplines do this intense policing with deep scorn for those who violate what are perceived to be the appropriate boundaries. Is this what disciplinarity is, at heart? Clearly, it is a tradition, as you say. Does protection of tradition there mirror the patterns found in the protection of social traditions?


Stuart Dryer 04.29.09 at 8:22 am

Replace departments with some other cluster of faculty and all you have done is create departments only you are calling them something else. The sunset clause is completely unworkable in the real world of, you know, paying salaries, ordering stuff, reconciling grants, and even arcana like awarding degrees, establishing curricula, and even figuring out who is going to teach what next semester.

Some departments are dysfunctional. So would they be if you called them something else.


MagnusR 04.29.09 at 12:45 pm

The recent Research Assessment Exercise in the UK had a particularly annoying conflation of discipline & department. It was essentially organised by discipline – philosophy, sociology, computing etc. These disciplines are termed “units of assessment” in the RAE. But many of the documents about it talked about “departments” making submissions to particular units of assessment; and in fact some of the assumptions around research infrastructure seemed strongly to presume that only coherent organisations entities with strong boundaries would be the ones submitting to the RAE. A great deal of media coverage following the RAE results talked about departments doing well. It made things rather difficult for interdisciplinary departments, or even ones with a fairly strong focus but which arose from more than one of the disciplines covered by the RAE (information systems, for instance). Not that that’s the only problem of the RAE, but it is a particularly strong one.

Anonymous @ 13 reminds me of something written about the great interdisciplinarian Gregory Bateson by his biographer: “Gregory posted himself to the margins of not one, but multiple disciplines from which he secluded and then absented himself” (David Lipset, 2005, Anthropological Quarterly 98.4:911). Of course, what this particular quote fails to record (though Lipset has written much on the subject elsewhere) is that Bateson was a founder of many of the disciplines he touched – cybernetics/systems, anthropology, communications theory and family systems therapy among others – or at least had a huge influence on taking them forward. The role of what I’ve called a cyborg researcher is an uncomfortable one but can be hugely important in taking disciplines forward. Innovation comes at the margins of established bodies of thought, not at their centres.


Laleh 04.29.09 at 2:39 pm

Michael B. at 12 re: the cities theme… isn’t that exactly what Taylor is suggesting?


Laleh 04.29.09 at 2:41 pm

That said, I thought Taylor’s comments were kind of piddly. Aside from the fact that he didn’t complain about power, racism, sexism etc. and obviously doesn’t understand how the sciences work, I think the abolishing of tenure is silly. I teach Israel/Palestine and the idea that I would have to go through what Joseph Massad or Nadia Abu El-Haj went through EVERY SEVEN YEARS (if I thought in the US, that is), just sends shivers down my spine.


Laleh 04.29.09 at 2:41 pm

Sorry, that is TAUGHT (not thought)


Michael Bérubé 04.29.09 at 3:29 pm

Laleh @ 16: yes. But it’s one thing to do it in a humanities institute for a year, and quite another to make it the model for the entire university. As Dean Dad points out, who does the reviewing/ assessing of the temporary-topic programs? And to what end? At least in a humanities institute the board can get together every year, take suggestions from far and wide, and come up with rubrics that will (one hopes) intersect with the research people are actually doing — without creating a seven-year program. As for Taylor’s argument for the abolition of tenure, ye gods. See Marc Bousquet’s scorching response, and yeah, you’d think that someone who teaches basically down the hall from Joseph Massad and Nadia Abu El-Haj would have a livelier sense of the value of tenure.

anon @ 13: any kind of alternative perspective or method is really sort of a threat to the discipline itself—because what are the norms for if they are not the right norms and a discipline needs norms, doesn’t it?

Bingo. That, plus the fact that the alternative perspectives call into question the very lives and careers of your cabal, gives you the territorialism for which academe is justly famous. (You also have to be dealing with people who have trouble with the idea that norms can change over time.) I can’t count the number of times I have heard people argue that X is not an appropriate candidate for Y job because s/he doesn’t attend the right conferences, and I always think, O Moloch, life is surely too short for this shit.


nick j 04.29.09 at 4:17 pm

though this “film” fad will surely pass—it’s not really an art form, after all

Why is it not?


Michael Bérubé 04.29.09 at 7:49 pm

Because of The Spirit. No, seriously, I was kidding — by way of channeling the stodgy stultifiers of another era.


SusanC 04.29.09 at 7:50 pm

Also, it is highly moralized.

Yes, it’s very interesting how often arguments between people from different disciplines are phrased in moral terms.

A discipline that studies human beings usually has a shared understanding on what is and is not OK to do to a human subject. In cross-disciplinary work, you need to get each other up to speed on what considered acceptable, and what the IRB will let you do. (e.g. in psychology, it is completely standard to deceive your study participants about both the true purpose of the experiment, and about the experimental set-up)
I don’t have much of a problem with these restrictions being described in moral terms.

But the moral framing goes further than that e.g., what effect will publishing the research have, what will it be used for etc. When talking outside your own discipline, you find yourself making explict ethical constraints that, internally, are left unsaid.
(And some of this is probably boundary-defense masquerading as ethics).


Britta 04.30.09 at 1:08 am

Just want to chime in that I totally want a PhD in “Life.” If that doesn’t pan out, I would gladly switch to “Money” however.


Thomas 04.30.09 at 1:37 pm

“becoming interdisciplinary involves training in more than one intellectual tradition; becoming interdepartmental means dealing with a lot of stodgy, stultifying bureaucracy”

You got it! Departments serve some important functions, but you don’t want those functions taking up all of the time you want to devote to intellectual pursuits. I suspect departments could cover relatively arbitrary areas and still be effective as long as they don’t change all the time and you only need to be tied to one.

On a more general note, thanks for this discussion. Many of the online criticisms of Taylor’s piece are exactly like my own: the sciences sure are not suffering from these issues. Not much more to say after that. I’ve tried to find humanists offering perspective, and this blog and comments have the provided the most insight I’ve found. Thanks!

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