Thursday, January 12, 2006

On being interdisciplinary

I'm enrolled in an interdisciplinary graduate program in the humanities.

Rethinking: I've never hidden my identity here, yet I've never exactly broadcast my name, either. But since I'll likely be blogging for BlogHer under my full name, I might as well provide (almost) all the details instead of being coy, since someone could discover them with very little effort:

I'm in my fifth year of a graduate program in cultural studies. I also spent a year in a graduate American studies program. Although my BA is in English, my undergrad institution emphasized interdisciplinarity. Accordingly, over the past 10 to 12 years I've thought a lot about what it means to be interdisciplinary.

As I'm on the job market this year, I've felt my interdisciplinarity even more keenly than usual. Although many of the jobs for which I've applied claim to value interdisciplinarity, I wager in the end departments will end up hiring people whose degrees pretty closely match their department titles and whose transcripts reflect a majority of courses taken in a single discipline.

On a practical, concrete level, here's what being interdisciplinary looks like for me:

• Historically, the Cultural Studies program (which is only in its sixth year) has offered very few electives, and thus students must look elsewhere for seminars. I haven't concentrated my coursework in any one department, instead taking classes in departments ranging from anthropology to landscape architecture.

• Since Cultural Studies doesn't have its own undergraduate program, I get pimped out as a TA and instructor to whatever departments need me. This has led me to teach largely in American Studies, but also English (writing and lit), Technoculture Studies, and, oddly enough, Biotechnology (an ethics course).

• I'm earning a Designated Emphasis in Feminist Theory, which is also interdisciplinary. (Oops!)

• My dissertation concerns women scientists working in U.S. natural history museums and related institutions (botanical gardens, zoos, arboreta, etc.) between 1880 and 1950. I've spent quite a bit of time in archives, and "writing my dissertation" really means wading through a sea of photocopies. I'm also undertaking some interviews with women currently working in a few of this country's bigger natural history museums.

• My dissertation committee has two American Studies professors and one history professor. The history prof recently replaced a Science and Technology Studies professor I had been told absolutely must be on my committee, but whose schedule never seemed to mesh with mine, so we never met. (Oops again.)

Technoculture Studies, Science and Tech Studies, American Studies, Women's Studies, Cultural Studies: Is it obvious yet that my university is in love with interdisciplinary programs?

I'm wondering how many graduates of these programs (or their related designated emphases) get tenure-track jobs? AFAIK, Cultural Studies has to this point graduated four people, two of whom—both white males in a program in which such creatures are rare—have landed tenure-track positions, one in communications and one in social work (their emphases before beginning the Cultural Studies program). Using this formula of Master's degree = teaching field, I should be in creative writing. (Fat chance of that happening, BTW. Academic research sucks the poetic impulses right out of me...)

Faculty with whom I've consulted about my job prospects assure me there are lots of positions out there for cultural studies grads. I'm trying not to be cynical about my own prospects, but since I've worked in PR and marketing, it's hard to swallow what they're telling me. The advice I've received from a couple of people make it sound as if I'll be buying a timeshare in a discipline—as if I'll vacation there, but will be doing my "real" work interdisciplinarily. Uh-huh. (Nod and smile, nod and smile.)

Sure, there are theoretical benefits to working between and among disciplines, but they're often deflated by the reality of a university bureaucracy and competition among departments for scarce resources. Enrolling in certain degree programs can, depending on the university, mean carte blanche to register for any seminar one pleases. However, it's quite a bit different where I am, where some departments lock us out of courses through requiring special registration codes, or, in extreme cases, through evasive tactics, on an individual faculty level, that ensure that we rowdy Cultural Studies types won't sully their seminar rooms. I'm looking at you, professors who taught historiography and American women's history before I went ABD. . . (That said, in the intervening year I've made some peace with the history department. See my new committee member, above.) :)

Technically, being interdisciplinary means I can apply the methods of one discipline to the content of another. That could be fun, though it does mean a lot of reading in at least two disciplines, and I never really feel well-versed in the literature of any one of them, which puts me at a disadvantage when I do take seminars in traditional departments. It also means I've read a lot of journal articles and books I don't really understand come close to understanding.

So you can theorize about interdisciplinarity all you wish, but I'm envious of those of you couched safely and comfortably in departments, regardless of whether you consider your own work disciplinary or inter-.

I'd like to be able to immerse myself so deeply in a discipline that I could blog about it both intelligently and passionately. (I admire Caleb McDaniel's blog for this reason.) I'd like to be able to toss off a meaningful post for History Carnival and have it seem effortless.

Some folks have been kind enough to lend me years of perspective and relative good cheer. Others--this week it's Professor Bastard speak my mind with great humor. Thanks for that.

But on a day-to-day level, this interdisciplinarity thing is damn hard.


Badger said...

With two interdisciplinary degrees (and working on a third degree in a "comparative" program), I understand your fears and frustrations all too well.

(Happy Delurking Week, by the way)

Caleb said...

Thanks for the very flattering plug and the thoughtful post!

It seems to me that the problems with job placement that you're describing have less to do with committees not meaning what they say when they claim to value interdisciplinarity, and more to do (as you suggest) with institutional resources and the problem of scarcity. I imagine it's the deans and provosts who are the ones claiming to value interdisciplinarity and then forgetting to put their money where their mouths are. I know at my university our several interdisciplinary programs are always starved for cash.

Since I'm on the job market too, though, I don't really know yet whereof I speak. Best wishes for the search!

BTW, I think your sense of interdisciplinarity being a case of "doing many things" without doing any one thing well is not necessarily unique to someone in an interdisciplinary program. If my own experience is any guide (and hey, it's the only experience I've got), even those of us settled in a particulary disciplinary niche frequently find ourselves reading books and journal articles that we don't come close to understanding.

YelloCello said...

Found myself nodding vigorously as I read this post...

Not much to add, save that I do now tell students who come to me for advice about graduate school that they should get one of their degrees in a "traditional" field. Because I do believe people with those degrees or some combination of disciplinary/interdisciplinary jobs tend to do better on the market. That said, I do not think that you should see yourself or your training as "less than." First of all, a lot of people in more traditional degree programs are doing the kind of cross-discplinary research that innovators in cultural and American studies made possible. Second of all, they don't always do it as skillfully or creatively as I bet you do. The flip side of our interdisciplinary strength is that we are very easy to slot as workers who will do a lot and for less prestige and pay. That's the real reason I think a lot of administrators profess interest in interdisiplinarity, I fear.

YelloCello said...

I meant to say "some combination of disciplinary/interdisciplinary DEGREES," not jobs. Sorry -- wrote in haste. And I wish you the very best in your job search, btw!

YelloCello said...

p.p.s. Wanted to add that I have only interdisciplinary degrees and an interdisciplinary designated emphasis, too.

ArticulateDad said...

Thanks for your post (and comments on mine
I'm not one who supports or rejects interdisciplinarity itself. What's important to me is inquiry. Are you asking interesting and relevant and meaningful questions? If the answer is yes, then you must follow the paths the questions require, which sometimes means crossing over to remote disciplinary areas.

The benefit of disciplines is their great depth; the benefit of interdisciplinarity is great breadth. In each case, the trick is find balance: neither a mile wide and an inch deep, nor an inch wide, and a mile deep.

Your questions, as you relate them, are indeed interesting, potentially exciting and groundbreaking. That's what we all aspire to, in our dissertations and in our lifework. That is the start, how we execute it is up to us.

Here's a tidbit from history:

Dvorak was considered a natural weaver of melodies. For his part, he considered melodies to come easily, but labored over how to develop them musically.

A few generations before, Haydn, a master of musical variation, exclaimed that the height of musical creativity was devising melodies, which he labored over.

They each had different strengths, different approaches to composing. Neither was a better method; they were simply different. We each have our own starting points: some are abundantly skilled at the methods of their discipline (perhaps like Haydn), and labor over finding the question; others are adrift in questions (Dvorak's state), but struggle to find the appropriate means to get at them.

It's no mystery that I relate more to Dvorak, than Haydn. It's not that I don't respect and welcome the work of all the Haydns... I just want a little more respect for the rest of us too.