A post-disciplinary academy?

It has been my view for some time that attachment to the traditional disciplines is making it harder for universities to adapt to changing circumstances. Most universities organise themselves in accordance with disciplinary boundaries that, in the case of the humanities, go back to the Middle Ages, and in the case of engineering and science, to the 19th century.

Now, in a recent issue of the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education where a number of prominent thinkers were asked to describe ‘the defining idea of the coming decade’, Professor Elaine Ecklund of Rice University’s Institute for Urban Research suggests that it might be necessary to abandon disciplines in order to ‘think beyond old boundaries’. She points out that the problems universities are asked to help solve all tend to lie between disciplines; but universities, organised into disciplines that stay shielded from others often for budgetary reasons, can find it hard to embrace interdisciplinary methodology. Their work is often determined and assessed by peer review panels, which are overwhelmingly established on disciplinary lines.

In fact the academic attachment to disciplines is far-reaching. As people progress in their careers, the discipline they are in tends to determine working methods and even personal friendships. Often a lecturer will feel that their primary allegiance is to their discipline, with the university often coming a rather poor second. Breaking down this particular order would be very difficult and could meet very significant resistance; but it may well need to be done. But if it is done, it may fundamentally alter the nature and atmosphere of the university.

I think that change is necessary, but it will fail unless it is properly prepared and unless academic consent is secured along the way. All of this should be part of a broader campaign for universities to regain society’s trust and confidence.

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19 Comments on “A post-disciplinary academy?”

  1. Thank you for this excellent piece with which I agree.

    May I suggest the change we seek could be greatly facilitated if, as a first step, a course in science-based Integrative Thinking were introduced into all disciplines.

    Neuroscience and many other disciplines are already showing that the human mind is the process of a trained human brain interacting with the rest of the human body which is interacting with its physical, social and cultural environment. The human mind tends to be integrative. Our existing arrangement of separate disciplines arose from an earlier non-scientific misunderstanding of the human mind as being separate from the body and from its physical, social and cultural environment.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Neuroscience has “shown” nothing of the sort. No doubt many neuroscientists believe that the mind is the brain which sits in the body which interacts with the environment. And lord knows that huge piles of money are being thrown at anyone who says they are going to take a look at their own field through the prism of that claim. But every aspect of that claim is riven with assumptions that have not been examined. See, for example, this book for a critique (co-written by a philosopher and a neuroscientist) about such claims.

      As for a-disciplinarity: must we throw out every aspect of an institution that has served us extremely well for centuries? Are we so sure of ourselves and so arrogant that we think we know better than institutions that are vaster than any of us? Ferdinand says “medieval” like it’s some kind of insult. It’s enough to say that something dates from the Middle Ages to suggest, without the need to put forward an argument, that it is therefore hopelessly out of step with a world that has, you know, computers and stuff. As if the people working in the humanities were all walking around in chain mail. But I say: the onus is on those who want to change or abolish these disciplines to explain exactly what the tasks are for which they are inadequate and why they are inadequate to them. Given the draconian nature of the proposition and the stakes involved, mere empty handwaving in the direction of “thinking outside of old boundaries” is not enough. Has anyone advocating these huge changes in the workings of universities, from Lord Browne to the President of SUNY Albany to our own Colin Hunt ever asked themselves this crucial question: “What if I am mistaken?” It doesn’t seem that they have.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Oops. Looks like I forgot to close the bold tag after “a-disciplinarity.” My apologies.

      • Ernie, I doubt many would particularly want to support the medieval view of disciplines: they believed that the only real disciplines were theology, philosophy and mathematics. Nothing else has any claim to be a university subject.

        The fact is that our perceptions and views change, and universities need to be able to reflect that as much as any other institution, perhaps more. How can we really say that a university model built at a time when the world was flat and slavery was part of the natural order should serve us well today?

        As for ‘abolishing’ disciplines, who said that? If the term means anything, it refers to an intellectual framework for addressing intellectual constructs. But just as the content of our knowledge has changed, so maybe we need to address our method of analysis.

  2. Jilly Says:

    As someone whose training and career has always been multi/interdisciplinary, I am obviously in favour of scholars crossing and blurring lines of intersection, methodology and perspective. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that if scholars are to be experts in a particular area, the training and time necessary to do that will preclude them being equally expert in other areas. So, even a complete dismantling of disciplines/departments as we know them now would only result in new clusters emerging to replace them.

    Also, I think that some equivalent of departments is essential in universities to ‘house’ taught degrees. Students need an institutional ‘home’ within a university (especially given how large universities often are these days), and just as importantly, the administration necessary to oversee a degree and ensure its quality has to be done by someone: and those doing it inevitably then constitute a ‘department’.

    And finally, I see the fact that academics give their primary loyalty to their discipline/s as a good thing. It ensures that no institution becomes an island, and works far more organically to maintain standards than does any formal ‘quality assurance’ structure.

    So although, as a multidisciplinary researcher and teacher myself, I have wondered about the benefits of removing university departments, I’ve come to the firm conclusion that they do far more good than harm. The challenge is to allow people to move between departments and disciplines in a useful way.

    • Jilly, I think you are conflating two quite different issues here: (a) whether to have university departments, and (b) whether these departments need to be based on disciplines. If the latter, then we need to be clear about what a ‘discipline’ actually is.

  3. Iainmacl Says:

    Well put Jilly. It is clear that building up skills and knowledge in a discipline enable one to then work on multidisciplinary challenges. In other words multi-disciplinary research can only work by combining expertise not by hiring in teams of generalists with low levels of knowledge and understanding of each of the component parts.

    The idea of breaking up the traditional disciplines and replacing them with loyalty to to the institution is very attractive to those in management because it provides them with much greater control over their workforce and if people are generalists they can be redeployed and easily replaced. whereas if they feel a deep intellectual commitment and passionate loyalty to their subject area then it is more likely that they will annoy the hell out of senior managers and central administration from time to time!

    But isn’t it exactly this passion, this commitment, that is needed to drive creativity, innovation and research productivity? What would be the equivalent idea or ethos of a subjectless institution? How would you nurture levels of commitment of such strength that people will routinely work far beyond the ‘normal working day’ as many do already? Will people spend nights and weekends frantically trying to solve research problems because of a loyalty to their employer as opposed to intrinsic motivation in the subject?

    Or is your proposition simply to look for a newer set of discipline areas?

    • Iain, you wrote: ‘It is clear that building up skills and knowledge in a discipline enable one to then work on multidisciplinary challenges.’

      OK, but what for these purposes is a ‘discipline’? Is there a difference, in terms of the definition, between ‘physics’, and ‘biotechnology’, and ‘media studies’? Are they all ‘disciplines’?

      I have not suggested anywhere that we shouldn’t have departments. But do they need to be based on ‘disciplines’? If the answer to that is yes, then about 50% of all university departments have no legitimacy.

      • Jilly Says:

        I don’t quite follow the last sentence there – which kinds of university departments have no legitimacy?

        And I think that the department/disciplinary issues can’t be discussed in isolation. They certainly are not identical to each other, but they are intricately related to each other, and have historically developed in tandem with each other.

        • No, I didn’t say that any university departments have no legitimacy. But if you were to require departments to be based on disciplines, then half of today’s departments wouldn’t be legitimate. Unless you make it into a circular argument and say whatever constitutes a department is a discipline – but in that case the word ‘discipline’ has no meaning.

          If you take DCU, for example, key Schools such as SALIS, Communications, Biotechnology, Computing etc etc are not based on anything that would traditionally have been called a discipline, but are themselves interdisciplinary. The same is true of departments in all the other universities.

          And is ‘business’ or ‘management’ a discipline?

  4. Jilly Says:

    “And is ‘business’ or ‘management’ a discipline?” Oh, don’t tempt me to say! 🙂

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      I’ll say it: they’re not. Indeed, they are not worthy subjects in a university. Nor are any of the “disciplines” in business schools. But that’s where you end up with such “thinking outside the box” and the insistence that today is much more important (and clearsighted) than yesterday.

  5. greg Says:


    You wrote a while ago in the Irish Times about how reviews of education tend to focus too much on structures rather than what actually happens at the ‘coalface’. I think you’re falling into a similar trap here. The last thing the sector needs now is to start obsessing about what a discipline is and whether it is appropriate for the modern world. In my experience of DCU, people from different departments are just as likely to collaborate as people in the same department – it really stems from the personalities of the people involved.

    • Sure, Greg – but I didn’t say anything about restructuring, which as you say is not something I’m keen on. This argument is an intellectual one: what are the foundations of knowledge?

  6. Al Says:

    I would have to disagree, however would also to have to acknowledge that the current situation has both strict and ala carte interpretations of disciplines.

    To dilute the disciplinary approach seems to go towards a Jack of all trades, master on none approach.

    “Hi I’m Al, your new lecturer in constitutional law, I dont know much about it but our department is contracted to teach it. My background is in health and safety law, but, here goes…”

  7. anna notaro Says:

    I’d like to throw in the old concept of ‘interdisciplinarity’, in 1977 Roland Barthes argued that it ‘begins effectively when the solidarity of existing disciplines breaks down’. Over the past 30 years interdisciplinarity has become in most cases just a ‘declaration of wish’, ‘disciplines’-which for Barthes were ‘myths’- have gained strength sustained by the ‘myth’ of high specialization and professionalism, the irony is that universities, supposedly communities where culture is produced, shared and disseminated have become bastions of ‘disciplinarity’, structured in departments/schools/faculties where intellectual limens are far from being permeable…

  8. kevin denny Says:

    So why not have some departments based on disciplines where they really exist and are sufficiently large and have inter-disciplinary departments where that is not the case. Wait a minute thats what universities do all the time.
    Given that some form of sub-grouping is necessary (faculties, departments, schools) its hard to see what else they could be based on but the intellectual content (“Department of tall academics” anybody?). One also has to be aware that recruiting scholars from abroad may be difficult if one has some wacky structure. A “Department of economics and sociology” for example would not be an attractive proposition for many.
    Inter-disciplinarity is an attitude so while you can facilitate it, its best not to force it.

    • I am myself not a fan of restructuring universities: it takes up time and makes people devote their energy to protecting their existing area. So my preference is to let people be organised as is most congenial to them, with some caveats where that isn’t economically viable. So there is no need for a wacky structure (much though I find that thought intriguing).

      But people need to be weaned off the idea that a discipline-based department is somehow a guardian of The Truth and needs to be kept from contamination. I’ve seen that attitude too often, and we cannot afford it. And we need to adapt budget models to ensure that there aren’t disincentives to interdisciplinarity.

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