From where I sit - Consensus on diversity

March 14, 2013

“Poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions.” The words are Percy Shelley’s, and among a readership such as that of Times Higher Education, composed primarily of those who work in higher education, I imagine that they have a number of admirers. But one of Shelley’s main purposes is to make a special claim for a certain way of intellectually responding to the world. And special claims like this can be troubling.

I am a humanist working in a research university among a sea of both humanists and non-humanists, from theoretical physicists to evolutionary psychologists. Can I make a special claim for the humanities? I am not only a humanist but also, primarily, a literary critic, which means that I am not a historian, linguist or theologian. Can I make a special claim for literary criticism, or its central subject of study, literature itself?

It seems to me that the general attitude in modern academia is to eschew such claims. Most of us researchers are embattled enough as it is. We don’t need to get into battles with each other, at least not across the boundaries of disciplines. What we need is a kind of consensus in favour of diversity.

But conversely, we all face a constant call to engage in interdisciplinarity. Staking a claim to interdisciplinarity earns what we Americans call “brownie points”, a term whose etymology may have something to do with brown bonus coupons earned by retail purchases, or else with a scatological reference to a metaphorical stain on certain people’s noses. In any case, you tell your dean, or your funding agency, that you are being interdisciplinary and you get what seems to be a kind of “point”.

The problem, however, as Stanley Fish once put it, is that “being interdisciplinary is very hard to do”. In many cases it may be downright impossible. I have written books that have tried to cover several disciplinary fields at once, but apart from literary scholars, most people have either ignored or hated them. Historians have sometimes been especially inimical. I fail in my work - even in the name of what I think of as “historicism” - to ask the kind of questions historians ask, and to provide the kind of answers that historians require.

Interdisciplinarity is supposed to require professors of different disciplines to speak to one another and learn, and I am all in favour of that. I am enthusiastic about convergence. I like hybridity too. But maybe it’s also time for some of us to fight for our fields, to defend our disciplines for what we believe are their defeats of ignorance and say: “My approach to reality counts!”

Maybe it’s even time for academics to risk arguing, openly, what they secretly believe, namely that their own disciplines count more than those of others. Now there would be a conversation: not of bland consensus- building but of disputation across the disciplines, not to mention a good bit of soul-searching and probably a bit of cursing as well.

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