September 15, 2004
Interdiscipline and Don’t Punish
A special panel discussion, “Interdisciplinarity and the Humanities,” kicked off this year’s Graduate Humanities Forum meetings at Penn. Sheldon Hackney — history professor, former president of Penn, former chair of the NEH, and hero of the culture wars — described how, early in his academic career, he programmed a mainframe computer to manipulate data about votes in the Alabama legislature, only to find that political scientists had been done similar work, and discovered similar formulas, already. (A danger of interdisciplinary work, indeed.) Liliane Weissberg, professor of German and comparative literature, discussed how institutions related to fields of inquiry, describing how many current academic departmental boundaries arose in a 19th-century European political context. Gary Tomlinson, professor of music, talked about how ethnomusicology and the study of popular music arose to challenge traditional European musicology. He also talked about how his own work, which he was free to do as a tenured professor, might not be a good model for students who needed to seek entry-level academic jobs. Moderator Wendy Steiner, professor of English, discussed her work and its relation to visual art studies and English, mentioning several methodologies or approaches that enabled interdisciplinary practice: semiotics and narratology, for instance. (Ethnography, mentioned in Tomlinson’s discussion of ethnomusicology, seems to also be in this category.) Further comments from panelists were also insightful — I enjoyed hearing from Prof. Hackney about what might seem like a tedious administrative topic, for instance: how Penn’s institutional structure, with graduate groups separate from departments and the possibility of instituting programs and seminars, allowed for more flexible, if less well-funded, interdisciplinary discussion and inquiry. The discussion in Q&A was lively and interesting, too.
September 16th, 2004 at 7:49 pm
Something that I notice now and then is that, while there is a good deal of interdisciplinarity in academia these days, a lot of the really interesting boundary-crossing happens first among non-academics, mostly just hobbyists who find something interesting. To stick with art for the moment, Einstuerzende Neubauten and Coil were making computer music before the field existed (Kraftwerk might count too); random high school kids were making brilliant avant-garde art in Flash (and hand-coded C before that) long before the “real artists” ever knew about it (still some of the best!); some of the more brilliant classes of internet trolls are arguably electronic performance art; etc. People with no background in a field who just do whatever they feel like in their spare time seem to make some of the most interesting advances, IMO, due to their lack of preconceived ideas.
Not that it isn’t good that academics are catching up, of course. :)