U.S. Intellectual History Blog


I’d like to start a forum here to discuss Mark Taylor’s article that just shot to the top of the most emailed list on the New York Times website. In this op-ed piece, the chair of the Religious Studies Department at Columbia University advocates getting rid of the University as it is currently structured by creating cross-disciplinary centers focusing on problems rather than hierarchical disciplines.

I spent a year studying interdisciplinarity, assisting a Matrix committee with research. There is some dynamic interdisciplinary work going on. That word is here used to cover all “cross” things, including cross-disciplinary–the least integrated, interdisciplinary–merging different disciplines and using different methodology, trans-disciplinary–sometimes defined as developing theories beyond disciplines (like Marxism), and creating new disciplines–bio-chemistry or cognitive science, for instance. It seemed to me that the most successful work was either transitory and cross-disciplinary–so the only real fusing going on was at the level of the committee (individual professors maintained their disciplinary standards and solved a problem through teamwork), or was the creation of entirely new disciplines that answered current questions more effectively.

But I still found in that year of study that most of interdisciplinarity was band-wagon jumping. It looked a whole lot like disciplinary work, but found a way to put an interdisciplinary label on it. Perhaps I had this sense because as historians, we dabble in each others disciplines all the time (more or often less effectively), while maintaining a sense of ourselves as historians. Much of interdisciplinarity seemed like dabbling.

So what did you think of Taylor’s suggestions for the university? As someone soon to be on the job market, I can understand the desire to not be constantly creating more graduates than can be hired. I can also understand wanting to streamline the graduate school process in some way that does not take so long. And yet, I do feel like I needed all this time to percolate and learn enough to write a comprehensive dissertation. (I could go on ruminating, but I will stop and hopefully you will chime in.)

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. i was surprised by how willing he was to assert that cross disciplinary work simply doesn’t happen(!).

    also: he asserts pretty firmly that the university we have now is somehow medieval…it’s much more a product of the late 19th century. the humanities are ‘research’ oriented even when, for ideological reasons, they don’t believe in research.

    my biggest problem with the article, though, was not the somewhat wild ideas for radically restructuring the academic world.

    it was the idea that grad students are overproduced because they are somehow the ‘cheaper’ option. this is the kind of thing that gets grad students excited, but is deeply false. Taylor says the choice is between a full professor and a grad student…! it’s always cheaper to hire adjuncts or instructors than to take on a grad student (unless the stipends fall ridiculously low). to my mind, this is a serious distortion that ignores the very conflicts of priority that make reforming the (unwieldy and inefficient) academic system so difficult.

  2. Overall, I was really disappointed with this piece. The litany of problems with the job market and academia more broadly, repeated ad nauseum in the Chronicle of Higher Education and in books like How the University Really Works, finally made it to a credible mainstream publication, and all we get is a bunch of crackpot solutions. No one without firsthand experience could read that frivolous article and come away believing that there are any serious problems with higher education. And no one with such a perspective could think that Taylor’s ideas–abolishing tenure in favor of seven-year contracts, eliminating traditional departments and replacing them with transitory problem-based units, and other pie-in-the-sky notions–are going to do anything to help grad students, job seekers or parents with tuition sticker-shock.

    The fundamental problem with the essay as a piece of writing is that it does not identify the specific problem that its proposals are supposed to fix. If there is a central theme to the piece, it is that scholarship is not interdisciplinary enough. That such an esoteric problem should be considered central to the “crisis” in higher ed is laughable. Others might suggest that the growing expense of college would merit top billing, or the facts that graduating seniors at many colleges can’t compose a readable paragraph, that football coaches often make more than university presidents, that the public at large has little respect for the university as an institution, and that job training has replaced learning as the primary reason for a college degree. Of course, people will disagree about items on that list, but I don’t think that the tendency of scholarship to be excessively rooted in disciplinary thinking belongs in the discussion of those much more central problems.

    The issue that is most relevant to me is, of course, the fact that there are way more Ph.D.s than jobs (at least in the humanities). I am not certain this constitutes a crisis for higher education, even if it does for thousands of frustrated unemployed and underemployed and Ph.D.s. If there are too many people in this situation, then the solution is pretty straightforward (if difficult to admit): many Ph.D. programs need to shut down. (Additionally, I would add that universities have no excuse to ever use adjuncts. It is an inherently exploitative form of employment that additionally short-changes the students.)

    Taylor’s claim that this problem can be addressed by helping graduate students “prepare for work in fields other than higher education,” though a common one, is as asinine and condescending as its frequent companion, the notion that faculty should stop branding those students unable to find academic work as “failures.” If a person wanted to work in a business or non-profit, as Taylor suggests, it doesn’t seem obvious that she should enroll in a humanities graduate program run by academics who don’t know anything about those things. People who enter doctoral programs in the humanities generally want to be college professors. Many of them wind up doing something else, but most of them, I would imagine, are deeply disappointed at having had to do so.

    As a side note, I have a similar point to Eric’s. When Tayor writes that it’s cheaper to provide “adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course,” he is living in a dream world. I’ve been an adjunct at many universities and colleges, and the going rate is closer to $3,000.


  3. I can’t get behind all of Taylor’s suggestions for restructuring the university, but I do like the idea of rethinking the way we organize departments. His list of suggested departmental “zones of inquiry” (Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life, Water) is fabulous. I’d change a few things, though:

    1. Ditch the water and money departments and make them a single department of circulation.

    3. Combine language and media in a single department of communication.

    2. Add to the list a department of archives and a department of interpretation.

    No comment on abolishing tenure, but I think he’s dead on about graduate education. As for “interdisciplinary work,” I agree with Lauren that its a almost always a sham.

  4. Why does “reform” always begin and end with people, whether autoworkers, teachers, or professors, giving up job security? Enough said about this article.

  5. Thank you for the post from the _The New Republic_. As a grad student myself, I felt so sorry for the mocked grad student in the NYT op-ed. I appreciated this sentence:
    “Perhaps his young Duns Scotus-studying colleague is a serious scholar as well, who doesn’t deserve mockery on the op-ed page of The New York Times.”

  6. One more thing on interdisciplinarity. People today treat it as if it is this entirely new thing. And yet the university has always been a plastic place, creating new disciplines and forging cooperation.
    I just read this in a letter from Alain Locke (philosophy professor) to Mordecai Johnson (president of Howard University) from 1928, when they were working to set up an African Studies Center:

    “Personally I feel that the more co-ordination we can work out between the several departments toward a joint program of research, and the more directly we base our plans for graduate study in alignment with such a program of research, the more likely of early consideration by the foundations our project-plans will be.”

  7. Per Alpers per Berube, Marc Bousquet has been schooling conservative/old school/wrongheaded analyses of the academic labor market for a few years now. In my mind, he’s the best thing going in terms of getting behind the several frauds perpetuated by the powers that be. – TL

  8. I also mentioned his book in my comment above. I must admit, though, that while I share and appreciate Bousquet’s general sense of outrage and his moral conviction that the system is rotten to the core, I tend to agree with some of his critics who suggest that he’s a little light on evidence. His frequent claim that there is no glut of Ph.D.’s, and that a reform of hiring practices alone could employ them all, runs counter to my experience. In many situations, even adjunct jobs are hard to come by; given that schools are only teaching so many sections, it’s unclear to me how better pay and working conditions would create jobs for those who are currently unable to find courses to teach piecemeal. I am curious as to what kind of reforms he has in mind, and how the numbers shake out. I don’t claim to have studied the matter, but certainly the anecdotal evidence provided by my own life and that of many people that I know suggests that there really are far more Ph.D.s than jobs.

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