What arguments against the pursuit of interdisciplinary studies seem the strongest to you?

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Reservations about Interdisciplinarity in Academia
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discussion.pngPlease make a post that addresses one of the following discussion questions. You will not see others` posts until after you have posted once this week. Remember, your posts must demonstrate engagement with the readings in order to receive full points. Also note that you need not answer the question (or answer it correctly) in order to address it. You may end up posting questions and trying to answer them instead. (Think of it like a face-to-face class. Discussion isn`t just about the instructor asking you questions and you answering. Normally, it would be a lot like trying out an answer, but asking questions along the way to see if you`ve got it right!)
Do try to use sensible line and paragraph breaks. No one likes reading a wall of text!
What arguments against the pursuit of interdisciplinary studies seem the strongest to you? How do these arguments suggest the pursuit of interdisciplinary study should change from its current form?
What arguments against the pursuit of interdisciplinary studies seem the weakest to you? How do you think these arguments can be overcome?
Should the future of the university move more towards interdisciplinary study (contrary to what Valerie Peterson says) or should it move back towards the student of the liberal arts with interdisciplinarity as an after-though?
What are the downsides of interdisciplinarity when it comes to problem-solving and knowledge creation? Will society miss anything important if it moves away from the disciplines and more towards interdisciplinarity?
What kinds of interdisciplinary experiences as an undergraduate (or out in your career) seem relevant to arguing against the arguments that Benson and Peterson put forth?
select one of the questions.
Lecture – Criticisms of Interdisciplinarity
This unit we`ll look at some of the challenges that interdisciplinarity creates. Unfortunately, the rosy picture painted by the previous units isn`t necessarily the whole story about interdisciplinarity in the academy. In this unit, there are two readings that point towards the darker side of the topic. Fortunately, these problems mostly point towards challenges that can be overcome and the challenges are offered in a pretty constructive way. Let`s take a look at them and briefly summarize them so you can delve into them in more detail in the reading. At the end of this unit, you should have a better sense of whether interdisciplinarity is here to stay or not.
Benson`s Arguments
Thomas Benson`s article from the 1980s is famous for stating five arguments against what he sees as the academic “fad” of interdisciplinarity. (Though one might wonder if it can still be considered a fad given that he was writing in the 1980s and it`s a major part of many university curricula today.) His arguments are as follows:
Interdisciplinarity is conceptually confused. Interdisciplinary courses and pursuits often haven`t defined themselves well enough. They don`t make clear what kinds of connections they want to see between different disciplines. Furthermore, they seem to lack the principles and methodologies that define disciplines. So what principles do form the foundation of interdisciplinary studies?
Students lack a firm ground in any one discipline, so they waste their time trying to be interdisciplinary. According to this argument, the only people truly prepared to do any interdisciplinary thinking are people who have already mastered a discipline in its own right. (“You can`t be interdisciplinary until you have a discipline!”) Students haven`t yet mastered a discipline, so they won`t spend meaningful time learning to be think between disciplines.
Students who spend time trying to do interdisciplinary work sacrifice time that they could be using to master a discipline. Mastering a discipline takes time. While people major in disciplines in college, four years is mostly barely enough time to scratch the surface of a discipline, let alone master it. So if we ask students to devote time to interdisciplinary pursuits, we will end up hobbling their chances to be the best student they can be. They may be less prepared for further study in a discipline or a job in that discipline.
Interdisciplinary courses are exciting, but shallow. Courses in disciplines, especially at the upper-levels of that discipline (300 and 400 level courses at Park), delve deeply into a certain subject matter with a very certain methodology. But since interdisciplinary courses try to draw on several disciplinary perspectives, they will almost always end up barely scratching the surface of that topic. Furthermore, they often devolve into unproductive “chat circles” and never get around to the synthesis of concepts that they advertise.
Interdisciplinary courses are much more costly than traditional disciplinary courses. Often interdisciplinary courses are taught by teams of faculty to small numbers of students and may require independent field trips. Faculty members already have teaching duties in their disciplines. So in order to staff interdisciplinary courses, they will have to be taken away from those disciplines. This results in the need to replace their courses in the discipline and considerably greater money spent on instructors.
Peterson`s Retreat to the Liberal Arts
Valerie Peterson doubts the use of interdisciplinarity from a very different angle. She seems to think that interdisciplinarity is not radical enough in its departure from traditional disciplinary programs and courses. She uses two main examples: communications and women`s studies. When communications departments attempt to be interdisciplinary, she says, this flies in the face of the fact that communications is already an essentially interdisciplinary subject. Further pursuit of interdisciplinarity simply seems to water things down. Women`s Studies, on the other hand, a field that seems assured of its inherent interdisciplinarity, is beset by the idea that it must defend itself as a legitimate college department with a well-defined area of study. These departments end up competing with other departments for faculty positions, funds, and students.
Peterson`s overall point seems to be that in pursuing interdisciplinarity, many new departments simply re-create the close-mindedness they see in the traditional disciplines. Far from liberating and expanding human knowledge, she sees areas like Women`s Studies and Communications as painting it into a corner. And one could easily see how her points could be expanded to some of the examples we`ve already seen. In focusing too much on corporate innovation or the environment, for instance, scholars in either one of these areas will inevitably develop the same kind of blinders that they were trying to escape in their own disciplines.
In the end, Peterson recommends not a return to the disciplines, but splitting them up so that professors could return to teaching the core areas of human knowledge known as the liberal arts. She believes that scholars don`t have to leave the basic areas of knowledge in order to extend them and go beyond them. It may be more healthy, according to her argument, to rebel from within the disciplines than from outside of them.
Readings and Materials
Textbook:
1st Edition: Ch. 4, 77-81
2nd Edition: Ch. 2, 50-56
3rd Edition: Ch. 2, 50-55
Websites: Thomas Benson, Arguments Against Interdisciplinarity Download Thomas Benson, Arguments Against Interdisciplinarity
Valerie Peterson, Against Interdisciplinarity Download Valerie Peterson, Against Interdisciplinarity
Lectures: Unit 6: Criticisms of Interdisciplinarity

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