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Historian calls on historians to embrace interdisciplinarity

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Interdisciplinary is both an idea and a buzzword in higher education. Many professors find that their research and teaching interests take them far afield. But it's hard to find consensus on what the term really means. And some fear a loss of disciplinary knowledge that leads to interdisciplinary work. A new book, Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press), considers what interdisciplinarity really means, and both its positive and negative impacts. The author is Harvey J. Graff, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and a professor of English and history at Ohio State University. He responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: Many people talk about interdisciplinarity (usually praising it) but not necessarily meaning the same things. How do you define it?

A: Interdisciplinarity, much too often, seems to depend on which way the wind is blowing. It is riddled with myths of its novelty, necessity, power or its fallacies and failings. In that, it is very much a sign of our time in higher education, research and the sociology of knowledge. Consequently, it is among the most misunderstood and abused terms in recent years. This is equally true among proponents and opponents. Much writing about interdisciplinarity ignores the issue of definition almost entirely. At the same time, we have endless lists of typologies and almost 57 varieties, ranging from pre- to postdisciplinary, and rather astounding things in between (adisciplinary, antidisciplinary, metadisciplinary, supra-interdisciplinary, omnidisciplinary, transdisciplinary). I am a careful but enthusiastic -- within limits -- supporter and practitioner.

My own approach is historically based. It derives from the mediation between my own experience as an interdisciplinarity scholar, teacher and program builder across several fields and disciplines, and what I learned from studying historical efforts across the sciences, humanities, social sciences and professions, from late 19th- and early 20th-century genetic biology to more recent organizational research, materials sciences, cultural studies and bioscience. There are similarities across fields but there are also key differences. Too often, for example, academic humanities ape outmoded images of large-group, well-funded science.

My definition emphasizes approaches to and efforts at asking questions and solving problems, both old and new ones. It focuses on the development and application of conceptualizations, theories, sources and methods that are drawn from different scholarly areas (that may be disciplines, subdisciplines or different areas of disciplines) and aim at their integration in efforts to develop new approaches and resolve problems in novel ways. In understanding this, I am especially concerned with questions of conceptualization and definition; actual relationships within and across disciplines -- the most critical elements; location of programs and research intellectually and organizationally; and the organization of research and teaching within institutions.

Q: What do you see as the main benefits of interdisciplinarity?

A: Careful, well-grounded and knowledgeable interdisciplinarity can be -- but is not guaranteed to be -- a valuable route to answering important questions and resolving or at least redefining problems, both new and old, large and small....

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed

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