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Getting Past Disciplines

Any genuine progress towards interdisciplinarity has to come from the departments

By Stephen W. Stromberg, ELEMENTARY

One of the big words around the academy these days is “interdisciplinary.” Along with internationalization, added emphasis on study that includes a little bit of a lot instead a lot of a little bit got plenty of ink in the documents that presently make up the Harvard College Curricular Review.

Unlike much in the Curricular Review, though, building more significant connections across disciplines is a great goal to have. The problem is doing it well.

The idea behind interdisciplinarity is that you can combine the study of, for example, history and science, such that the resulting whole will be significantly more than the sum of its parts. Interdisciplinary study at its best helps students build a web of connections across courses with very different methodological bents that, nevertheless, add up to a complete basic understanding of a part of the world, a culture, a diaspora, a continent, a period of time. Sounds great. But even the most enthusiastic history and science concentrator will tell you that Harvard’s sometimes ham-fisted attempts at providing interdisciplinary study is not always that enriching.

One of the biggest problems with enhancing interdisciplinary study at Harvard is that the department system keeps disciplines unhealthily separated. So, besides a few uniquely interdisciplinary concentrations, departments are responsible for creating interdisciplinary tracks within their courses of study. Unfortunately, the solution for departments looking to throw together an interdisciplinary track is often no more than allowing students to take a few courses outside the department for concentration credit. Students in this situation are often left with classes that rarely connect, and in the unlikely event that they do, there is no one to show them how to draw coherent conclusions from their smorgasbord of courses.

But even if Harvard’s departments spent more time devising clever ways to integrate other disciplines into the study of theirs, they run into a much larger problem: faculty. Departments hire professors who are the luminous minds in their respective fields, but except for some notable exceptions, that rarely means they can do anything more than discourse on their specialties. Indeed, a brief tour through the course catalog will show that many professors have a hard enough time teaching courses that aren’t arcane within their own disciplines, let alone classes that take a step even further out of professors’ comfort zones.

So right now, Harvard has a few islands of interdisciplinarity in a sea of deeply entrenched academic departments. But even long-established tropical interdisciplinary paradises such as history and literature have major problems integrating disciplines. Hist and lit has its recognizably history-oriented TFs and its literature-oriented TFs. Students break down generally the same way. Again, there are always exceptions. But neither teachers nor students are ever required to stray far from their comfort zones, even when they are technically expected to do so.

I, too, tried the interdisciplinary thing at the College: Russian studies (RS) in the Slavic Department. My experience was better than that of most interdisciplinary students at Harvard, I’d say, but that’s mostly because the interdisciplinary framework gave me a great deal of flexibility to pursue my own interests, which were rarely satiated by a single discipline. I got to write a thesis that was somewhere between government, history, and art history. And I got to take concentration classes in three departments. But even the RS program, one of the best interdisciplinary tracks on campus, needs work—individual classes often failed to connect. I vividly remember a Russian poetry professor of mine complaining that I too often tried to connect the poems we read to history or politics, for example.

So is there any hope for interdisciplinarity? Yes, but the effort to make it happen has to come from the departments. The most critical thing is hiring faculty who can integrate the discipline of the hiring department and that of another department. Obviously, there will be trade-offs between getting professors that are exclusively brilliant in their own disciplines and piles of mush in others, and hiring interdisciplinary specialists who might not look as good within the confines of a single department. But there is certainly room to move away from the piles-of-mush extreme we’re at now.

If the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) is serious about promoting interdisciplinary study at Harvard, it needs to put its tenure appointments where its mouth is. As the Faculty expands over the coming decades, FAS departments have a relatively painless way of righting this imbalance by retaining disciplinary faculty while using new appointments to snag interdisciplinary professors. Once Harvard has the Faculty to teach courses that connect to, or even actively integrate, different disciplines—which can be done even in the context of departmental organization—interdisciplinarity at Harvard will move from the realm of the theoretical to the realm of the real.

University President Lawrence H. Summers offered another solution this year—forming divisional committees to recommend appointments of professors whose work bridges disciplines. It’s an interesting idea, but in the present political situation, it’s not likely to get anywhere soon. It also has its own problems—such as the fact that the people sitting on the divisional committees will be about the same people sitting on tenure committees within departments.

In the end, we still have to rely on the departments to make any real progress toward interdisciplinarity, a method of study that has the potential to greatly enrich American academic culture. If they don’t do anything more than tread water, disciplinarity will be the norm for years to come.

Stephen W. Stromberg ’05 is a Russian studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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