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For some, humanities find answers in interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinary collaborations in the humanities have emerged as a way to sustain a field increasingly besieged by criticism.

As budgets cuts and an increasingly negative public image have taken their toll, humanities researchers at Duke and elsewhere are looking for ways to revitalize their fields. One solution has been interdisciplinary programs and research, which have traditionally been a strong suit of the University. As a result, these programs have seen major growth at Duke, though this expansion has not been without its detractors.

A new buzzword

In recent months, the humanities have come under renewed political attack—particularly following controversy over Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s call for reallocating public funding from fields devoted to “the search for truth” to those that immediately address workforce demands. Similar comments by North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, who in previous years criticized the “educational elite” and fields such as gender studies, have reflected an increasingly prevalent perception of the humanities as obscure and out of touch with real world needs.

In response to this criticism, many humanities departments have turned to interdisciplinary programs in order to maximize their impact as a discipline. Interdisciplinary research has served to address many “blind spots” in traditional humanities research that other institutions have failed to explore, said former Dean of Humanities Srinivas Aravamudan, a professor of English and romance studies.

“They realized fairly early on that by funding interdisciplinarity the right way, you would be doing much better than by funding the traditional areas of humanities research,” Aravamudan said. “It takes a lot of people to make what you call the 'traditional humanities' departments successful.”

Aravamudan noted that part of the move toward more interdisciplinary collaborations has come from a push by the University for humanities fields to be more impactful in terms of solving real-world problems. Though humanities fields have historically focused on teaching and critical thinking, newer interdisciplinary programs are emphasizing impact, he said.

"Interdisciplinarity" is a new buzzword that has emerged to describe old methods of collaboration, noted Adriane Lentz-Smith, director of undergraduate studies in the history department.

“We’re in an age of narrowing of specializations, where in previous decades, many disciplines were more expansive and capacious than they used to be,” Lentz-Smith said. “For instance, history and political science used to be sort of conjoined disciplines...Interdisciplinarity is taking us back in a way.”

The recognition of interdisciplinary studies’ potential for fostering growth in separate disciplines is one reason for the institutional push—but another is financial, said Markos Hadjioannou, assistant professor of literature.

“I think it also has to do with an attempt to make humanities more attractive for students at a time when career paths are formed on the basis of directly recognizable income potentials,” Hadjioannou noted.

Interdisciplinary humanities at Duke

The emphasis on interdisciplinary research has become a signature of Duke in particular, said Christina Chia, associate director of the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Since the 1990s, Duke has had an “unusually strong investment” in interdisciplinary studies, noted Deborah Jenson, incoming director of the Franklin Humanities Institute. Nearly two decades after Duke appointed the first full-time vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, the University has become one of the leading hubs of interdisciplinary research in the country.

In 1999, the John Hope Franklin Center was established with to align with University’s new vision for greater interdisciplinary collaborations. Since then, a number of initiatives—such as Humanities Writ Large and Humanities Labs—have spun from the University’s emphasis on interdisciplinary work.

Chia pointed out that Duke has felt a need to distinguish itself from peer institutions which may have a stronger reputation or a larger funding base.

“It probably has to do with Duke being, historically, a 'good regional university,'” Chia said. “To compete nationally, this has probably been one driver of the rise of Duke.”

The focus on interdisciplinary research has caused some issues within the University, however. In particular, the growth of interdisciplinary programs may have led to discontent among some professors regarding the way funds are handled at the institutional level, Hadjioannou said.

“It can get frustrating...if you want to simply remain within the confines of your field in order to do a ‘localized’ type of research but are constantly pushed to expand and shift your work so that it fits within the parameters of some funding opportunity," he explained.

Lentz-Smith added that some researchers may perceive support for interdisciplinary work as coming at the expense of more traditional work grounded in the disciplines. These researchers may feel that their work is “undervalued,” she said.

Students also are required to develop foundations in the traditional disciplines before pursing interdisciplinary studies, Jenson pointed out.

"The time and expense involved in the development of disciplinary knowledge is daunting," she said.

Humanities under attack

The move towards interdisciplinarity has been accelerated by the increased scrutiny of the humanities' value both in government and in society at large, said Peter Sigal, director of graduate studies in the history department.

“In other words, we often seek knowledge only for the sake of solving immediate problems, rather than seeking knowledge for the sake of gaining more knowledge,” Sigal wrote in an email Wednesday.

Sigal noted that the history department has been engaged in constant discussions about linking up with other departments to develop new approaches to historical knowledge. The department has also been concerned about declining enrollments in recent years, when compared with those of interdisciplinary programs like international comparative studies and public policy, he said.

Sigal added that, in his opinion, interdisciplinary research should be pursued—but not at the expense of more traditional methods in humanities research.

“When we focus just on product-oriented research, we lose track of ways to deal with underlying problems and issues,” he wrote. “In other words, we fail to get more long term analysis of our social problems when we do not study literature, history, languages and art.

Humanities—luxury or necessity?

Chia said that many academics in the humanities have been taking a more “public stance” as a countermeasure to criticism.

“There’s this stereotype of humanists studying their work in an isolated place,” Chia said. “I understand there can be a kind of polemical position where someone can say, ‘I don’t need to instrumentalize the results of my research,’ but I often feel like that’s more of rhetorical stance.”

Contrary to stereotypes, most humanities researchers are interested in the practical implications of their research—even if those implications may take some time to surface, Chia said. Traditional humanities research, like any other form of pure research, may not lead directly or immediately to practical applications, but pure research is nonetheless important as a basis for knowledge, she added.

Negative public perceptions of the humanities should be a “wake-up call,” Aravamudan said.

“I think we should really take some responsibility as humanists and get the word out there,” he said. “We have allowed people to define us, rather than defining ourselves.”

Regardless of how the humanities are perceived, Aravamudan maintained that they are essential for students and society at large.

“I’m not sure the humanities are a luxury,” Aravamudan said. “It’s like saying food is only about nutrition. I can only eat to live, but it’s very reductive. This idea that humanities are a luxury—it’s actually the other way around. Humanities are a necessity, no matter what you do.”

This article was updated Feb. 27, 2015 to clarify Markos Hadjioannou's comments


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