Interdisciplinary studies blossomed in the United States beginning in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Programs, concentrations, and even departments were established in response to demands stemming from the larger political climate when civil rights, anti-imperialist, antiracist, and women's movements burgeoned on campuses and beyond, riding upon as much as interrogating enlightenment thinking and the dominant universalist assumptions that held it in place, and-with struggle-opening up the university to all kinds of hitherto marginalized publics. The conjuncture suggests the provisional nature of feminism and interdisciplinarity as "environmental effects" in an evolving and unstable university environment put forward in Wai Chee Dimock's insightful essay. These classed, raced, and gendered groups (both students and faculty) demanded curricular and other changes not only to reflect their presence in the academy but also to uncover, recover, and even celebrate their diverse histories in the world. As the aut hors make clear, these projects- whether understanding menstruation or denaturalizing justice-. were unthinkable within the confines of the traditional disciplines, and interdisciplinary programs were one outcome of the political struggles of the period. By their very presence these programs called into question what constituted legitimate objects of inquiry, and by their work, they reconfigured the contours of knowledge and the methods through which such knowledge was produced.
Just as interdisciplinary studies has its roots in a larger political climate, so too do the current questions, impasses, and crossroads. This context is, of course, vastly different from the one that engendered the initial shifts. Although the changes in the academy noted above were the outcome of difficult and often bitter struggle, it is not insignificant that they occurred during a period of relative expansionism in the academy: baby boomers were still reaching college age; the United States was still riding the crest of a period of unprecedented economic growth that began following World War II and lasted until the early 1970s; and it was a period in which the myths of liberalism (however compromised the notion might be) were still resonant. It was a relatively easy time to establish alternative academic programs.  The present academic context is one of budgetary restraints and cutbacks, shrinkage, and closure are linked to a consumerist model of education with increased calls for accountability, "exc ellence," and a market orientation in the production of both graduates and knowledge. This situation has "disciplined" many members of the academy and sobered anybody with even a stray oppositional thought. As resources become scarcer and the calls for accountability more shrill, the administrative and scholarly tendency to police the borders between disciplines has sharpened. At the same time, however, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary studies programs have become well enough established to have some power and comfort in the academic environment their members helped to create and to raise some of the contradictions that face us in this forum.
As interdisciplinary programs have gained a degree of relative institutional comfort, they have had a tendency to become "disciplined" themselves; that is, to establish their own canons and to defend against the very sorts of incursions and invigorations that might rework them in the ways they did the traditional disciplines. The surprising hostility of some women's studies programs toward gender or gay and lesbian studies is a case in point. So too is the tendency to fix the objects of knowledge in place such that they become reified rather than transgressive. Although as Wiegman points out, this situation has become a cause for alarm, resignation, hand-wringing, and death knell ringing amongst feminist scholars, it is not unique to women's studies circles. A few years ago I participated in developing curriculum for what was to be a doctoral program in "intercultural studies" at my institution, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. I was a begrudging participant in this endeavor because I felt the program was a monstrous beast-half oppositional to the traditional structures of the university and half bone tossed to a variety of "special interest groups" by an embattled and cynical university chancellor, now gone. The program itself was an amalgam of the long and dedicated efforts of many graduate students and faculty at CUNY to establish freestanding doctoral programs in cultural studies, gay and lesbian studies, women's studies, African American studies, and Latino studies among others, and the administration's desire to placate various groups of students while presiding over the shrinkage of the university in ways that excluded many of the very same marginalized groups who were to be represented in such a doctoral program. Wiegman's astute formulation of interdisciplinary programs as providing a "service function in managing diversity" characterizes my experience exactly, and this was not at the introductory but at the doctoral level.
If I was dubious to start--I referred to the proposed program as "Other" cultural studies--I became cynical and angry to the point of abandoning the effort as we hammered out a possible curriculum which quickly rehearsed the distributional requirements of more conventional curricula. For instance, it was proposed that students in any one concentration, such as gay and lesbian studies, be required to take a certain number of courses in at least two of the other concentrations, such as African American and cultural studies, simply because we were sprouting under one umbrella. What actually bound these concentrations intellectually except the ways they were counterpoised to the traditional disciplines and their traditional concerns? My friend Craig Gilmore joked that we should have "Western Civ" as a core course, because resistance to it might be our only common ground. The creaky and troubling nature of this footing was brought home when someone trotted out the term "GRECO" like a mantra to make sure we had co vered all the requisite intersectional bases (Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Class, Orientation) in our curricular efforts. The very suturing of a term such as GRECO and the reifications it embodies underscore Dimock's provocative position that feminism "does not have a privileged status" in interdisciplinary contexts. Not coincidentally, the encounter infiltrated and altered the various theoretical perspectives brought to the curricular discussion, among them feminism. Far from Wiegman's terrific intellectual challenge to use "identity knowledges" to launch an interrogation of "disciplinary guarantees to knowledge," we were well on our way to (re)producing (inter)disciplinary education at its worst, evacuating any critical analysis of how difference mattered under particular circumstances, and fitting too neatly the aims and needs of the corporatizing university. We stopped short. Ever since then I have been pondering the possibilities and perils of interdiscipilnarity in new and more troubled ways. I must confess , like Susan Stanford Friedman, I have been more focused on the perils in recent years, but the challenges posed by Wiegman have pushed me to rethink and reengage the possibilities. The path is as daunting as the possibilities are tantalizing.
Part of the problem as interdisciplinary studies programs have "settled in" is that they continue to exist within an environment where unrelenting disciplinary claims to knowledge hold sway. At the same time, the experience of interdisciplinary education has changed as has the nature of academic production. For one, the various interdisciplinary fields have grown while each of their constitutive disciplines has too. If the boundaries between interdisciplinary fields such as women's studies and the disciplines that comprise them are blurred, so too are they more extensive. There is much more to master, and most interdisciplinary scholars have found it necessary to have multiple masteries in order to succeed in the contemporary academy Even those few whose doctorates are in interdisciplinary fields tend to acquire recognizable disciplinary skills, because the job prospects in interdisciplinary programs remain severely limited. It is still the case that most interdisciplinary programs, no matter what degrees o r certificates they grant, are run by faculty who have primary appointments in one discipline or another; few faculty lines have been allocated outside the disciplines, and in the current fiscal and otherwise conservative climate, this situation is not likely to change soon. On the other side, however, these programs provide safer havens and even comfortable homes for many who might be marginalized in academia because of their scholarly concerns, methodological approaches, or differences from and with the enduring mainstream. These oases-no matter what kinds of internal hornets' nests they harbor, and we all know there are often many-are critical for the survival of many in the academy who otherwise might be hounded out, demoralized, or painfully isolated. Perhaps more importantly, these programs remain fertile grounds, as all the authors here suggest, for reconfiguring knowledge and what it means to be a knowing subject, and from there to challenging the structures that hold traditional guarantees to knowledge and power in place.
Those structures-of the university, the disciplinary associations, and the larger socioeconomic context-are formidable. Their chilling presence and the crucial stakes in challenging them face all interdisciplinary programs and scholars, not just women's or feminist studies. I feel them constantly as member of an interdisciplinary doctoral program in environmental psychology which is producing doctoral graduates in a field that is dematerializing as such. Our graduates are interdisciplinarily versatile and capable of teaching and scholarship in a variety of interdisciplinary programs such as environmental studies or urban studies; as environmental psychologists within conventional psychology, architecture, or landscape design programs; or, depending upon their backgrounds and how they "tool" themselves, in sociology, planning, anthropology, or geography departments. But the academic job market is tight, and most disciplinary departments prefer to hire people trained specifically in their disciplines. Although we think our multiply trained, liminal graduates should be more appealing to disciplinary departments, the reverse is often the case, given the strength of disciplinary loyalty federation, and boundary patrols.
All this suggests that it is far easier to consume interdisciplinarity than produce, maintain, or make a living from it. When we read, study, or attend conference presentations that work across disciplines, we provide the integrative interdisciplinary leaven. Interdisciplinarity is hard but pleasurable work at the moment and site of reception. Its production can be a bit more contentious and far more difficult to sustain. As interdisciplinary fields grow along with their constitutive parts, their sheer bulk makes even consumption hard. Journals proliferate, edited collections abound, conferences and workshops mushroom. Interdisciplinary studies is nothing if not an industry. Keeping up with it all is impossible but nevertheless causes anxiety about what knowledge matters, which methods are appropriate, whose theories are most timely. This anxiety is not trivial; it can destabilize and alienate the very students who are attracted to these fields and whose interests they were meant to serve.
Part of the problem is that what is growing is not so much interdisciplinary as multidisciplinary studies. As many, including the present authors, have remarked, there are few enterprises that are truly interdisciplinary Although some programs succeed in teaching interdisciplinarily, that is, integrating across existing disciplines to define appropriate objects of inquiry, methodologies, and modes of interpretation and analysis, few of us in the social sciences and humanities conduct research that is truly interdisciplinary and the tension between what we teach-and its promises-and what we do is palpable. There are many ways to go from this impasse. In our program we have toyed with offering students a minor, that is, a program of study in a conventional academic discipline that will enable them to remain interdisciplinary but be better equipped to negotiate a resolutely disciplinary world. Proposing the minor came from the administrative and pragmatic part of me when serving as chair. It seemed imperative to reinvigorate our interdisciplinary program while attending to students' well-placed anxieties about how interdisciplinary scholars are received in the contemporary academy. But now I am no longer chair, and I am drawn powerfully by and to Robyn Wiegman's call that we who are located in established institutional spaces for interdisciplinarity use those spaces to rethink and rework radically the "relationship among identity knowledges, institutional resources, and the organization of disciplines." To do so would be to alter the grounds of knowledge and the troubled and troubling structures that hold them in place; to make good on the incomplete project of interdisciplinarity by using its logics to continue to disrupt the academy as a realm of power and knowledge. This is not a "minor" project. I am beginning to think being chair was easy.
Cindi Katz, a geographer, teaches in the environmental psychology, women's studies, and twentieth-century studies programs at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research addresses children's everyday lives and the production of space, place, and nature. She has written on social reproduction, feminist methodology, social theory, globalization, and the privatization of space and nature. She is coeditor (with Janice Monk) of Full Circles: Geographies of Women over the Life Course (Roufledge, 1993) and is completing "Disintegrating Developments: Global Economic Restructuring and Children's Everyday Lives."
(1.) I recognize, of course, that it was not easy to establish or maintain interdisciplinary programs even in this earlier period. As Susan Stanford Friedman makes vivid, demands for such programs, often spearheaded by feminists, were met with intellectual derision and disdain as well as bureaucratic antagonism. Nevertheless, the earlier period--at least from the vantage point of the contemporary corporatizing academy--was one in which the combination of the pitch of political turmoil and the availability of resources produced conditions that enabled many university administrations to respond more favorably to new intellectual endeavors, if only--as Robyn Wiegman and others suggest--to manage or domesticate them.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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