February 15, 2004

Elsewhere in the Blogosphere

(Or in that corner of the blogosphere that devotes itself to academic issues)

Just a quick entry to briefly note a couple of posts:

1. John Holbo takes up "This whole conservatives in academia thing."

2. Robert "KC" Johnson responds to my "Comment for Cliopatria Discussion" with more on "Interdisciplinarity and Student Demand"(to which I want to reply as soon as I get a chance).


There are a few points I'd like to raise in response to Robert "KC" Johson's post.

I'll begin by noting a couple of points of agreement. First, though I was thinking of "greater attention to previously excluded areas" when I spoke of student demand, I can well believe that there is also, as Johnson observes, "strong student demand for courses in political, diplomatic, and constitutional topics."

Second, I certainly share Johnson's concern over an organizational model that would eliminate the history department altogether. For all their differences in methods and approaches, I believe that historians working in very different areas and in very different ways are united by a distinctively historical perspective that defines the study of history. My suspicion is that what historians do in the history department is not going to be done as well, perhaps not done at all, under a rubric like "global studies." I also suspect that the elimination of an entire department generally stems from a cost-cutting imperative which makes lower-enrollment disciplines more vulnerable (certainly this has been the fate of some language departments at some schools: rather than continue to have a German department, an Italian department, and so on, the separate departments are combined into one language department).

Where I depart from Johnson is on the matter of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. His notion of the proper boundaries between the disciplines and subdisciplines is just too rigid to serve any purpose that I'm willing -- without further persuasion on this point -- to recognize as vitally, even centrally or definitively, important to the continued viability of history as a discipline. Certainly, he has a point when he argues that the value of interdisciplinary work should not be assumed as a given. But surely the same thing might be said of the value of maintaining firm disciplinary boundaries -- the more so when we recognize that, far from representing a venerable age-old ordering of knowledge, the conventional or "traditional" map of scholarly fields is of fairly recent (speaking historically, of course) origin.

Since interdisciplinarity is most often associated with newer approaches (the trinity of race/class/gender, the linguistic turn, the flirtation with French theory, and the like: it's cutting edge, or else it's trendy and faddish, depending on one's view), it's worth noting, I think, that the relationship between "traditional" scholarship/pedagogy and firm disciplinary boundaries is by no means a given. To cite just one example:

In terms of undergraduate teaching (which is one of the main concerns of Johnson's post), the "return to tradition" impulse often expresses itself as support for a Great Books or liberal studies curriculum, where courses are taught by faculty from any number of disciplines, including history, philosophy, political science, literature, and so on. And under the aegis of what discipline, exactly, are such curricula put forth? Well, under the aegis of no one discipline, obviously, because the Great Books themselves cannot easily be fit or forced into any one modern discipline (most of them, after all, were written well before the current division of separate academic disciplines), and anyway, the point, pedagically, is precisely to return to, or to recreate and reinvent, some notion of a "traditional" general education model that is seen to predate professional specialization. If Johnson's concern with "traditional" disciplinary boundaries requires him to disavow the value of the recovery/invention/reinvention of the Great Books tradition, that's fine. But then I think he would need to be explicit about the superior value of disciplinary divisions that would preclude the possibility of undergraduate courses in the Great Books mode.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at February 15, 2004 09:13 PM

I'd agree with much of what IA says in response to my posting. In fact, I'd agree with almost all of it.

I don't argue against interdisciplinarity across the broad--only what seems to me a dangerous default setting in which the contemproary academy assumes that interdisciplinary approaches are necessarily superior. There are lots of questions for which interdisciplinary approaches are clearly appropriate. For instance, several years ago, I participated in a summer seminar at the Supreme Court Historical Society organized around the theme of the presidency and the Constitution, which brought together professors of political science, the law, and history. The question framed by the seminar was one that yielded itself to an interdisciplinary approach.

Likewise with the "Great Books" course that IA mentions--another type of question (this one curricular) that yields itself to interdisciplinarity.

As IA mentions, however, the interdisciplinary approach has frequently been associated with the race/class/gender trinity, and used therefore as a way to privilege this interpretation of the past.

Posted by: KC Johnson at February 17, 2004 09:29 AM

The focus on class in particular is probably no more than what, 160 years old?

Posted by: chun the unavoidable at February 17, 2004 10:48 AM

Just a question semi-apropos of all this: If History departments are filled with liberals, then why is it that the most politically liberal people I know have grave doubts about the validity of World History and advocate simply adding a broader range of topics to the canon, while on the H-world list, there seems to be a definite intention to repress evil, conservative Western Civ?

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at February 17, 2004 02:58 PM

Good question, ADM. I taught in a history department which offered "World History" as its introductory survey course. The problem was that "World History" is just an overwhelming challenge. Even my very best students were just swamped with an introductory look at South Asian and Chinese history. _Everything_ about them seemed just all too alien. Consequently, while maintaining the course title, the department adopted informal rules which barred teaching staff from attempting to cover those fields. In effect, we taught a first semester "Meditteranean World" and a second semester "Atlantic World," with heavy additives of African history to a traditional "Western Civ" frame.
Except for the violation of truth in advertising, it worked reasonably well. There was no constituency to challenge the ignoring of Eastern Civ and, truth to tell, the faculty was ill-prepared to teach it.

Posted by: Ralph E. Luker at February 17, 2004 04:30 PM


That is indeed interesting. I, too, witnessed this when I last taught in Ethnic Studies. I was probably the "conservative" one, for simply not conducting sections on "why all white people are evil" (a student, in fact, thanked me for this), even though at the ballot box my former colleagues on I will most likely be on the same side.

Posted by: DM at February 17, 2004 05:48 PM

I really don't want to get into the World Civ question right now: I have to go home and prepare to teach the post-1500 Turko-Islamic Empires. Good thing my students agreed to put the quiz off a day so I could actually spend a full 45 minutes on the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires....

As much as there is to complain about a class where you are teaching everything in two semesters, there's some things to be grateful for. I taught Western Civ before I came here, and I always felt like I was teaching with blinders on: all of a sudden "the West" goes out into the world or sometimes the world comes in and "attacks" the West..... all very incomprehensible and more than a little triumphalist.

I love teaching World Civ. I have the advantage of having a strong background in Western Civ, thanks (mostly) to teaching it, and a strong background in Asia, thanks to my undergrad and graduate educations. This leaves only a few areas of the world for me to catch up on, and I'm dancing as fast as I can (when I think they're important: I did spend one class period explaining why I don't know more about Latin American history; it's an interesting historiographical discussion, actually, and students were surprised to hear me admit that not only didn't I know much but that I didn't care that much about the issues that were important there....except that I do, and here's why they were important...). But the great thing about World Civ, is that once you get past the majority of the textbooks (Western Civ texts with a Chinese or Indian historian grafted on) there are a few honest-to-god World History texts (We use Bentley and Ziegler's Traditions and Encounters, and not just because they're at UH-Manoa) which treat the world as a set of interacting regions, instead of discrete ones, and which spend the time and energy to explain interactive processes like trade, which don't stick to strictly regional divisions (the chapters on the Mongols or on the Russian Empire, for example, cross the Asian-Western boundaries quite blithely and very illuminatingly). At the end of it, a student who's paying attention will have a vastly improved idea of how the world works and what the issues are.

There's a lot to complain about, and I do, but it is much more intellectually honest and satisfying than treating "the West" as the world.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at February 17, 2004 10:09 PM

I also enjoy my every other year sojourn in World History.

When I first taught it, I did wonder if the reason that the shift to World was so popular was not because it was good for students but because those of us who taught it got to read and learn so much.

I still think there may be truth to that observation (at least in explaning faculty motivation). But more and more I think Jon's right. If taught well, and with a mixture of humility and rigor, alert students will know the world much better.

And so will we. My US courses have improved as a direct result of the broader knowledge I sought in teaching World. I am sure I am not alone in that.

Posted by: Oscar Chamberlain at February 18, 2004 10:34 AM

I actually like some aspects of World History -- the parts that require me to broaden my own learning and talk out of my area. I agree that Bentley probably the best book out there, too. However, I find that most of my students have no historical background, so that the connections that seem easy for World Historians to make are actually not at all intuitive for students. Moreover, I find that the approach can often give the students a very false picture of what happened in a particular area, because the parallels that many World History texts draw and connections they make are frequently thematic rather than the results of cross-cultural interaction (e.g., comparing Empires that form at relatively similar times, even if the only thing they have in common is that they are contemporaneous and empires!).

That said, my Western Civ classes now are much more inclusive of other cultures. I add primary and secondary source readings and background lectures for each point of cross-cultural contact (as in, "who are these people and what are they like before the Europeans get there?" and "How does the interaction change both cultures?"). The students like it, but don't find it overwhelming. The later the period of study, the more we talk about what's happening outside Europe. It may be conservative, but it seems to work.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at February 18, 2004 02:21 PM