Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, November 11, 2010

making connections

One of Tim Burke’s colleagues is a little concerned about the breadth of interests represented by Tim’s syllabi:

My colleague suggested to me that I had to be responsible first (and last) to my discipline and my specialization in my teaching, that there was something unseemly about the heavy admixture of literature and popular culture and journalistic reportage and anthropology that populates some of my syllabi. I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed as an overall view of higher education in some recent meetings. At a small liberal-arts college and maybe even at a large research university, this strikes me as substantially off the mark. Or at least we need some faculty who are irresponsible to their disciplines and responsible first to integrating and connecting knowledge.

Let me repeat that for you: We need some faculty who are irresponsible to their disciplines and responsible first to integrating and connecting knowledge. This is a precise and concise summation of what I’ve tried to do for many years now. There’s a price to be paid for this kind of thing, of course: expanded interests do not yield expanded time. The day’s number of hours remain constant, and then there's the matter of sleep. So the more I explore topics, themes, books, films — whatever — outside the usual boundaries of my official specialization, the less likely it is that I will read every new article, or even every new book, in “my field.” But, to rephrase Tim’s point as a series of questions, Is the unswerving focus on a specifically bounded area of specialization the sine qua non of scholarship? Is it even intrinsic to scholarship? Is there not another model of scholarship whose primary activity is “integrating and connecting knowledge”?

I think there is such a model, and I think it deserves to be called scholarship, but I’m not going to fight about the point. Call it what you want, it’s what I love to do, and God willing, I’ll be looking for new and interesting connections for the rest of my life. That’s how my mind works, in any event, but it’s also what makes sense given my institutional situation. Tim and I both teach at liberal arts colleges where we are asked to teach a variety of courses, and to try to maintain a narrow specialization in auch an environment is to set one’s teaching at odds with one’s research. I prefer to seek ways to make my teaching and my research feed each other, and since I can't do that by narrowing the range of courses I teach, I will do it by expanding the range of topics I research and write about.

And I love it this way. Had I ended up at a big research university, I seriously doubt I would have had the luxury of developing some of the major interests that I’ve pursued in the past decade (e.g., the issues pursued on this blog). And from my point of view, that would be a shame.


  • Without the joy of making connections as a student, a liberal arts education simply isn't worthwhile. My fondest college memories were sitting in my English seminar making connections with my computer science ethics seminar, or finding ideas from a story had really been buried in economic theory and so on.

    In my post-college life I find myself often seeking out people who are able to make connections between disciplines and shine light from one area of interest into another. These people are simply the most fascinating people I know!

  • Nice work if you can get it.

  • Nice work if you can get it.

    That's my cue to list all my complaints about my job, right?

  • Katie, your comment reminds me of a mentor of mine who said that most of what he learned in college he learned in the campus coffee shop, where he and his classmates would piece together all that they had learned in their various classes. The classes were fine in themselves, but the real value (and the real joy) lay in students' making the connections the professors really couldn't make, because they weren't sitting in on each others' classes.

  • Complaints? I don't know, Alan. When I said, "Nice work if you can get it" I meant it as a boast.

  • I miss the eclectic gathering of interests, combined with moments of deeper specialization, that are possible where you teach, Alan. In some ways, the theological coherence of the place is what makes for that. In other ways it's the sorts of people the college attracts--both students and faculty. Whatever the case, I hope to be able to meet that challenge at a large research university in the most surprising place--a first year writing class, largely because it is trying to serve so many disciplines at once. It's not easy. The other place where I have found it possible is in teaching creative writing courses, helping writers reckon with the specific skills and techniques they might need to be broad gatherers of worlds, insights, and passions. OK. Now I'm getting nostalgic.

  • You're making me nostalgic too, David.

  • I really appreciate and totally agree with these sentiments. That said, I've written two books, most recently this one, that combine literary, film, media and political analysis. These have been very absorbing projects, they've gotten me some outstanding reviews (almost always from scholars outside my own field), and they've all but ruined my academic career. So I couldn't in good conscience recommend such a course to anyone at the early stage of such a career. You're really a lot better off being the World's Leading Expert on some one very narrow topic, at least as long as that topic fits within the current trends and fads of your field (and academia, let's be clear, is so thoroughly ruled by trends and fads that it makes the editors of People magazine look like staid classicists). Sad, but that's how it is.

  • That's extremely depressing, Jeff. I do think there are places in the academy that aren't quite so narrowly unimaginative in their evaluations of their faculty — many of them being liberal-arts colleges — but I suppose there aren't many. Sad.

  • Weirdly, at the point of hiring, even most liberal-arts colleges these days seem to want specialization -- or at least, they want scholarly prestige, which means the kind of intellectual orientation that goes hand-in-hand with specialization. So, they'll advertise for someone who does Postcolonial Third World Cinema, or something like that, even though in reality they're going to need that person to be versatile and able to handle a much wider range of course topics. This is the wall I've been running into for several years now.

    But coincidentally, I just happened to see this morning that Alasdair MacIntyre has a new book out (check it here) which, according to the TLS review, is largely a critique of academic over-specialization (consistent with MacIntyre's broader moral theory). Might be worth looking into for those interested in these issues.

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