When did 'interdisciplinary' become the adjective we can't live without?

Anatoly Liberman
Anatoly Liberman: When I read that an assistant professor should demonstrate a commitment to interdisciplinary studies, I feel nothing but indignation.
Photo Courtesy of Anatoly Liberman

By Anatoly Liberman

Anatoly Liberman is a professor at the University of Minnesota, where he has taught medieval culture, German and other languages since 1975.

Everything should be interdisciplinary, right? Read the ads for the few openings in the humanities, and you will see that colleges will hire only specialists with an interdisciplinary focus and the propensity for critical thinking. Now, thinking is of course always critical; otherwise, it is not thinking, so let us forget about this part of advertising. But how many irons should one have in the fire?

For starters, allow me to tell an anecdote. I once had a problem in my right eye, and the excellent ophthalmologist who had observed me for years said that he wanted to ask the opinion of a doctor specializing in the diseases of the lid. "The lower lid?" — I asked darkly, because I happened to be worried about that part of my anatomy. "Yes," he snapped back, "the lower lid of the right eye."

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His answer restored my confidence in the medical profession. I had known that there were experts in the diseases of the retina and suspected that the same might be true about the cornea, but the lid too!

The new doctor examined my eye and decided that I was not in danger (his prognosis turned out to be correct) but that he was not quite sure what had caused the symptoms. Even the lid specialist had doubts. I was impressed.

So how interdisciplinary should doctors be? No doubt, all of them need to know a good deal about the whole of the human organism, and they do, but isn't it natural that a gynecologist and an ophthalmologist (to give a random example) are so useful just because of their narrow specialization?

What is interdisciplinary?

I have heard that buzzword all my life. I was trained as a historical linguist. Years ago, the director of the research institute where I worked bemoaned the fact that I concentrated mainly on the study of sounds. Not enough! Let me explain to those who have never dealt with such matters that phonetics is an extremely broad area and that it takes years to feel comfortable in it. Later I began to study semantics, literature, and some other chapters of philology.

Now that I am an old man I am mildly interdisciplinary and know something about general linguistics, literature, folklore and a few other things. Yet I feel acutely how ignorant I am of the many areas connected with my field (or fields?). For example, I have published almost nothing on grammar, nothing at all on speech perception, typology, and a host of other well-developed subjects.

But when I read in ads that a beginning assistant professor should demonstrate his or her commitment to interdisciplinary studies, I feel nothing but indignation. Yesterday's graduate students, even the best of them, could not possibly become acquainted with more than a tiny piece of the material pertaining even to their immediate topics. Although everybody is aware of this fact, the poor guys' resumes should demonstrate enviable breadth, something that either doesn't (cannot!) exist or is a grandiloquent synonym for superficiality.

We should also bear in mind the practical side of the matter. The number of publications, including thick books, on every small question has grown catastrophically. No one is able to read those thousands of pages even in the major European languages (by the way, it also takes time to acquire a reading knowledge of French, German and the rest). Never mind that most of those works are hardly worth consulting: One cannot know it in advance.

Another aspect of being interdisciplinary presupposes straddling two areas. Not only the freshly minted Ph.D.s but also college students are rewarded for inventing something that will revolutionize both psychology and genetics, linguistics and anthropology, botany and philosophy, and so forth. Rest assured that nothing will come of those projects, not because psychology and genetics or linguistics and anthropology do not meet (they do) but because an ambitious young researcher cannot possibly know enough even about one corner of one area and will not succeed in sitting comfortably on two stools. Hence the popularity of teamwork, but this is another matter. Applicants are hired individually.

In my life I have applied for and received many grants. The higher the agency, the more jargon-ridden its guidelines are, but one thing remains constant: Preference is given to interdisciplinary projects. So I always spin imaginative yarns about how my research will benefit one, two, three disciplines. Incidentally, I do the same in my letters of recommendation, for I want my former students to get jobs.

Is there a remedy for this nonsense? Not until many scholars with great names or at least those who use famous letterhead (which is not the same thing) unite against the fad will the bubble burst. If it ever does, the world will be amazed at the heresy it trusted so long and so faithfully.