In Defense of Disciplinarity: A Case from the Trenches /Jennifer N. Brown


In Defense of Disciplinarity: A Case from the Trenches

 Jennifer N. Brown, Department of English, Marymount Manhattan College, New York, NY 


The guiding questions of my essay here are ‘Can I afford to be interdisciplinary in my pedagogy?’ and ‘Can I afford not to be?’ While I absolutely embrace and understand the reasons in advocating for interdisciplinary pedagogy, I would like to suggest that there are some important reasons to embrace and hold on to pedagogic disciplinarity as well.

I am mostly reacting to the particularities of my institution, which I know is representative of so many others: small, independent, and increasingly financially tight. With a student body of fewer than 2,000 students, and a full time faculty of fewer than a hundred, Marymount Manhattan is the smallest liberal arts college in New York City. Theater is our most popular major and we have a competitive dance program. These combined and visible programs at the College overtake the agenda in many ways, not least because the students—reflecting the nature of theater students generally—are loud, visible, and active. As a result, the Humanities are in some ways the ugly neglected stepsisters at the College, and it seems that fewer resources are directed our way or put into our recruitment of students. Last year we were lucky to garner sixteen incoming students who declared English as their major (both first years and transfers). Every year this number seems to decline, and when a tenure track faculty member in our department of six recently left the college, we lost the line completely; another is set to retire this year, and that line is also in peril of remaining vacant. Because there are few faculty and little money, we have a 4-3 teaching load (reduced from 4-4 in 2009, the year I started). The faculty in the Department of Literature and Language (English, combined with minors in French, Spanish and Creative Writing) are remarkably productive and visible in our fields, a testament both to the high number of well-qualified PhDs and lack of good jobs, as well as to the desire of many of us to be in New York City. However, it does not look promising for us to move to a lower teaching load any time soon. Indeed, the administration holds the possibility of a return to a 4-4 as a bargaining chip over the faculty’s heads. The school depends heavily on tuition dollars, and even a small deficit of students slashes the year’s budget in several places.

Although our original BABEL panel took place before the much vaunted ‘Crisis in the Humanities’ media coverage caught fire (see Robert Stanton’s essay above as well as the 2013 articles on the topic in The New York Times, The American Scholar, The New Republic, Harvard Magazine, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others), those of us in the trenches had already been dealing with the perceived need for a constant justification of Humanities education and a re-invention of what the Humanities, and in my case, the study of literature, should and could mean to our students. The BABEL conference also took place before the documented fall in college-age students and the new financial realities for many schools. As The New York Times has recently reported, the ‘hardest hit are likely to be colleges that do not rank among the wealthiest or most prestigious, and are heavily dependent on tuition revenue’ (Pérez-Peña, 2013). So, I am reporting to you from the eye of this perfect storm: a Humanities professor at one of those hardest hit colleges, wanting to save my discipline and my institution both.

Such are the disadvantages of such a small school, small faculty, small department, and small number of majors. We are always scrambling to “recruit” and maintain our students. We have extremely broad coverage—I am both the medievalist and the early modernist, I teach theory classes, introductory surveys, General Education courses, and writing classes. There is little to no money for events, for speakers, for student field trips, etc., and because we are so small, when we do have these events, they are sparsely and dishearteningly attended. However, there are also advantages. There is less bureaucracy, so it is easy to propose and teach a class. Because I am the only medievalist and early modernist both, I teach upper level courses in or nearly in my field every semester (although this would be ‘Chaucer’ and not ‘Medieval Devotional Writers’). Because we are in New York, we have the Cloisters, the Met, the lecture series at all the libraries, universities, museums, etc., to add to our curriculum. Included in this advantage is the ability to co-teach a class with some ease; for example, I have co-taught a course on the Nineteenth-Century Gothic and the Medieval with another colleague in English. Students who double major are especially encouraged to engage in interdisciplinary work. The dance/English double majors that I have had produce extraordinary studies of movement—explicit and implicit—in medieval texts. An art historian/English double major wrote her paper in my Arthurian Literature class on the pre-Raphaelites, bringing her critical eye to both literary and visual texts.

Interdisciplinarity has become the new buzzword in academia, partly in response to this ‘crisis’ in the humanities. By pushing faculty and students beyond what is perceived as a narrowness of subject, the promise of interdisciplinary education is that it prepares students for the ‘real’ world, where subjects and their analysis are not discrete. As with many institutions, my college gives quite a bit of weight to the promise of interdisciplinary pedagogy. The administration encourages all the writing courses to be interdisciplinary to some extent, and there are many requirements of interdisciplinarity built into our newly revamped General Education program. For example, students are required to take a course (from any department) that provides an ‘international perspective.’ A pre-existing course can be approved as having this designation, and then students from any major can take it to fulfill that general education requirement. Faculty in our department have been strongly encouraged to create these designated courses, or fit existing ones into the designations, because doing so will help fill our classrooms, and our classes need to be filled in order to justify our jobs (the realities of a small, cash-poor teaching institution!). As a medievalist whose work is largely interdisciplinary (isn’t that the nature of medieval studies, after all?), it is not difficult to fill my syllabus with readings not just in literature, but in history, art history, and theology. The ‘cultural studies’ designation thus fits many of my classes naturally, and I have adapted some so that they receive this designation, but as of yet I haven’t created a class anew for a general education designation. So to some extent my departmental colleagues and I must be interdisciplinary. We literally can’t afford not to be, because students (who are increasingly driven by post-college career plans, the reason Communications is an over-full major) and unfortunately administrators (who measure our worth by bodies in the classroom and the tally and retention of our majors) may find us increasingly irrelevant if we don’t.

However, I think this rush toward interdisciplinary pedagogical practice has left much to be desired. Crucial skills and knowledge are lost in what and how the students learn. Can we really ‘afford’ to be so interdisciplinary? Certainly my Introduction to Literature students, and many of my upper level majors, do NOT know how to read closely; they are so used to reading a text only for its broader cultural context that they are unprepared to look at the language and the literary form. We have just changed our English major requirements to put back what had been long since taken out—historical surveys. We found that students had no concept of literary history, and that they could not see literary relationships among texts from different time periods. We should not be turning to interdisciplinary pedagogy before first establishing some sense of discipinarity. We cannot afford to lose what being an English major means—having attained a particular set of skills and knowledge—because these skills and knowledge are distinct from (if related to) those of an art historian or a sociologist. Learning to specialize develops ‘real world’ skills in itself—an ability to focus, to master, to apply broadly learned skills to something narrow and concrete.

My ideal vision of interdisciplinary pedagogy is less in the teaching and more in the learning, in the sense that is it is my responsibility to teach my students a discipline, how to apply it, what it entails, and then encourage them to look outside of those boundaries and find ways in which the learning they have done elsewhere can accompany and complement what they have learned with me. I can (and do) gesture to these concepts in a class—the ways in which a text can be transformed in light of art history, or economics, or religious debate—and can indeed co-teach a class with a colleague in another discipline to bring these disparate elements into dialogue. However, the existence of that dialogue requires two distinct voices, and those voices are shaped by the discipline from which they come. Speaking from the trenches, from that not-so-sweet spot of a crisis in small colleges that meets the crisis in the Humanities, I advocate for attention to discipline.



Pérez-Peña, R. 2013. College Enrollment Falls as Economy Recovers. The New York Times, 25 July.

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