Hacking the Disciplinary Divide

During my recently completed search for a graduate program I discovered one word that all of the schools used to describe their programs: interdisciplinary. I was thrilled that so many programs that interested me encouraged study outside of the discipline; until it became clear that in many cases “interdisciplinary” was meant more as public relations than as a dedication to cross-discipline collaboration and study.

I have since found a program that I am very excited to be joining in the fall, but I am still drawn back to the question: How do we actually promote interdisciplinary study? (And is it actually important?) [Spoiler: hacking; (and yes).]

“Spinning clouds of love”

Pausing on a stroll this evening I found myself marveling at a rather massive swarm of gnats; caught just so in the fading sunlight. I was unable to fathom what these (comparatively) minuscule insects were up to. The question (ahem) bugged me all the way back to my apartment. A quick “entomology gnat swarm” search revealed that I had encountered a mating swarm. Basically a massive flying orgy. Satisfied – and mildly disturbed – I returned to my evening knowing slightly more about the world I share with gnats.

Granted, this new-found knowledge, for me, ranks as anecdotal. But I would like to believe that it’s the desire to know that is really important.

When I was younger I wanted to be a scientist (specifically, a microbiologist like my father). A little older and I wanted to be a teacher; followed closely by a prolonged period of wanting to be an engineer. In late high school and early college I settled on educator and historian and that is where I remain. Though it looks like I bounced around as much as any other child, I maintain that I did not actually change my core interest very much at all – just my focus. I was always pushed by the same desire to find answers to my questions. The questions changed but the drive remained constant.

It is this need to question and discuss the world that drives academia.[1]

What is a discipline?

Back to our initial question; what’s so great about interdisciplinary programs? And for that matter, what is a discipline and what does it do?

I would suggest that disciplines are semi-artificial schema constructed to operate with a particular epistemology. More simply put, they are guilds made up of people who ask similar questions and look in similar places for answers to those questions. Perhaps more useful is the question, what do disciplines do? A partial answer – one that I hope may be expanded on in the comments – is that disciplines provide:

  • A corpus of common knowledge
  • Shared heuristics
  • Shared methodology
  • Shared lexical and conceptual semantics for discussion
  • A common face to the rest of the world (i.e., legitimacy)

This does not sound like such a terrible thing to me. So why do so many programs tout their independence from the disciplinary box? Perhaps because the very qualities that make the discipline strong also serve to limit its growth and creativity.

Back to the mating swarm

Disciplines are useful because they provide a strong framework for engaging with otherwise cripplingly broad bodies of knowledge and understanding. They also provide a community of support and debate that aim to guarantee reliable scholarship. But disciplines are limiting because they lack a certain diversity of thought. This is where interdisciplinary work comes in. The benefit of interdisciplinary collaboration is that it often exposes methods of thinking so embedded in the lexicon that they have become invisible, and exposes respective disciplines to wholly new ways of thinking and communicating.

Disciplines are comfortable. This is where their greatest danger lies. Scholars – and really people as a whole – are inherently driven by questions. No matter what discipline they have chosen, all academics look at the world and ask questions. But disciplines are not prone to ask questions so much as they are designed to answer them.

I have chosen a discipline (history), a region of study (America), a time frame (late 19th through 20th century), and a methodology (social cultural); however, this does not mean that I will not look to literary analysis for help unpacking the writing of John Dos Passos, or electrical engineering to better understand the AC/DC battle between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, or more importantly, the subject and connection that I cannot conceive of independently. It is the ability of interdisciplinary cooperation to enlighten intertextual relationships and open new avenues of thought and expression that makes it valuable. Academia shares a common desire to better understand the world. When disciplines share knowledge and methodology they are better able to explore these questions and uncover new modes of inquiry.

Hacking (through) the Divide

We acknowledge, (a) that disciplines are useful (and perhaps necessary), and (b) that interdisciplinary interactions and collaboration are invaluable. So how do we reconcile the two structurally? Formal attempts to create interdisciplinary programs (lecture series, university centers, and similar top-down programs) often leave a lot to be desired and in the end do little to engender lasting cross-discipline interaction. Where these programs fail is in attempting to institute cooperation rather than letting it flow naturally. If we accept that there are differences in the ways that disciplines view the world, and that people in academia live busy professional lives, then it is unsurprising that institutional attempts to foster interdisciplinary work often fall short. But as we discussed earlier, many in academia encounter the world with a similar curiosity – so how do we harness that curiosity and create an environment to stimulate it?

Hacking! At its most basic, hacking is the process of changing or altering an existing object or idea to make it different – maybe better, perhaps more suited to a particular situation, but always different. It is the process of tweaking and bending existing frameworks or technology to make something new. Hacking is most often associated (unfortunately negatively) with the world of computers, technology, and robots, but the philosophy of hacking and Making is now frequently being applied within academia. Hacking academia, like hacking technology, consists of taking existing modalities (of research, teaching, education, scholarly communication, etc.) and re-conceptualizing them to get something that behaves differently. Hacking academia has tended to take on a decidedly interdisciplinary – or, perhaps more accurately, paradisiplinary – character, and has the potential to succeed where other interdisciplinary efforts have not.

Hacker Spaces as Scholarly Spaces

A hallmark of the hacker/maker culture is community collaboration. That community is often physically manifest in a particular space – a rented warehouse, a shed, somebody’s garage. Hacker spaces often grow out of a common need for a place to work, exchange ideas, share knowledge, and pool resources. In these cases the community essentially exists without the space, but it is the space that breathes life into the community. Interdisciplinary practice works in much the same way. Many in academia are already interested in – and often work across – multiple disciplines, but lack a common space to facilitate both independent disciplinary work and collaborative interdisciplinary work. A hacker space.

Such a scholarly space (of which HUMLab serves as an excellent established example) exists not to institute interaction, but to provide a creative environment for scholars, researchers, artists, students, teachers, anyone with interest (hence paradisciplinary), to work, exchange ideas, share knowledge, and pool resources. A flexible scholar/hacker space encourages exchange of ideas, collaboration, and discovery beyond the discipline through an organic process of interaction, sharing, and learning from each other. Possibly the most valuable aspect of such a space would be the creation of a hacker/scholar/maker community in which members are free to pursue their own research and academic projects, and also to collaborate and interact with the community as a whole.

Like a discipline, such a community would provide a living repository of common knowledge and quality practice, but instead of establishing a single shared heuristic, it would serve as a dynamic collection of varied modes of thinking and questioning. This model is certainly not for everyone, and would likely not replace the current disciplinary model, but should it? One of the strengths of the hacker/maker model is that it is not an attempt to eliminate previous models so much as it represents a drive to modify and improve upon elements of those models. In conjunction with a more flexible disciplinary framework (see, for example, Tom Scheinfeldt’s piece on disciplines of methodology (and the associated comments), as well as Stephen Ramsay’s, “Centers of Attention”), paradisciplinary scholar spaces could provide an organic – and fun – means of thinking and doing across the academic disciplinary divide. Hacking is about doing. Creating, thinking, questioning, observing, learning, and teaching. The core of academic work is, at its heart, hacking. The scholar-hacker takes this and runs with it; breaking open previous modes of thought to see how they tick, rearranging them, adding to them, and then taping, soldering, and gluing them back together again.

Notes & Cited Work

1. I do not mean to say that academics have a monopoly on curiosity by any means, more that most people in academia are inherently inquisitive. Part of the gist of this piece is actually the exact opposite of the ‘monopoly on thought’ argument; rather, that we need to create collaborative spaces that encourage scholarly thought and also seek to expand that community outside of the walls of academia, just as it jumps disciplinary boundaries.

Joe Wolfcale, “In the News: Those tiny bugs you see are just a sign of love,” Marin Independent Journal, September 27, 2007.