Friday, April 15, 2016

Interdisciplinarity: Another Word for Emptiness


This is the second in my series of videos offering non-ideological reasons why programs in gender and women’s studies—or whatever they’re called, the names are proliferating—should be closed down. In Episode 32 I talked about the first and foremost reason: because these programs are about advocacy rather than knowledge: they are not about pursuing truth, which should be the only rationale of the university; they’re about
graduating a certain kind of student ready to become a social activist. The whole problem with these programs is that they teach feminism rather than teaching about feminism.
Today I will explore the second reason: that these programs are by nature intellectually incoherent.
Previously we looked at the website description for the women’s and gender studies program at the University of Alberta, in which we were told that the program has “a long-standing commitment to interdisciplinary collaborations.”  This word—interdisciplinary—is used frequently in these descriptions. The University of British Columbia’s gender studies program tells us that it incorporates research and theories “with an interdisciplinary understanding of global and local social justice issues.” As with advocacy, interdisciplinarity is often offered in the program description as a bragging point, a way to promote the program—and again, many professors, administrators, and students see nothing wrong with that. In fact, to be interdisciplinary in today’s university environment, is often thought to be very good.

So what does it mean? It means that taking a gender studies degree does not involve learning an academic subject such as history, geography, criminology, political science, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, environmental science, health science, or law. Instead it involves learning a smattering of all of the above—usually very light on the sciences and serious history—with the end result being that one doesn’t learn anything in a thoroughgoing way.

The original meaning of interdisciplinarity was that a scholar would learn one subject thoroughly, and then learn another, and bring together the knowledge and research methods of the two disciplines so that ideally each strengthens the other and a more capacious kind of research is possible. It’s not easy. It takes serious study to master any one subject because each has a vast body of literature and its own methodologies, assumptions, key terms, and central debates. Even experienced scholars don’t always do it well.

To think that undergraduate students just starting their post-secondary education could possibly grasp the essence of a range of subjects is simply not reasonable—and they don’t. Women’s studies itself is not a discipline, and the drift away from the word women in the title towards gender and sexuality (and even race and social justice) confirms its vagueness: it is everything and nothing, as the program descriptions often make painfully clear.

Here’s one course description from the University of Toronto’s course offerings in Gender and Environmental (In) Justice (with the ‘in’ in chic parentheses):


Using a transnational feminist framework, this course examines material and conceptual interrelations between gendered human and non-human nature, ecological crises, political economies, and environmental movements in a variety of geographical, historical, and cultural contexts.

Yikes! That’s an interdisciplinary cornucopia. One quarter of this course might make a potentially good graduate seminar topic for specialists in environmental geography, perhaps. But for an undergraduate course? How could one begin to understand the interrelations of gender and various ecological crises in different times and places, without first having a basic understanding of environmental science? How could one begin to understand the interrelations of gender and political economies without first having a basic understanding of Economics? You get my drift. What this course pretends to offer is so advanced and intricate as to guarantee that not even a highly intelligent undergraduate student could possibly make sense of all the domains of knowledge it draws on. Most students will come away from such a course with little more than a bundle of buzz words about the politics of oppositional agency, dissident homonationalisms, indigenous knowledge and counter-hegemonic praxis, diasporic communities and dialogical pedagogies, the liberatory potential of transcultural intersectionality, queer ethics, discourses of racialization, and self-reflexive non-normative trajectories of desire [chuckle]. That’s not understanding; it’s elite-sounding terminology that’s hollow at its core.

Because gender studies lacks a core subject to be learned in any depth, the courses often have no real content: a common focus of many is popular media representations. You can understand why. It’d be pretty dull, and not immediately relevant to feminism, to examine in depth, for example, the history of women in the Far East from the Ming Dynasty to the present—what a lot of dry facts to be learned--or the comparative legal status of women and men in the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic traditions from 1400 to the present. It’s much easier and more conducive to happy classrooms to discuss Lady Gaga, the Hunger Games, and 50 Shades of Gray—to critique their discursive production of race and class, for example, or to ferret out their implicit transphobia or heteronormativity, or their resistance to same. There simply is not the time, nor are the students equipped, to look at complex issues requiring sustained subject-specific reading and study.

Course content that can provoke lively discussion without requiring prior knowledge is much more attractive, in courses with titles like “Gender in Popular Culture,” “Feminist Consciousness and Community Organization,” “Gender and Sexuality in World Literatures,” and, my personal favourite, “Ghosts and Haunted Houses: An Exploration of How Theories and Fictions of haunting can illuminate still unfolding histories of dispossession and exploitation.”

Often the sophistication of the language employed in the program descriptions betrays its utter unreality. Here is the description of the undergraduate program at the University of Toronto’s Women and GenderStudies Institute:


For the past 40 years, we have trained students to think deeply about how gender and sexuality operate at the individual, interpersonal, institutional and global levels. Drawing from a range of disciplines such as history and literature, sociology and law, we enable students to answer urgent and complex questions, such as how militarization can constrict men’s aspirations for their lives, why there are income disparities between women and men, how sexual expression is scripted and can be re-scripted, and even what Lady Gaga could have in common with Shakespeare. In addition to training students to traverse the stanzas of a poem and a government report with equal care and skill […], we also focus attention on matters of scale: when to aggregate and when to parse significant distinctions, how to think comparatively across space and time.

Wow: even just thinking comparatively across space and time sounds like an impossibly ambitious and evanescent objective—not to mention all that has gone before: the stanzas of a poem, the government report, aggregating and parsing. It’s kind of neat, actually, but in its vast over-claim, it reveals a utopian unrealizability. No one will come out of that program, I guarantee, with a working knowledge of history, literature, sociology, and law, let alone any of the other glittering rubrics evoked. Actually, it’s no easy thing to traverse the stanzas of poems—that alone is an achievement requiring sustained practice and a heck of a lot of reading. You don’t just pick it up in a class or two before moving on to other areas of expertise. If you’re going to really understand what Lady Gaga has in common, or doesn’t, with Shakespeare, you’re going to have to read a lot of Shakespeare, and some other Renaissance dramatists, and understand something about the culture that produced Shakespeare. Otherwise it’s all just superficial baffle-gab.

But it seems clear that really knowing Shakespeare—or anything for that matter—is not the concern of the women’s and gender studies program. This is about “knowledge production,” in the department’s words, about learning a collective orientation towards the world. Some of the courses look interesting—many look pretentious and silly. But are these university-worthy programs that taxpayers should be funding to the tune of millions of dollars every year? Certainly not, in my opinion. And the question of cost will be the subject of my next video, the last in this series.