Book Review: Foshay, Raphael, ed. Valences of Interdisciplinarity: Theory, Practice, Pedagogy

Reviewed by Joan B. Fiscella, University of Illinois at Chicago

Raphael Foshay’s collection of essays is based on a 2008 Athabasca University symposium, The Scope of Interdisciplinarity, which brought together scholars of interdisciplinarity from humanities and social sciences to examine the ways interdisciplinarity may function in teaching and research. We learn at the end of the volume, the symposium was to help provide a way for Athabasca University to assess its purpose for and accomplishments of the Master of Arts in Integrated Studies. The speakers’ contributions are organized in three parts: theory, practice and pedagogy.

Foshay sets his introduction by reflecting on “interdisciplinarity, for what?” He takes what first appear to be two perspectives, that of academic life and that external to academic life, but he immediately challenges the dichotomy (p. 2). Instead, he argues, that the two have to interact. He traces the tension between academic and non-academic perspectives from the Enlightenment, noting that the development of disciplines was ongoing both within the academy and outside (for example, in professional associations).

The essays grouped as theory offer a wide variety of discussions. Among the authors are Martin Jay, Julie Thompson Klein, Rick Szostak, and Diana Brydon. In “The Menace of Consilience: Keeping the Disciplines Unreconciled” historian Martin Jay takes on Edward O. Wilson’s notion of bringing the disciplines together (in a move he calls, following Wilson, “consilience”). Jay argues instead that any attempt to take away the boundaries between disciplines must attend to the contexts of the disciplines, in particular local and regional contexts; that in his own work across boundaries, he cannot leave behind his own professional identity as a historian; and that removing all disciplinary boundaries may in fact open the humanities in particular to a takeover by one or another science discipline and to “intellectual incoherence.” Jay makes his argument by reviewing scholars, journals, and theories whose language has shaped both sides of the argument about disciplinary boundaries: Clifford Geertz’s “blurred genres” (p. 33) and associated journals such as Critical Inquiry, Representations, Daedalus, and Common Knowledge; Timothy Lenoir’s discussion of disciplines as “political institutions” (p. 34); the growth of “cultural studies”; and the interpretation of disciplines as “turns” (e.g., “linguistic turn”, etc.). Jay proposes an approach that views disciplines “as relational networks of elements” which are continuous rather than divided (p. 38). He concludes, however, that no one of these metaphors is the final answer to what the disciplines are today. In fact, the negotiation will continue as scholars and practitioners continue to make sense of the disciplines.

Julie Thompson Klein’s contribution, “Interdisciplinarity, Humanities, and the Terministic Screens of Definition,” gives a brief overview of other symposium presentations as a jumping off point to illustrate change in the humanities since the late nineteenth century, and then analyzes interdisciplinary study, teaching and organizational structures. Klein, too, is attuned to changes in the language of disciplines. She borrows Kenneth Burke’s notion of “terministic screens” to filter the language of disciplines and interdisciplines. By extensively cataloging terminology and pointing out evolving usage, changes in meaning, and relations to societal changes, she gives a rich map of the development of interdisciplinarity and its relatives in research, education, and practice.

Rick Szostak, in “Integrating Interdisciplinary Studies across the Humanities and Social Sciences,” approaches the question of interdisciplinarity beginning with the field of history. Instead of using the disciplinary group names, he prefers to refer to “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” traditions. Here as elsewhere in the essay, he describes sets of alternative approaches and then suggests ways in which they can be combined as complementary. Szostak identifies some attributes and questions that arise in studies of history: the need for clarity in use of terminology, emphasis, interpretation; the relation between a focus on generalization or on the particular; the use of metaphor to describe an historical period; attention to various types of causation; and the narrative. Szostak notes that the humanities work more in the area of theory, and he recommends interdisciplinary work, drawing on various methods. Interspersed throughout the essay Szostak has placed bullet points leading readers through the issues he has set up in his discussion. He concludes by encouraging disciplinary and interdisciplinary groups to learn from each other and to contribute to the scholarship that links them.

Diana Brydon, in “Globalization and Higher Education: Working Toward Cognitive Justice,” looks at three major divides in education: the break between global north and global south that prevents solving global problems; the division between humanists and social scientists that prevents taking advantage of the strengths of each; and the need for universities to share their research and teaching to benefit other public and private organizations that also produce knowledge. She draws on the work of other presenters at this forum, and concludes with a recommendation for the work of Jan Aart Scholte as a good insight into the state of current thought. Rationalism continues to be a strong influence on the social construction of knowledge. At the same time there is a growth in anti-rationalist knowledge; and cross-world relations have led to some changes in ontology, methodology and aesthetics (pp. 111–12). She, on the other hand, argues that there are alternative approaches to knowledge production in lesser-known centers that can support cognitive justice.

The essay subjects that illustrate the practice (rather than theory) of interdisciplinarity include ecological thinking; journal publishing; film; and the relation among gender, women’s rights and religion. Specific presentations are examples of the range of work in interdisciplinary practice, often the perspective of work outside academic life.

Lorraine Code’s essay “Ecological Thinking as Interdisciplinary Practice” draws on Rachel Carson’s work as a model, specifically alternating between field studies or scientific research and analysis. The turnaround of Tanzania’s health system is a telling example of the power of seemingly interdisciplinary practice. Key features included studying the individual characteristics of specific regions to determine the different needs for financial support and individualized drug packages. Instead of carrying out generally accepted evidenced-based studies, the researchers relied on the knowledge of local people. Results of these local studies included providing accessible health care tailored to the people of specific regions. Code concludes that the work of ecological thinking does not confine itself to objective standards of a discipline, and in fact, it challenges those artificial boundaries. As boundary crossing, it may be thought of as interdisciplinary. Yet Code is somewhat reluctant to use the label “interdisciplinary” since to engage in ecological thinking and work, the researcher must move in multiple realms without concern for the accepted disciplines.

The aim of Gary Genosko’s “Transdisciplinarity and Journal Publishing” is to show what journal publishing can tell us about transdisciplinarity. He offers publishing as a technically complex “microinstitution” and describes transdisciplinarity as “undisciplinable” to the extent that it organizes itself around the problem of how to build a microinstitution” (p. 231). Genosko’s notion of journal publishing is certainly not limited to regular issues of a print (in the 1970s) group of articles on subjects fitting the mission of the journal. Instead he shows the history of one or another journal and how it often arises out of groups around a center, a group of editors, a pool of graduate students, funding issues, and infrastructure. Among his extended examples are Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory (CJPST) and Telos, both of which teach the importance of the project as a living organism instead of a product standing apart from a creative source.

Morny Joy’s purpose, in “Gender, Women’s Rights and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Case Study,” is to propose the contribution religious studies can make to interdisciplinary work. Joy bases her study on examples of violence against Aboriginal women of Canada. One example is a woman who married a non-Indian man, thus removing her from her status as Indian; she later divorced this man, but was unable to rejoin her reservation. (A man of the tribe who marries a white woman does not lose his status.) The woman made the case for reinstatement, including her “religious status of parity” (p. 255), as a human rights issue and a women’s rights issue. Joy details the conflicts among and criticisms of using “rights” as the basis for negotiating social problems, including not only human rights and women’s rights, but also tribal and ethnic rights, and religious parity, all of which are often argued either alone or in combination. Joy concludes with a call for “nuanced” discussion and appreciation of diversity, stating that interdisciplinary religious studies can contribute to the conversation.

Among the essays in the pedagogy section are a discussion of an approach to doing interdisciplinarity through computer games and an integrated approach to embodied learning. Suzanne de Castell’s “One code to rule them all …” addresses the use of digital code to do interdisciplinary work that bridges methods, fields, clusters of disciplines and dichotomies such as work and play. The background is a project developed for Toronto’s Tafelmusik baroque orchestra as a way to connect with younger people. The project consisted of several computer games that set up the historical situation with a quest that would eventually open re-playable music recordings. Two of the games involved musical inscription and baroque dancing. A major question of the project is how knowledge is represented in a digital context. The project used a software program, MAP (Multimodal Analysis Program), which allows analysis and multiple interpretations of multimodal communications. This tool opens up comparison of diverse interpretations of data for qualitative research, particularly in interdisciplinary research.

Roxana Ng’s “Decolonizing Teaching and Learning through Embodied Learning:  Toward an Integrated Approach” argues the need for an embodied pedagogy, which she holds is interdisciplinary. Ng writes that she became aware of the need to bring together body, mind, and spirit in teaching, first from health issues she experienced as a graduate student, and later, as a minority faculty member in Canada. As a minority faculty member she experienced power relations among groups in the classroom and the overall university; between the teacher and students; and among students. Reflecting on her own experiences led her to incorporate her insights both in the subject of courses and in her pedagogy. For example, in one course she has asked her students to practice a mindfulness exercise and also write in a journal about their reading assignments and their own practice of the exercises. With their permission, she has included excerpts from three students’ reflections. She posits these approaches as interdisciplinary in the sense of crossing boundaries, although she makes no attempt in this piece to further analyze the term.

Derek Briton, in “From Integrated to Interstitial Studies,” examines the terminology in the context of the 2001 origin of Athabasca University’s (AU) Master of Arts degree, named Integrated Studies. The purpose of the program is to use various means of inquiry to develop “new interpretive frameworks and new objects of knowledge” (p. 368). Briton notes, however, that in spite of its value, it has not produced “a new object that belongs to no one,” in Roland Barthes’ words.

Since its beginning in 1970, AU has had a policy of removing barriers that hinder students from getting an education. Almost three-quarters of the students are first in their families to earn a degree. The Master of Arts in Integrated Studies had a potential for growth; it kept disciplinary departments from competing; and gave an opportunity for the students to attain a graduate degree. Given its relatively recent launch, there has been little time to assess the program; thus the symposium was developed to help reassess the program’s purpose and its achievement. One proposal coming out of this assessment of interdisciplinary issues is a new model called “interstitial studies.” “Interstitial” refers to a state of betweenness with potential for transformation. An “Interstitial,” rather than “interdisciplinary,” study puts students in positions to construct new knowledge.

This volume of essays could be of interest to faculty and administrators of graduate interdisciplinary programs or those contemplating developing such programs, because it shows the complexity of clarifying what such a program would be, the value of such programs and the challenges in gaining acceptance for them. The essays vary in their accessibility; without some familiarity with specific recent philosophical thought it may be difficult to follow certain arguments. The presenters are highly respected scholars. Given the origin of the symposium as a contribution to assessment of Athabasca’s Master of Arts in Integrated Studies, it would be useful to know in what ways the program benefitted from it: whether it confirmed the program’s content and structure, or if it encouraged rethinking any aspects of the program.