Thursday, 15 January 2009

A rant on disciplinary boundaries

I have an unusual fondness for the term 'medievalist.' There are few such terms in other areas of historical study. One is not a Renaissancist; one is a Renaissance Historian, or Renaissance Art Historian, or a Renaissance Literature... erm... person. Scholars of the 20th century? 20th century historians, or art historians, etc. Classicists are really the only ones with a similar term. And while it is perfectly acceptable to call oneself a Medieval Historian, most people consider themselves Medievalists, rather than defining their precise area.

It's a term I absolutely embrace and adore, both for its unusualness and for its universality. I would like to think it's the result of something intrinsic in the Middle Ages that those who study the medieval period are not confined by a specific discipline (though that's probably just wishful thinking). A medievalist could be a historian, certainly, but it may also be a literary scholar, or an art historian, or a linguist... or perhaps someone who works within more than one discipline. As a non-traditional art historian who strays into history more than into art history, I truly appreciate having a term which identifies my work without limiting its scope.

This post is actually about interdisciplinary scholarship, not about terminology within academia. Interdisciplinary study is a subject close to my heart. I did my undergrad at a SLAC without majors or disciplinary requirements of any sort, and did my MA in Medieval Studies in a programme which required that I write essays in history, archaeology and art history- the epitome of interdisciplinary. Yet I have applied to PhD programmes in a single discipline, art history. There are programmes available in Medieval Studies (Yale, Cornell, University of Toronto, Notre Dame and many schools in the UK come to mind), yet I abandoned the idea of pursuing one such programme ages ago.

Why? It is well-documented that scholars have a much more difficult time getting jobs in academia with an interdisciplinary doctorate than a single-discipline degree. It makes sense, when you think about it; an Art History department is going to prefer to hire, for example, a medieval art historian who is also trained to teach classical and Baroque art, than a medieval art historian who can also teach medieval history and medieval literature. Though such a professor may be useful for the teaching of medieval culture in general, the Art History department loses out- and since it's their budget, they're allowed to be selfish. Thus, it is in my best interest, as a budding young scholar with hopes of employment in said department, to mold myself into what they want.

This raises some questions about the organization of study within universities, however. The current arrangement of disciplines rests on the premise that medieval literature is more like 20th century literature than it is like medieval art. Fair enough; there is a tradition of literary study, and an understanding of what came before and what comes after is certainly important- progression and all that. But I really have to wonder at what this approach tells students. Medieval literature, to continue with this example, is not really all that much like modern literature. Nor does an understanding of modern literary processes prepare a student to understand medieval literature. I, personally, would find it much more beneficial to study medieval literature in context of the medieval period- that is to say, alongside medieval history, archaeology, art history, music, etc.

But this is not the way medieval literature is taught. The course I took on medieval literature gave but the briefest of introductions to the medieval period. Given that it was a very small seminar course open to any undergraduate, the professor relied upon the more advanced students who had studied medieval history to provide context for the texts. But I can only imagine what a first year emerged from that class thinking about the Middle Ages, having only my sarcastic anecdotes within which to locate the literature s/he studied.

Certainly, survey courses (much as we may despise them) are important in providing an understanding of a single discipline. An art history survey provides the student with the understanding of what came when, and how art progressed and regressed throughout history. But I wonder if such courses should be the end of such discipline-specific study. People complain that students get only the whirlwind tour in a survey course, without understanding the context of any period or artwork.

How much context do PhD students receive in the required single semester course on non-western art?

The problem with the survey course isn't that the course is useless; it's that such courses have become the standard for teaching any discipline, during any period. A semester on Renaissance art isn't going to provide any more context than the survey course- it isn't going to inform the student about the differences between Italian and French politics, and how that affected Renaissance architecture in each. Politics fall under history- which, as we've seen, has nothing to do with art history.

I'm being a bit extreme here, and it's at least partly intentional. However, there are some rather serious boundaries between the disciplines. My most influential undergraduate professor technically belonged to the art history department, but because he taught art as a means to understanding history, his courses were consistently billed as history courses. Even at such an open-minded institution as my SLAC, professors still found themselves restricted by the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines.

This isn't the case with all disciplines, only with the 'major' ones: art history, history, literature, archaeology. One doesn't belong to the Christianity department: rather, schools have Religion departments. When I took a course on Islam, we examined art, music, poetry, and philosophy as much as we examined the history and tenets of the religion. See also Women's Studies, Gender Studies.

I could rant all day about this, but I think I've at least made a point. Having stated the problem, look for my proposed solutions in a future post.


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