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The problem with interdisciplinary coursework

November 6, 2010

This is something that I have been thinking about for a while as I move through the last leg of my coursework this semester (completing in about a month’s time). I have thought about the classes that I have taken when I first did my MA in English at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur to the classes I had taken for the last 5 semesters over at my present place (not including the classes I took in Summer 2009 at some summer schools I had attended). I am not even including language-learning classes in the mix. I have wondered about the purpose of these classes and how had they benefited me.

1. Are they meant to equip you with standard knowledge of your field or are they meant to give you ideas you will finally use in your dissertation/thesis. Supposing that you will become a teacher at some point in your career (of higher ed), these classes probably do give you some idea of how to shape your own classes.
2. Are these classes meant to make your marketable professionally as a future teacher?
The second question is possibly more devastating, especially since taking only one class in postcolonial literature/theory or one class in 18th and 19th century literature, is unlikely to prepare you sufficiently for becoming a specialist in these areas. You say, well, that’s what all the reading and writing from the dissertation is supposed to prepare you for. Probably, if you intend to continue teaching in the area of your research, or if you are working in a disciplinary area that has pretty clearcut directions on the sorts of ‘canonical’ knowledge you are expected to acquire.

But what if you work in interisciplinary fields? If you are doing anything from media studies to cultural studies to feminist studies to science studies, you are likely to fall under this rubric. Some people probably have a better idea than me in knowing what departments they fit best into that fulfill all their interdisciplinary needs. Me? I was just shopping around for departments that were interdisciplinary and who seemed friendly to my intellectual project(s). Obviously, I didn’t do a more detailed audit of the departments; the resources they have and the manner in which course offerings are done, nor did I even think about the resources available outside the department that I may need to tap into.

I’ll use me as an example. I work in science studies, feminist studies and comparative media. Of course, in an ideal world, I would like to get everything to be somewhat inter-related, as much as possible, and to shop for courses that could feed into these rubrics. At the same time, I wanted a teeny bit of freedom to shop for other un-related classwork so that I can learn some new methods and ideas I can bring into my own work. Now comes the various problems.

Firstly, you can’t take classes indefinitely. You do need to advance to PhD Candidacy. And to do so, you need to take your exams. And to take your exams, you need to fulfill course load requirements. Now, being in an interdisciplinary department (which, while very flexible, still insists that you do take sufficient courses in your teaching field and from within the department, the latter makes sense), and working in a research area that nobody would possibly hire me to teach in (as I have recently discovered when I was rejected from applying for a position in a particular program back in Malaysia) means I have to be hireable (as much as possible) across different departments that would finally support the sort of work I really want to do. We may think interdisciplinary but really, in the real world, most people are squares, and that includes professors, administrators and universities. Hell, even a large proportion of the students themselves are not really into interdisciplinarity. These include grad students and undergrads. So, these people will never hire you to work in their departments unless you came from the same educational womb.

So, while keeping your eye on the prize (your prized research topic), you begin taking classes that would make your marketable as a teaching person (unless you decide to drop out of that sort of job-market and look yonder). Also, you realize that the kind of work you do will benefit from an understanding of certain methodologies that you are interested in interrogating. In my case, it was feminist epistemologies and certain work in digitality. And of course, some philosophy or history classes in physics.

Here comes the crunch; you forget to consider what sorts of classes are on offer WHILE you are at your coursework stage; which professors are teaching (and what level of classes are they teaching) and if there are even sufficient classes around that will fulfill your needs within this deadline you are expected to toe in order to finish your coursework. I had a dilemma in my feminist studies courses; I couldn’t find enough relevant classes (relevant to my exam reading list and to my final PhD research goal) to actually meet the requirements. Since I like to have the freedom to be able to go off whenever I need to do research (or to accept whatever fellowships I am fortunate enough to acquire at some point that may require me to dedicate time to research), waiting for the right classes that may never materialize in my PhD-lifetime is just impractical. So I ended up taking whatever that I could, from interesting professors (or as interesting a course as could be mustered). It is up to me to extract worthwhile ideas from all these classes that have no seeming relevance to my immediate goals, and may possibly ‘delay’ my ‘professional progress’.

But then again, unless you are working on a very mundane PhD topic (which is what you are supposed NOT to do), you are never going to be hired, not even if you think you know a lot about the inner-workings of the LHC, the feedback habits of fourth wave cybernetics, memory archives of the fMRI, or the voting or consumer habits of a particular class of people in a particular, or two, countries (though of course, in the latter, you can try to convince some consultancy firms or gullible clients that you have some insights to offer). Don’t forget, too, that you have to teach classes so that you will have ‘experience’ while in graduate school.

Then, you realize you have various competing interests; how do you now tie them up so that they will somewhat work together? More importantly, how can you get yourself taken seriously? Well, that’s the question for the next blog post.

Or, you can decide not to be an academic and do something else (such as in one of those think-tanks); or just move to a Third World Country with ‘brain drain’ issues and ‘have’ them hire you.

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