Undisciplining Knowledge, Harvey J. Graff (A Review)

Silos. Turfs. Politics. Agendas.

undisciplining knowledge graff

Higher education has lived with longstanding metaphors describing educational institutionalization for decades. Any institution can be prone to stagnation. At the same time, there have been some exploring interconnections, possibilities of cross-over, working together on the same farm, albeit in separate fields. Undisciplining Knowledge attempts both to encourage academic integration and foster the academe’s convergence. What interdisciplinarians desire—wedding life’s dichotomies and disconnections—assumes an innate knowledge of coherence; knowing things should be different. “University” begins with the question “How does the ‘one’ and the ‘many’ fit together?” Wholistic beneficence for every culture, time, place, and people is possible and possibly attainable. The Christian academic begins with the assumption that Christ “holds all things together” (Col 1.17). The essence of interdisciplinarity has Christian origins.

Harvey Graff establishes historic case studies for interdisciplinarity, both its stops and starts. Intersections over a century between biology and sociology, humanities and communication, social relations and operations research, cognitive science and new histories, materials science and cultural studies, bioscience and literacy studies. Chief among the disagreements about interdisciplinarity concern definition. Problems exist with methodologies, knowledge, and connecting with new disciplines. Tensions develop between experts and the fields of knowledge they address. Graff sets his own definitions focused on a key concern: “disciplines should be interactive, not additive” (5).

There is no single path to interdisciplinarity, no single model, no single standard for successful development. The process and results vary across disciplines and clusters. Like disciplines, interdisciplines are diverse in paths, locations, relationships to disciplines, organization and institutionalization (5).

Definitions, questions, limitations, and consequences prove beneficial to any interested parties. But central to Graff’s concerns is “the lure of science” which accord other disciplines to be less desirable (13). Science is accepted as “the appropriate basis for judgment” (21). Boundaries, initiatives and collaboration are possible, fully supported with Graff’s enthusiasm (155) who “mandates a greater role for history and the humanities” (236). Connections between the sciences and humanities would benefit interdisciplinary studies. Nomenclature matters. Terminology communicates ideas.

But what compels people to seek study? Lost in the context is the story, the narrative, of various presidents, professors, or donors who direct where studies will go. Idea acquisition depends on the motivations and intentions of those involved: economic, sociological, political, fiscal. Graff’s concern about financial incentives ripple through the pages of Undisciplining Knowledge citing “commercial possibilities” (18), publication (34, 236), “compelling sales appeal” (38), political pressure (191), federal dollars (210), and research and development (224). Perhaps Graff’s most honest paragraph appears on page 38 where he observes the influence of biology which attracts money and compelling interest, perhaps for good reason, “With science came at least the expectation of truth and accuracy.” How decisions are made about anything matters.

All anyone can do in a purely naturalistic, humanistic mindset is to plow new fields and plant seeds that may not bear fruit in their lifetime. Commitment to naturalism tends to show appreciation in that direction. If discoveries are seen as immediately applicable and advantageous they will be appropriated for financial gain, status, reputation or acclaim. What interdisciplinarity should foster is open, honest, no-agenda approach to collaboration. But until and unless human nature is changed, fragmentation will continue to mitigate the good gains of interdisciplinary studies.

Graff is the perfect representative to write such a book. A man of varied tenures, experiences, and institutions (160), Graff, better than others, has the historical breadth and depth to examine both the history of the enterprise as well as pose possibilities for the future. His questions (15) demonstrate his reflective study in the arena. But as he suggests through these pages, Graff knows the patterns developed over decades will take more decades to direct and distinguish. Some might suggest that the author is too close to his subject for objective analysis. But the opposite is also true—the subject comes alive because someone has spent decades of investigation, interpretation, and intersection. It is obvious from the outset that Graff has committed extensive intellectual capital in interdisciplinarity. His voice of historical convergence and future coherence should not simply enliven the conversation but should embolden collaboration. A towering work sets standards for some further ethnographic research to flesh out narrational connections. Graff tells his first story on page 35 but leaves the field open for qualitative study.

It would seem a number of qualitative traits would foster a spirit of interdisciplinarity. Humility is key (236). What could help to undiscipline knowledge?

(1) Full disclosure and clear definitions of all taxonomies in all fields would be a start.

(2) Interdisciplinarity between departments would be helped if administrators would teach; they would have pedagogical skin in the game.

(3) Graff’s work stresses the absolute need for specialists in any field and the absolute need for translators to communicate with other disciplines and the populace as a whole.

(4) “Translators” would make introductions to disparate fields, find vocabulary intersections, and create space for application. Communities can often be found talking past each other.

(5) Need for a clearinghouse of definition and method is necessary. Perhaps a “declaration of interdisciplinarity” is needed so as to mark collegial content and common ground.

(6) Graff’s brilliant approach using case study analysis, displaying historic fault-lines (i.e. 186-87) could be expanded to other fields. “The question of the relationship of ethical issues to interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary emphases remains, to my knowledge, unexplored” (194).

(7) Axiological intersections within interdisciplinarity necessitates an outside standard, a transcendent source, which establishes universal commitments.

Undisciplining Knowledge will not continue unless present work is passed on, others taking the torch into the future. Graff begs for scholars to make the effort to understand each other and each others’ fields of study. So Graff’s book opens the field to public view from the inside revealing in a 30 page selected reference list and 45 pages of notations, the expanse and extensive nature of interdisciplinarity. But the pronounced problems noted in the introduction point first to problems of human corruption. Agendas, turf, stigmas, and marginalization run through the fibers of each life. Graff’s conclusion is reflective: “Waiting for convergence may be like waiting for Godot” (216). For the Christian academician, Godet has arrived. Assumptions of coherence establishes the call for beneficence arising from God’s benevolence.

And the demand to “do good” (Titus 3.1, 8, 14) could be the end result of Undisciplining Knowledge.

Dr. Mark Eckel’s article “Interdisciplinarity within Biblical Theology” appears in the fall, 2015 edition of the Christian Education Journal (CEJ). Mark created and developed an Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS) department and degree approved by ABHE (2011). This review of Undisciplining Knowledge will appear in the spring  2016 edition of CEJ.

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