Taylor’s Crisis, continued

There is a lot in Taylor’s book to think about, but I find there’s one point that I’ve been ruminating on for the last week.  He suggests that, as a counterbalance to the disciplinary-focused, research-for-its-own-sake Departments, the University create another region within the academy that focuses on “Emerging Zones” — places for inter- and trans-disciplinary, problem-centered research.

Prof. Taylor may well be right — but I must admit that for admittedly selfish reasons, I hate the idea.  I can’t imagine myself happily plugging away in either an ‘emerging zones’ program or a disciplinary department degrading to ever-more precise foci.

My daydreams of the perfect department include a balance between specialists and generalists.  I’ve been fortunate enough to actually encounter such departments now and again.  Religion departments in which some study a tradition, while others study theories of religion; biology programs in which some study a species, while others study the patterns in how species solve ecological problems; anthropology departments in which some study a culture, and others the mechanisms by which cultures are transmitted.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being in the latter categories.  Admittedly, I’m cheating; often, making comparisons between these traditions/species/cultures is the privilege of higher-status individuals who have already paid their dues in the specialist trenches.  (This makes a certain sense:  we ‘comparativists’ would be lost with out people generating the specific data.)

I suspect that, if Emerging Zones were formed, they would be populated by the comparativists.  We’re the ones who (to a greater or lesser extent) have to learn interdisciplinarity, or at least consilience.  We’re also the ones most fascinated by the periphery of the disciplines, by the connections between theory and real life, by the implications of that research for this problem.

My point is this — the most productive, collegial, and (let’s be honest) fun departments seem to involve collaborations between specialists and comparativists.  The presence of a few individuals making a network of connections kept the individual specialists from collapsing into isolation.  What Prof. Taylor seems to suggest is to remove the cement from the departments, and put them in a place where there are no bricks!  Separated, both groups become irrelevant.



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