7 Essential Things that aren't really skills that you can already learn in college
October 18, 2010 8:22 PM   Subscribe

Wired article based on the New Liberal Arts Previously on Metafilter, here and here, but now being published in Wired, not just Snarkmarket. Part of a cyclical trend in some corners of the smart set to suppose that college needs a complete reinvention.  Look, the New Liberal Arts.  These starry-eyed future watchers  bring up the very old proposal that higher education is outdated, outmoded and not preparing our students for their lives in the future.   They may get their wish, but they might not like the new world without liberal arts 1.0
posted by cogpsychprof (72 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
"The scandalous state of the modern university can be attributed to various corruptions that have taken root in the disciplines of the humanities. The university was once the locus of humanistic education in the great books; today, one is more likely to find there indoctrination in..."

I'll play chimey cindy and say this post is interesting.
posted by clavdivs at 8:35 PM on October 18, 2010


If you think this is dumb, why did you post it?
posted by grobstein at 8:35 PM on October 18, 2010


It's nice to see Wired continue its streak of getting things so enthusiastically wrong.
posted by oddman at 8:36 PM on October 18, 2010 [8 favorites]


Heh. The UK is in a panic about the new cuts, and some have decided a US style liberal arts degree might help.
posted by shinybaum at 8:36 PM on October 18, 2010


"The scandalous state of the modern university can be attributed to various corruptions that have taken root in the disciplines of the humanities administrators deciding that 'run it like a business' is an appropriate philosophy for education."

FTFY.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:41 PM on October 18, 2010 [29 favorites]


"GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning"

{man...}

"The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations"

-ibid.

secret?
posted by clavdivs at 8:43 PM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is, well, awesome.

I just rolled in from teaching tonight and read this post. And while this subject seems to have gotten a lot of press (and thank you for pulling it all together in this post), my colleagues and I at NU have been doing this. Kind of. We haven't gotten rid of Liberal Arts 1.0. But we are augmenting it with an interdisciplinary student program that is structured around solving problems--problems that have a social impact--using design, learning, and organizational change methodologies. They have to take a project all the way from user research to works-like prototypes of products, processes, experiences, business models, and human systems. We've been tackling everything from hand hygiene/infection reduction to the client experience for social services programs to the funding models for charter schools to water conservation to whatever. We've had students from engineering, industrial design, management, health, psychology, education, philosophy, music, and computer science/tech all showing up for these projects. It's an incredible investment of their time and they often come back for the next project. Students reach back into their field of study (liberal arts, science, etc.) and apply what they are knowledgeable about to the project, collaborating with students from other areas. It's a blast.

It is the most fun I've had in years. It is a voluntary program for the students. They get no compensation, grades or credit. We're starting our third year and have no trouble finding students and professionals to participate. In fact, we're a bit overwhelmed by requests from other schools like Dartmouth, Cornell, Stanford, IIT, UPenn, etc. to start studios at their schools. We operate on a shoestring right now and have no corporate sponsors or grants beyond the support given to us by NU. (Care to give?) It's wonderful. It's insane. It's the future and, as some who works in higher education, I highly recommend the experience as scary as it will sound to the entrenched faculty and administrations out there.
posted by jeanmari at 8:44 PM on October 18, 2010 [16 favorites]


And I would even venture to say that our curriculum for the studio is pretty close to the 7 Essentials that Wired lists in their article, with a few more thrown in for good measure such as methodologies for solving ill-structured problems and we would call it "Communicating in New Forms" (not just writing).
posted by jeanmari at 8:49 PM on October 18, 2010


Saxon Kane: ""The scandalous state of the modern university can be attributed to various corruptions that have taken root in the disciplines of the humanities administrators deciding that 'run it like a business' is an appropriate philosophy for education."

FTFY
"

Along the same lines as the discussion here, the Chronicle of Higher Education justed posted a series of articles today specifically about the corporatization of American universities. You may need institutional or subscriber access to get to some of the articles, but if you have such access (or if they allow non-subscribers in) there are more things there that would dovetail nicely with this FPP.
posted by barnacles at 8:51 PM on October 18, 2010


I just have to chime in and say that Deneen article is totally fucking stupid. How many times can people rewrite Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and get away with it? He relies on such tired fucking stereotypes and exaggerations that were ten years out of date ten years ago. Yet he still can somehow pretend to be 'taking a bold stand' or 'rocking the Politically Correct boat.' Wotta maverick!
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:52 PM on October 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


I love the post title, and am happy to see as much skepticism as starry-eyed enthusiasm framing this latest in (as the post says) a very long series of thin arguments that the university needs to rebuild itself around Wired-esque neophilia, techno-utopianism, or lack of historical perspective. The academy is on the brink of financial destruction at the moment; that we don't teach "how to write for Twitter" well enough is the very last thing about which anyone who cares about higher education should be bothering.
posted by RogerB at 8:55 PM on October 18, 2010


'We fear things that probably 1. won’t kill us (terrorist attacks) and ignore things that probably will (texting while driving). We buy lottery tickets. 2. We fall prey to misleading gut instincts, which lead to biases like loss aversion—an inability to gauge risk against potential gain. 3. The effects play out in the grocery store, the office, and the voting booth (not to mention the bedroom: People who are more risk-averse are less successful in love)'. 4.

1. false assumption

2. commerical activity

3. ibid.

4. polity, commercial activity, labor, sex, emotion

and next come the polls.
posted by clavdivs at 8:55 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


maybe i spend too much time in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it's hard for me to think of any meaning of "traditional" education. It's always been a project marked by certain periods of rapid change (1780s in France, early nineteenth c. in Germany and the U.S., mid 19th century in Britain, late 19th c. in U.S., post-war U.S., post-60s U.S., U.S. now, China now....) followed by certain periods of relative stasis.

Traditionalism, as Deneen imagines it, really only has its province in a few historical time periods: the New Critics in the twentieth century emphasized it significantly. At the end of the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold and his students were very dead set on tradition. In the late 17th century and early 18th century, a number of brits like Pope and Samuel Johnson emphasized it. You can listen to Deneen, but your conception of history is going to be that much more impoverished for doing so. Do you take bits like the following seriously?

Faculty could demonstrate their progressiveness by showing the backwardness of the texts; they could “create knowledge” by showing their own superiority to the authors they studied; they could display their anti-traditionalism by attacking the very books that were the basis of their discipline. Philosophies that preached “the hermeneutics of mistrust,” that exulted in exposing the way texts were deeply informed by inegalitarian prejudices, and that even questioned the idea that texts contained a “teaching” at all, offered the humanities the possibility of proving themselves relevant in the terms set by the modern scientific approach. By adopting a jargon only comprehensible to a few “experts,” they could emulate the scientific priesthood — betraying the original mandate of the humanities to guide students through the cultural inheritance and teachings of the classic books. Professors in the humanities showed their worth by destroying the thing they studied.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 8:59 PM on October 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


Wired has this annoying tendency to kowtow to a small set of cliches (and attention-grabbing headlines) in almost every article that it publishes. In this case, it's a shame, because there are some genuinely good points in here if you ignore the buzzwords about "remix culture", sustainability, and Twitter. While the Liberal Arts theoretically favor a well-rounded education, today the phrase connotes an interdisciplinary course of study in the humanities. The world does not need more English majors, and it is not serving us well to have a country run exclusively by Lawyers with undergraduate degrees in English and Philosophy.

Yes, it's important to be able to write well, and to be able construct a logical and convincing argument. However, it's also important to have ideas to argue about, and to understand the scientific and statistical bases of your argument. Pushing aside the Twitter hype, it is indeed also quite important to be able to speak effectively across multiple forms of communication -- Edward Tufte's lectures should be mandatory reading for all college students and professors.

The author of the article in The New Atlantis is very blatantly a conservative with an axe to grind ("Progressive" is in scare quotes), and I think he misses the point that the humanities and liberal arts can very easily coexist with each other. I suspect that the author's head would explode if he wondered into a Physics department -- the most science-y of the sciences. Having spent a lot of time around Physicists (I majored in it, after all), I can say that I've never encountered such a large concentration of genuinely talented artists, (classically-trained) musicians, and thinkers -- true renaissance men! If there was ever a case for the Liberal Arts, these people are it. For popular examples, simply turn to Richard Feynmann or Carl Sagan. Science can, and already does exist alongside the liberal arts, and it requires no stretch of the imagination to believe that the vast majority of scientists have a powerful respect for the humanities.

It's the people who don't have respect for statistics or the scientific method who are the problem. And there are a lot of them.
posted by schmod at 9:02 PM on October 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Wotta maverick!

Like Thomas Frank always says, conservatives love to wage symbolic culture wars agains tenured radicals and PC "victimology," precisely because they can never be won. It's a perfect way to rally your supporters by framing your backward-looking positions as unfairly marginalized radical ideas, and it's an evergreen issue because there will always be left-posturing eggheads to decry — never mind that the economically cowed, generally careerist professoriate every year becomes more and more complacently centrist and timorous (in aggregate, with the usual noble exceptions).
posted by RogerB at 9:03 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I, for one, would like more Waste Studies classes to be offered: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/09/ff_wiredu/7/
posted by outlandishmarxist at 9:09 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Credentialism" - how we got where we are:
http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/10/sheepskin.html
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:16 PM on October 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


@sebastienbailard: I second your link. Good antidote to Deneen.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 9:20 PM on October 18, 2010


What the world needs is people who can take a problem or situation, figure out the most important things to solve or describe it, and then provide a written summary of what needs to be done or describing the thing.

The rest is all total bullshit.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:27 PM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Saxon Kane: I just have to chime in and say that Deneen article is totally fucking stupid. How many times can people rewrite Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and get away with it? He relies on such tired fucking stereotypes and exaggerations that were ten years out of date ten years ago. Yet he still can somehow pretend to be 'taking a bold stand' or 'rocking the Politically Correct boat.' Wotta maverick!

Can you offer a link to a good critique?
posted by Anything at 9:40 PM on October 18, 2010


It's always been a project marked by certain periods of rapid change (1780s in France

I always found it interesting that Robespierre kept a copy of 'Social Contract' by his bed
yet detested the ideas of the Encyclopedists.

(perhaps he saw a cabal and diderot was the grandmaster)


but he also resisted total revision of basically everything, in this case educational/ institutional, which sounds biazzre....stop the spread of dechristianizers creating one of my all time favorite French events: ' the cult of the supreme being'.

vive la France
posted by clavdivs at 9:48 PM on October 18, 2010


ugh,
posted by kuatto at 9:51 PM on October 18, 2010


...diplomas for vicars...


muh-HA
posted by clavdivs at 9:56 PM on October 18, 2010


The rest is all total bullshit.

Yeah, knowledge for its own sake is such a waste. I can't imagine what hell those eggheads are thinking with all their making art and thinking about art, building deep historical perspective over a lifetime of reading, engaging in social and political critique, pursuing pure mathematics or abstruse scientific research, reading and writing difficult convoluted ideas that can't be translated into bullet-point form. It must be some kind of scam or deception.
posted by RogerB at 9:58 PM on October 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


Yeah, knowledge for its own sake is such a waste. I can't imagine what hell those eggheads are thinking with all their making art and thinking about art, building deep historical perspective over a lifetime of reading, engaging in social and political critique, pursuing pure mathematics or abstruse scientific research, reading and writing difficult convoluted ideas that can't be translated into bullet-point form. It must be some kind of scam or deception.

Don't get me wrong, that is exactly the kind of knowledge that helps you sort out what the key shit is and what is unimportant. But the learner must be trained to apply the knowledge in the manner I described.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:07 PM on October 18, 2010


I was following Deneen up until this paragraph:

"And so, in an effort to outdo their scientific competitors, the humanities became the most conspicuously liberative of the disciplines, even challenging (albeit fecklessly) the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise. Natural conditions — such as those inescapably linked to the biological facts of human sexuality — came to be regarded as “socially constructed,” including “gender” and “heteronormativity.” Nature was no longer a standard in any sense, since nature was now manipulable. Why accept any of the facts of biology when those “facts” could be altered? If man had any kind of “nature,” then the sole permanent feature that seemed acceptable was the centrality of will — the raw assertion of power over any restraints or limits that would otherwise define him, and the endless possibilities of self-creation."

WHAT THE EFFING HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU. DO YOU EVEN HAVE ANY IDEA HOW BIOLOGICALLY WRONG SAYING THIS IS NOW UNDERSTOOD TO BE?! WE HAD THE "FACTS" OF BIOLOGICAL SEX WRONG THEN, LET ALONE ---- AAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRG.

Look, I hate postmodernists and poststructuralists just as much as the next person, but seriously? NO. This is not the example you want to use to win me to your cause. SERIOUSLY. And oh yeah? BTW - you're wrong. You are totally missing what ruined American liberal arts education - the penny grubbing administrators who want massive salaries while forcing departments to cut more and more basic services. I can't find anyone in a city with more than five major universities who offers a Latin class at the graduate level geared specifically for translation and reading skills because EVERYONE has scrapped their graduate classics programs here, and if they haven't they've quit offering graduate language classes, and make the classics graduate students do undergrad languages.

Thomas Jefferson is rolling in his GRAVE. -froths at the mouth-
posted by strixus at 10:09 PM on October 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


Saxon Kane: "How many times can people rewrite Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and get away with it?"

As many times as they pay for it?
posted by mwhybark at 10:11 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


And I mean that "biologically wrong" statement in that he seems to poo-poo how silly this all is to him, when really THEY WERE RIGHT about these things, and that biological sex is a messy, horrible squishy genetic and chemical nightmare, let alone gender construction and identity.
posted by strixus at 10:13 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Saxon Kane: "How many times can people rewrite Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and get away with it?"

Wait, no I got a better one.

As many times as it appeals to an editor's sense of entitlement and frustration with writers?

Go on, you try, they write themselves!
posted by mwhybark at 10:13 PM on October 18, 2010


What the world needs is people who can take a problem or situation, figure out the most important things to solve or describe it, and then provide a written summary of what needs to be done or describing the thing.

Except that not all problems are the same. There are well-structured problems, which have a "right" answer and which are current public education system focuses upon; and ill-structured problems which do not have a "right answer", but have number of different answers which all have different trade-offs and compromises that must be evaluated and tested, as well as more uncertainty and often more complexity. Think of the difference in problem-solving for the square root of 1,347 versus how to bring about peace in the Middle East. Very different types of problems. The US has gotten worse and worse at educating students on how to solve ill-structured problems, and solving those problems is more critical in a faster paced, more complex world. In my teaching experience, I have found that students of philosophy, classical educational theory, and other liberal arts subjects tend to be more comfortable with ill-structured problems, ambiguity, iteration, and so on. My management and engineering students tend to be impatient with iteration, want me to tell them a "right" answer, and so on. This is not true in all cases, it's just something I've wondered about and would love to have the bandwidth to study.

So it isn't as easy as "figure out how to solve it and describe your solution" because the very act of examining, disassembling, synthesizing, and evaluating ill-structured problems is not that straight forward. Also, in coming up with an idea and describing it you also have to know how to build your idea and test it, whether that is a prototype of a product or an organization because you learn valuable things from the test (instead of relying upon assumptions about what might happen). You are also required to consider your solution in its system, its context and with all of its implications within that system and context. That is often not a simple or black-and-white exercise. Besides, the world is full of ideas that are beautifully presented and cannot be implemented because we don't require students to build and test much anymore (if we ever did).

Sorry if this isn't making much sense. I've really hit the wall on energy here and I'm still up at midnight grading papers.
posted by jeanmari at 10:17 PM on October 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Ironmouth: What the world needs is people who can take a problem or situation, figure out the most important things to solve or describe it, and then provide a written summary of what needs to be done or describing the thing.

The rest is all total bullshit.


Someone still has to know how to actually implement the things you need to do to solve the problem, so I guess the world still needs experimentalists, engineers, and technicians. Not to mention that the ability to understand what you need to do to solve a problem generally requires intimate knowledge of the system, so there's a lot more to it than teaching general problem-solving skills.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:17 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


strixus: And I mean that "biologically wrong" statement in that he seems to poo-poo how silly this all is to him, when really THEY WERE RIGHT about these things, and that biological sex is a messy, horrible squishy genetic and chemical nightmare, let alone gender construction and identity.

I don't know think you can say that without knowing which specific school of thought he is arguing against.
posted by Anything at 10:23 PM on October 18, 2010


I don't know think you can say that
posted by Anything at 10:24 PM on October 18, 2010


"What the world needs is people who can take a problem or situation, figure out the most important things to solve or describe it, and then provide a written summary of what needs to be done or describing the thing.

The rest is all total bullshit."

I dunno. Pornstars contribute their share.
posted by bardic at 10:25 PM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


In a nutshell, what I'm saying here is that the real crime has been the creation of academic silos in contemporary universities, which discourages interdisciplinary collaboration. We need liberal arts majors, we need scientists, and everyone else, too. We need them all to have the ability to have at least one area of depth as well as the ability to collaborate with others across disciplines.

The structure of universities with their departmental fiefdoms, their squabbling over money/budgets, their arguments over credit...it's depressing, really, how rarely we collaborate across the hall, forget about collaborating with a different department or school within the university.
posted by jeanmari at 10:25 PM on October 18, 2010


In a nutshell, what I'm saying here is that the real crime has been the creation of academic silos in contemporary universities, which discourages interdisciplinary collaboration.

Maybe yes, maybe no. I think the much bigger problem is that people aren't siloed enough. Either they don't pay enough attention to the boundaries of their own expertise and confidently pronounce another discipline's intro-course-level errors to be profound contributions within their own, or they become dilettantes in another discipline and assume (incorrectly) that every issue is a nail just waiting for their home discipline's hammer.

It's all too common for, say, a professor of biology to make pronouncements about the implications of evolution on morality, unaware of how philosophically sophomoric those pronouncements are. (For the sake of fairness, philosophers aren't immune to mistaking a thought experiment for a lab experiment and making pronouncements about, say, the limitations of what neuroscientists can discover.)

Of course people should talk to others outside of their department. Of course they should work and play well with others. Interdisciplinary sniping is childish, and, in every case I've seen, born of the sniper's ignorance of the target discipline. Nevertheless, given the difficulty of achieving expertise in a single discipline, expertise in multiple disciplines is very, very rare. We'd be best served by awareness of and humility about the limits of our expertise. At least then we'd be able to know when collaboration is required and appreciate the contributions of collaborators.
posted by Marty Marx at 11:07 PM on October 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


It's all too common for, say, a professor of biology to make pronouncements about the implications of evolution on morality, unaware of how philosophically sophomoric those pronouncements are.

But this is not an example of interdisciplinary collaboration. Collaboration would actually involve conversation and working with each other in real time, not just going off half-cocked about another discipline or listing the name of another department with yours on your proposal in order to qualify for a grant.

I agree with you on the need for humility, however, and the realization of one's limits. That is essential. However, removing egos from academia will be as easy as making pigs fly, I fear.
posted by jeanmari at 11:13 PM on October 18, 2010


That's the problem, though. I'm arguing that collaboration is only possible if the silos are sufficiently well-defined for members to know when they're leaving their own expertise so that they don't go off half-cocked. If that's the case, then siloing isn't a crime at all, and rather than discouraging collaboration, it fosters it. Keep in mind this is against a backdrop of articles that don't just say people should talk to folks outside their discipline, but that they should become experts in other disciplines, or even that the idea of an academic department with expertise in a particular subject is mistaken. That kind of interdisciplinary work is going to be nothing but half-cocked, save for a small handful of extraordinarily talented exceptions.
posted by Marty Marx at 11:30 PM on October 18, 2010


The rest is all total bullshit.

This is maybe where you went wrong.
posted by setanor at 12:16 AM on October 19, 2010


Someone still has to know how to actually implement the things you need to do to solve the problem, so I guess the world still needs experimentalists, engineers, and technicians. Not to mention that the ability to understand what you need to do to solve a problem generally requires intimate knowledge of the system, so there's a lot more to it than teaching general problem-solving skills.

Yeah. My life would suffer more if "guys who know how to keep clean water coming out of my taps and my shit going to a waste treatment plant" disappeared than by the unpersoning of 90% of the "designers", "architects", "business process analysts" and umpty other jobs about "think about problems and writing their answers down".
posted by rodgerd at 1:25 AM on October 19, 2010


"the creation of academic silos in contemporary universities, which discourages interdisciplinary collaboration"

I was in grad-school during the late 90's -- early naughts and man, everyone was with you in spirit, from the leftiest Marxist-feminist cultural studies English prof. to the "hardest"-science physicist.

So what happened? We had endless forums on the issue. Committees were established. Graduate students start to get nervous about their disserations, thinking they weren't "inter-disciplinary" enough.

And in the end? Everyone realized what a bad idea it was. Once you start watering down your own field of expertise by trying to speak to disciplines you aren't thoroughly grounded in, you are basically chopping off your own legs in term of your academic "stock value." And sure, an English professor who really knows her shit when it comes to Victorian or Elizabethan history is one thing (it's practically a requirement after Stephen Greenblatt, although I met more than one well-respected historian who thinks Stephen Greenblatt is a complete fucking joke as a historian), but getting the softies-liberal arts types and the hard-science guys together just didn't make any sense, academically or monetarily.

Dialogue between the departments is all well and good. That's what mixers are for. But actual collaboration? Why? Does my drosophilla cancer research really benefit from a knowledge of Foucault's take on the birth of the hospital?

Again, in spirit I appreciate what you're saying. But practicially it doesn't work.

You asked for examples of "actual" interdisciplinary work between hard and soft sciences. I'd ask you for "actual" examples of where it's accomplished something more than making some professors and students feel good about themselves qua their awesome interdisciplinarity.

Beyond that, it's hard enough (actually, it's basically impossible) to get a tenure track job with a new PhD these days. Asking grad. students to have to jump through another department's hoops as well is just sickeningly unfair to their already limited job prospects.
posted by bardic at 2:59 AM on October 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


What I love about articles dealing with education: everyone at every level of education sounds like PTA--we know more than all others on what needs to be done.
posted by Postroad at 4:33 AM on October 19, 2010


Beyond that, it's hard enough (actually, it's basically impossible) to get a tenure track job with a new PhD these days.

I keep seeing people say this on Metafilter like it's obviously true. I've said this elsewhere, mostly in AskMe, but here I go again.

It is a banner year for jobs in my (humanities verging on social science) field, and even last year (supposedly terrible) wasn't as bad as when I was a grad student in the early 90s, and two of my students got tenure track jobs. 90 percent of my 17 or so PhD advisees (or where I was on the core committee) from the last decade have tenure track jobs or post-docs that likely lead to one. Of the three that don't, one is by choice. My first advisee, who finished in 2000, just got tenure at a fine college. All of our students are fully funded through grad school. The vast majority win major grants for their research. All are published before finishing the PhD.

I really wish people would stop talking out their asses about this. It's not an easy path, but it's not a waste of time or a complete hoax. If you can attend a top program with full funding, the odds are still in your favor for a good career even in most humanities fields.

And I hear law school is not the great deal it used to be either.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:34 AM on October 19, 2010


Also what silos? Interdisciplinarity is the new postmodernism, you can hardly get away from it and a narrowly "disciplinary" scholar these days is either old or lonely or both.

I teach in a humanities department but my research (and some of my students') is funded by the National Science Foundation; my primary research collaborator is from a completely different field. I give talks routinely across at least half a dozen disciplinary settings. My students have gotten jobs in (so far) four different fields besides the primary one in which they are training. Among my faculty colleagues within a single humanities department, we have creative artists, cognitive scientists, and humanists -- in a single humanities department. Most of us are cross-appointed in various interdisciplinary centers and institutes. I am about to attend national meetings for three different disciplines in the coming month. My first book (selling like hotcakes five years after publication now that it's on Kindle) is taught in classes and seminars across at least 8 different disciplines.

If you don't know the modern university, you can't just make shit up that conforms to your stereotypes. A lot of people here seem stuck in the 90s, like that was when you were last in school or something.

Really, take a freaking look.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:41 AM on October 19, 2010


Oh, and my department is hiring three new professors this year, and two postdocs, for a faculty of less than 20 f/t people. That's a 15 or so percent increase, granted after a couple of years of no tenure track hires.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:42 AM on October 19, 2010


Nerds believe their interests and methods are the only ones that make sense. Insist society follow them over a cliff. Film at 11.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:43 AM on October 19, 2010


Nerds?

I'd invite you along to join me on a research trip sometime, but you'd better know how to shoot a rifle, drive a snowmobile, and navigate on the tundra, and man I hope you're ready for 40 below ambient.

Or my students could invite you to join them in any of a dozen different countries where you'd probably shit your pants upon getting out of the airport parking lot. Most of my students spend at least a year in the field, most in the third world, and speak the local language. Most of them work on issues of poverty, conflict, and policy, on the ground in places where you likely haven't been and wouldn't dare go.

You people really think we're all sitting around in tweed coats spouting off politically correct identity politics bullshit before going to dinner? Well, I guess I think everyone in business or law is a hopeless uncreative and unadventurous drone pushing paper around until retirement for someone else's profit.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:54 AM on October 19, 2010


Oh sorry, Thorzad, I think you were calling the Wired folks "nerds." And I agree. They're content to tilt at stereotypes instead of actually doing journalism about the contemporary academy.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:58 AM on October 19, 2010


Funny how it seems to be those who have benefited most from degree inflation are the most vocal about reforming post-secondary education.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:18 AM on October 19, 2010


If you can attend a top program with full funding, the odds are still in your favor for a good career even in most humanities fields.

That's a pretty massive "if" considering the rate at which graduate programs at non-"top programs" are being encouraged or even forced to expand rapidly.
posted by synecdoche at 6:09 AM on October 19, 2010


There's a lot of woo in this article, for sure, but from a mathematician's perspective, it can't be repeated often enough that we should be teaching more statistical literacy and less calculus.

But be warned: if this were actually implemented, there would be a lot of angry students, because statistical literacy is harder than calculus.
posted by escabeche at 6:13 AM on October 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


it can't be repeated often enough that we should be teaching more statistical literacy and less calculus.

Could you elaborate on what you mean by this? Is this an applied/pure distinction?
posted by bodywithoutorgans at 6:44 AM on October 19, 2010


What do you do with a Liberal Arts 2.0 degree? Go to Law School 2.0? Student Loans 2.0! Yes!
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:51 AM on October 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Could you elaborate on what you mean by this? Is this an applied/pure distinction?

A gigantic proportion of undergraduate enrollment in math consists of calculus of various flavors. For lots of people, like engineers, this clearly makes sense. For others, like pre-meds, it's not so clear. I'm completely on board with medical schools requiring that their applicants have taken college-level math. But should it be calculus? I think we'd be better off if fewer doctors knew what "differentiable" means and more knew what "p < .05" means. That's the sense in which Wired has this right.
posted by escabeche at 6:59 AM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Once you start watering down your own field of expertise by trying to speak to disciplines you aren't thoroughly grounded in, you are basically chopping off your own legs in term of your academic "stock value."...but getting the softies-liberal arts types and the hard-science guys together just didn't make any sense, academically or monetarily.

Are you serious? You do realize that these academic silos are arbitrary constructions, right? Are you proposing that, once we have decided who "owns" each field of expertise that no one should ever be allowed to examine someone else's field or explore it? That's preposterous. I'm not proposing a "watering down" at all. In fact, instead of spending all of our energies arguing over who gets to be the expert on what, we should be more clearly defining and defending what levels of knowledge make someone credible to do different things with that knowledge. I'm not a fan of over-inflation of academic credentials or shallow treatments of subject matter anymore than I would imagine that you are. I push my students hard to make sure that they are examining subject matter thoughtfully in a way that is academically grounded and not merely rooted in "pop professional literature" (see Malcolm Gladwell). But I'm not going to lie to you...although I don't believe that my engineering students NEED to become experts in financial strategy, anthropology, or the visual arts, I require that they know why and when they need to reach out to experts in those fields to expand or further their thinking and creativity when solving complex problems.

Your very use of the adjectives "softie" to describe liberal-arts types is evidence of your opinion of those academics in the liberal arts and represents the sort of hierarchy that institutions impose upon different disciplines or subjects. Don't assume that because someone CHOSE to pursue the liberal arts that they could not have done well in the "hard" sciences, or that a biochemistry major is more valuable than an education major (I believe that value is contextual). If you're good at what you do and you know your stuff, be it particle physics or Western History, I wouldn't mind having your perspective at the table when solving a really complex ill-structured problem.
posted by jeanmari at 7:29 AM on October 19, 2010


If you can attend a top program with full funding, the odds are still in your favor for a good career even in most humanities fields.

While I agree with what you say for the most part about the stereotypes of academia, I wonder about this statement, which seems to contain a mighty large "if." How many students are actually equipped (academically, emotionally, financially) to complete a PhD? And how many students are going to be able to compete at the level needed to get into a top program? What happens to the less-than-superstar students who don't get into a top program? What about those who get into a top program, but don't get full (or even close to full) funding?

Aside from those considerations, graduated PhD students in the social sciences and humanities in the last decade did so with 35% and 38% respectively carrying $35k+ in student loan debt. That's not an insignificant amount of money to be saddled with repaying, whether you get a nice job or not. For the sciences, the number was much smaller, between 12-20%. I don't think it's all as straightforward as you seem to imply, even if a student is able to clear all the hurdles to get into what most people responsible for hiring decisions would consider a top program.
posted by blucevalo at 7:47 AM on October 19, 2010


I keep seeing people say [that the academic job market is fucked] on Metafilter like it's obviously true. [...] It is a banner year for jobs in my (humanities verging on social science) field [...] two of my students got tenure track jobs [...] My first advisee [...] All of our students [...] I really wish people would stop talking out their asses about this.

You keep saying this like there's any reason at all that we should take your personal experience in whatever charmed subfield, your department, and your students as representative. They aren't. The one "talking out of his ass" — that is, wildly overgeneralizing from personal experience rather than looking around at the state of the rest of academia — is you; I, and I bet many others here, could match you a totally apocalpytically bad story about my discipline and my department for every starry-eyed story about yours. (But let's not, because there's no point in trading personal anecdotes.) Please stop pretending we can all occupy your own personal, obviously unrepresentative, environment and you'll see what the rest of us see: hiring freezes all over the country, public universities cutting whole departments and programs, and tenure-track job openings down as much as 50% from three-four years ago. Outside of a few charmed, fashionable and well-funded growing fields, one of which you must be in, it's never been a worse time to be an academic in search of employment; and some of us here know that all too well to be told from the security of the complacently already tenured that everything's actually just fine.
posted by RogerB at 7:47 AM on October 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


Also what silos? Interdisciplinarity is the new postmodernism, you can hardly get away from it and a narrowly "disciplinary" scholar these days is either old or lonely or both. I teach in a humanities department...

A humanities department is already more disciplinary than your average MBA or Engineering program, I believe.

I work with both types--faculty who are comfortable collaborating with faculty from other schools within the university and faculty who pound every problem with their hammer of narrowly-defined domain expertise. I have no problem with the narrowly-defined expert, but I do wish that they would be more aware of when to wield that hammer and when to sit back and listen to other perspectives rather than play pet theory whack-a-mole with every project that they come across.

Let me tell you just one example of where our university (not necessarily yours, not everyone's) discourages rather than encourages cross-disciplinary study. You, a mechanical engineering student, have interests that span engineering, anthropology, business, and education. Perhaps you'd like to choose some electives that reflect these interests outside of your major so you can explore new ways of thinking about how engineering is applied. Your engineering school does not offer a class in management strategy or complex adaptive systems or ethnographic research or goal-based scenarios. So you try to sign up for a class that covers one of these things in another school at the university. But, wait! Although you pay for the class as part of your tuition, the school sponsoring the class (which is an elective for you) doesn't see a dime of it, all of the money for that class goes to the engineering school. The Anthropology Department is already operating on a shoestring budget and has determined that, if class sizes get too large, they will need to pay a teaching assistant which is not in the budget or compromise the quality of the class experience. They have a full class of anthropology majors and the addition of you and your engineering colleagues would drive up the class size. They can't afford the teaching assistant, they aren't getting paid for the resources you are using in the department, you are informed that you cannot join the class because the limit has been reached. You are discouraged from taking classes outside of your major and broadening your knowledge base.

There are similar infrastructure issues in my university around credit, turf/territory, resource allocation, etc. that present barriers to faculty as well. Some of us get around it in creative ways, some of us hit a wall. I'm very happy for you that you don't have to deal with those issues where you are.
posted by jeanmari at 7:52 AM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


You asked for examples of "actual" interdisciplinary work between hard and soft sciences. I'd ask you for "actual" examples of where it's accomplished something more than making some professors and students feel good about themselves qua their awesome interdisciplinarity.

Ok, here's one: some time ago, climate scientists started collecting weather data from ships' logs, so that they could track trends such as ocean temperature over the two-three hundred year timespan that ships have been regularly monitoring it. Unfortunately, however, there was a mistake in the data processing, and they found themselves unable to tell steamships apart from sailing ships in about 50% of the cases (which makes a big difference).

I'm a naval historian, but I had good informal contact with people on the science side. Because they knew about me, they were able to come to me, and I was able to show them how to tell the difference between different kinds of historical ships based on the way that they moved.

Here's another one: my work on understanding naval intelligence documents has found serious application in a number of fields in which the processing of semi-structured documents is important, including internet search, infectious disease epidemiology, social networking analysis and forensic science.

I personally hope that my work can go on to help political decisionmakers and NGOs find ways to diffuse intractable wars and catch war criminals. However, I'm unable to publish properly in my field, or to get a job, because other historians tend to think that... wait for it...

'this is an inappropriate topic for investigation and you are not sufficiently grounded in the work in your field'

Which means 'interdisciplinary research is no longer fashionable; this seems weird to us'.
posted by Dreadnought at 8:03 AM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


it can't be repeated often enough that we should be teaching more statistical literacy and less calculus

No, it can't be repeated often enough!

As someone who took AP Calculus in high school & Calc II in college*, and then more than a decade later stood at the sidelines while her spouse took college statistics, I agree heartily.

Just that little bit of helping with homework gave me immense insight into reading the news, thinking about decision-making at work, etc. I think everyone should take at least introductory statistics.

Which reminds me...I've got a copy of Head First Statistics at home that I want to finish reading. (It's been good so far.)

* I was an English major, but I was always pretty good at math. Back in July, I wrote a blog post about it.
posted by epersonae at 8:55 AM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


to respond briefly to the:
"This is dumb, why did you post it?" question:

I appreciate the sophisticated MeFi reaction to many dumb things (but not all, hence, the lack of Bieber). I think this particular approach to higher ed is not just dumb, but pernicious and influential. I partly wanted to read how other educated mefites feel about it, and their frothy mouthed takedowns. I know it seems like an exercise in futility, but I really appreciate reading all of the comments, and I feel each of us is richer for it.

I also blogged a longer piece in reaction to it, if anyone is interested about my take on it as someone who actually teaches statistical literacy and applied cognition.

In a nutshell: the things they say are skills aren't skills (overly broad, or overly narrow), and some knowledge has a structure so that you need to learn some things before you can understand other things.

jeanmari - That program sounds great, and I think we should look for more ways to get students more motivated, and help them apply their knowledge to the real world. However, I worry that students can get the wrong message that expertise isn't necessary, just an interdisciplinary team and some elbow grease. I feel that these programs work really well when students actually have some background and practice in their field and straightforward outcomes for the project. I would submit that this isn't a good way to do science experiments, because a biology undergrad, a psychology undergrad, and a physics undergrad still don't know enough biology, psychology or physics to do a good experiment on some sort of interdisciplinary topic like the effectiveness of mattress design.

Anyways sorry for the instigation of mouth-frothing. At least, unlike Wired, or the NYTimes, or whoever else publishes this claptrap, I did not gain monetarily from this.
posted by cogpsychprof at 9:18 AM on October 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I will also say that my institution has virtually abandoned the liberal arts, and is trying to re-brand itself as a "liberal-arts and sciences college"
Even as a scientist, I find this very disturbing when we give up on the liberal arts as valuable, and add other seemingly more valuable terms to what we provide in higher education.
The sciences are a part of the liberal arts education.
posted by cogpsychprof at 9:22 AM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


message that expertise isn't necessary, just an interdisciplinary team and some elbow grease

I agree completely. We emphasize that knowing something deeply is critical AND it is important to engage other deep experts in solving complex problems, encouraging diversity of thought and valuing the perspective of others outside of your particular field. Engineers or MBA's who instantly devalue the contribution of a Liberal Arts major would get a mighty lashing from me.

If it helps to imagine it, the solution developed by the students for the hand hygiene project was multi-faceted and at times engaged the deep knowledge of doctors, nurses, infectious disease specialists, organizational behaviourists, financial strategists, chemists, mechanical engineers, architects, interior designers, anthropologists, and so on. The one solution out of 9 that was an actual product has now attracted an investor and a patent has been filed. But that was a happy coincidence and wasn't the end goal.

I hear your frustration and, agreed, these articles don't treat the subject in a very thoughtful way. More drama and lingo than substance.
posted by jeanmari at 10:44 AM on October 19, 2010


Statistical Information Literacy:

"To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information"

posted by coolguymichael at 12:18 PM on October 19, 2010


Information literacy suffers the same problem that most of these 21st century skills do: most of them are dependent on discipline-specific knowledge, and are not really as broad as we would like them to be. Training in such "skills" does help, but only a day or so of this training. After that, you need background knowledge.
When information is needed? Isn't information always needed? I guess unless you are this guy.
Locating, evaluating, and effectively using the needed information are all things that depend on extensive background knowledge. I certainly know how to search medline, or google scholar, and I know a fair amount of statistical and research techniques, but I still am not able to diagnose myself.
For a sample approach to this, check out Dan Willingham's "Teaching Content is Teaching Reading" (10 minute youtube) or his column on why reading is not a skill. The same logic holds for information literacy.
posted by cogpsychprof at 12:48 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


You do realize that these academic silos are arbitrary constructions, right? Are you proposing that, once we have decided who "owns" each field of expertise that no one should ever be allowed to examine someone else's field or explore it? That's preposterous. I'm not proposing a "watering down" at all. In fact, instead of spending all of our energies arguing over who gets to be the expert on what, we should be more clearly defining and defending what levels of knowledge make someone credible to do different things with that knowledge.

This is a pretty good example of why I think interdisciplinary talk is bunk. Academic silos are "arbitrary constructions" but we should "be more clearly defining and defending what levels of knowledge make someone credible to do different things with that knowledge."

There's no way to square those statements.* If we clearly define and defend the levels of knowledge that make someone credible to do some thing, we necessarily create silos. One could, I suppose, insist on taking the figurative language more literally and point out that "levels of knowledge" allow horizontal integration that silos do not, but this is actually a step backwards: silos at least preclude interdisciplinary pissing matches about which discipline is the most abstract, basic, or pure, while the horizontal integration in levels of knowledge is predicated on that nonsense.

And while I don't want to put words in Bardic's mouth, it's pretty clear they weren't endorsing anything like the proposal that "once we have decided who 'owns' each filed of expertise that no one should be allowed to examine someone else's field or explore it." The complained of "watering down" came from people speaking in disciplines they weren't thoroughly grounded in. Biologists don't "own" the science of biology, nor is anyone prohibited from exploring it. Universities are, after all, trying to propagate knowledge, not hoard it. But people should probably refrain from making pronouncements about biology until they have some expertise in biology. Whatever the discipline, that expertise takes a long time to acquire, and so it should come as no surprise (or outrage) that the dilettantism of the explorer is not well regarded by those who have spent most of their lives developing their expertise.

I'll readily grant there's another kettle of fish that gets lumped in with the dilettantism I'm complaining of. Science is as ripe a target for cultural criticism as any other part of culture, and science experts often mistake this for cultural critics overstepping disciplinary boundaries. I'd say it's the opposite, i.e. scientists becoming dilettantes in cultural criticism through (uninformed) pronouncements about the proper boundaries of critique. So this becomes another example of shoddy work through interdisciplinarism.

*Also: arbitrary? That's just false. The precise divisions are historically contingent, sure, but not arbitrary, especially given actual differences in subjects and methods of investigation from discipline to discipline.
posted by Marty Marx at 5:50 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


"It is a banner year for jobs in my (humanities verging on social science) field, and even last year (supposedly terrible) wasn't as bad as when I was a grad student in the early 90s, and two of my students got tenure track jobs"

RogerB beat me to it, but bully for you you special little snowflake. Your experience is no more or less valid than the thousands of others who have seen just how bad it is as a grad. student in the humanities. Although it sounds like you take care of your grad. students, and I commend you for that. You are definitely an exception to the rule.
posted by bardic at 8:58 PM on October 19, 2010


jeanmari "You do realize that these academic silos are arbitrary constructions, right?"

I can explain to you the birth of the novel in English, or the impact Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" had on lyric poetry in English. I cannot tell you how to make an nuclear bomb, or what's in the middle of a black hole. There's nothing "arbitrary" about academic disciplines.

"Are you proposing that, once we have decided who 'owns' each field of expertise that no one should ever be allowed to examine someone else's field or explore it?"

Explore all you want. Just don't expect to get paid for teaching and writing about something you haven't dedicated yourself to. (As mentioned though, interdisciplinarity in the humanities is do-able to some extent given the natural synergies between letters and history and philosophy. Get back to me when a physics prof. actually benefits from working with an English prof., and not just in a "gee, that's cool" sort of way.)

"Your very use of the adjectives 'softie' to describe liberal-arts types is evidence of your opinion of those academics in the liberal arts and represents the sort of hierarchy that institutions impose upon different disciplines or subjects."

I have an MA in English, so I'm really not the type of person to denounce my own field. But are you saying that subjective criticism and opinion isn't a much larger part of studying liberal arts as opposed to the hard sciences? Because even the most brilliant English professors I've enountered would try to argue that there isn't a qualitative difference between hard and soft subjects (and then some like economics or history that are in between to some extent).

But don't ask me -- just talk to one of your deans or somebody in the finance office. The reason liberal arts are being eclipsed is that they don't bring in the grant money that your doctors and physicists and engineers do. Complaining about "silos" (what?) is the last of your problems. It's the corporatizing of the American college and university that will spell the end of meaningful liberal arts studies.

And actually, I'm OK with that for some very specific and/or convoluted reasons having to do with elitism and the economics of the 21st century.
posted by bardic at 9:09 PM on October 19, 2010


It is a banner year for jobs in my (humanities verging on social science) field, and even last year (supposedly terrible) wasn't as bad as when I was a grad student in the early 90s, and two of my students got tenure track jobs.

Availability of tenure-track positions is a trivial resource-allocation issue, which suggests a classic Highlander-type solution. Each student, as part of his or her thesis defense, had to slay a tenured faculty member in hand-to-hand combat.

What could be simpler?
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:35 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


"had to slay a tenured faculty member in hand-to-hand combat."

I like it. Either this, or a Logan's Run type of thing.
posted by bardic at 3:01 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Before the thread goes completely stale, I want to say something about the terrific discussion of interdisciplinarity that's been happening here, perhaps just to jot down a few ill-formed thoughts. I think this discussion has been moving back and forth between skills-talk and knowledge-talk in a really interesting way.

I have to say that my reaction to jeanmari's (and others') argument here for some kind of problem-solving-skills-based meeting ground between "arbitrary" disciplines is very similar to what bardic and Marty Marx have already said: this kind of easy talk of interdisciplinarity looks a lot like dilettantism to me, inasmuch as it's based on quickly instrumentalizing a lot of half-understood fields of knowledge/ways of thinking without really grokking just how different they actually are — and without putting up for discussion the problem being solved itself, the cause in whose service the disciplinary skills are being instrumentalized. It's very hard to base any really rigorous idea of interdisciplinary collaboration on an idea of shared problem-solving, because one of the key differences (perhaps the true difference) between disciplines is what they think counts as a problem (or a solution).

This discussion started with the seven "skills" in Wired's list, many of which (as cogpsychprof observed well) seem either too narrow or too broad to really deserve the name, much less to represent honestly the full range of ways of thinking to which a liberal-arts education ought to expose students. This in itself is very typical of (if you'll forgive the caricature) engineer-y, or even anti-liberal-artsy, ideas about the purpose of education: in a kind of geeky twist on what Freire called the "banking model," learning is depicted as filling up a bag of tricks (skills for problems), but neither providing nor questioning the purposes to which they're put.

It's natural enough, when confronted with this kind of shallow idea of what a discipline is, to defend a more serious conception of disciplinarity by arguing that a discipline is constituted by the long-accumulated knowledge of its scholars, not some fungible bag of tricks. But I think this still misses an important point, since it's clearly true that the deep-held substance of a discipline is also a set of skills that's to some extent independent of any specific subdomain of its knowledge. (There are strategies for mathematical proof that work in either number theory or multivariable calculus; there are ways of arguing about literature you can learn by reading Beckett or Cervantes; there are strategies for thinking about historical sources irrespective of whether you're a historian of Chinese popular culture or French law.) Perhaps "ways of thinking" is a better name for this kind of deeply-held practice of mind than "skills," but even at the most introductory level, it's clearly a key goal of instruction in a discipline to instill some of the discipline's habits of mind and ways of arguing, its vision of what's an interesting problem and how to solve it. But bridging the gap between these, in a single discussion of a single problem, seems like a very difficult task, much harder than the visions presented in this thread of cross-discipline problem-solving even come close to acknowledging.
posted by RogerB at 11:54 AM on October 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Well said, RogerB.

I come down on the side of knowledge and skills being a lot more specific than we would like to acknowledge, but there are certainly discipline specific modes of reasoning. I think this is actually the top level of Perry's stages of cognitive development in college, a model I find quite compelling as a rough guide to changes in ways of thinking that we want to happen in college.
The table on the wiki page is a good summary.
One thing I will say, at least in part in defense of jeanmari's excitement over her interdisciplinary project, is that all the questions of interdisciplinarity, and skills vs. knowledge sidestep the question of motivation, which is also very important. We can run around in circles all day considering what is knowledge, what is skills, and what order to learn concepts, but if it isn't fun and interesting on some level, then no one is going to learn anything. Sometimes it is worth it to get students engaged and involved before you spring it on them that they actually have to work hard, practice, and know a lot of stuff before anyone is going to find them all that useful.
posted by cogpsychprof at 5:48 PM on October 20, 2010


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