Oct. 23, 2003
Vol. 23 No. 3

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    Franke explores evolution of disciplines in academy with funding from Mellon

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    James Chandler
    Over the past few decades, voices both within and outside of the academy have questioned the role of the American research university.

    Recent books like Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins and the edited volumes The Cold War & The University and American Academic Culture in Transformation testify to a new interest in what it is American universities do and how they might do it differently.

    The Franke Institute for the Humanities will announce today a new initiative to address this question. Called “New Perspectives on the Disciplines: Comparative Studies in Higher Education,” the project is funded by a $300,000 award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation over a three-year period.

    James Chandler, the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Professor in English Language & Literature and Director of the Franke Institute for the Humanities, said the program is intended to “systematically address a problem people have been noticing for years—the widening mismatch between the groups in which people are having their intellectual conversations, on the one hand, and the official departments and administrative units that structure universities on the other.

    “There has grown up in the last 25 to 30 years a whole set of new fields that seem to constitute a range of shadow disciplines,” said Chandler. “These ‘studies’—often prefixed with cultural, gender, race, area or science—provide the immediate occasion for the project. Are these disciplines ephemeral? Will they be incorporated into existing academic structures? Or is it right for us to be thinking about more radical changes? Chicago is the place to ask such questions because it has so often taken leadership on these kinds of questions, drawing on its deep traditions of educational self-consciousness,” said Chandler.

    The project, which has a steering committee of 12 faculty members from the humanities and sciences, begins a yearlong, interdisciplinary program of visiting speakers, short-term visitors, workshops and conferences. During the next two years, the grant will fund three doctoral fellowships for graduate students, and in its final year, a postdoctoral fellowship. “We have a terrific and diverse team of scholars working on this project, without whom it would not be possible,” said Chandler.

    Chandler explained that the interest in reflecting on the nature of the University’s role is ingrained in its very structure. “In the ’30s, we came up with quite a novel arrangement of our four divisions of knowledge, and I’ve always thought that structure comes out of and makes for a particularly self-conscious understanding of discipline.

    “What’s distinctive about our first-year Core courses is that they offer an initiation into disciplinary education. If you’re taking a Core course in Social Sciences, in principle you’re not doing a mere sampling of anthropology, sociology, history or political science—you are being initiated into social science as a discipline as such. And that Chicago innovation suggests quite an interesting experiment with disciplinarity, in the sense that it’s positing that you study a subject on at least two levels: the level of specific departments and the level of the overall discipline.

    “The Committee on Social Thought, to pick a second kind of example, is one of a whole set of committees, including the Ancient Mediterranean World, the Analysis of Ideas and Study of Methods, and the History of Culture, which is another one of the hallmarks of our place.

    “A third example is our workshop program that has been widely emulated and had as one of its initial points of interest that the workshops be fundamentally interdisciplinary. It’s the nature of life on this campus that makes this a good place for this to happen. We have the kinds of conversations that take place on small college campuses, but with very high-powered research departments.

    “The project will also have a comparative part: our idea is to think about how other parts of the world divide up the disciplines. If there’s anything that might be called a system of the disciplines in American higher education, then there’s surely such a thing in other nations’ universities. So part of our idea is to understand our own disciplinary system in relation to those of other places. We have in mind to look at a few particular places—South Africa, Germany, France, Britain, India and the Middle East. Our idea is to look at how the disciplinary systems work in those cultures to generate some illumination about why our system is the way it is and whether it can be improved.”

    Chandler clarified the difference between the Franke’s project and previous discussions on the topic. “The general level of discussion of higher education in America has not been very high. There are two poles, one represented by the bitter ‘culture wars’ books of the ’80s and ’90s, and the other represented by the sheer pragmatism you find in Stanley Fish’s Professional Correctness, the ‘let’s just get on with it’ model. It’s a subject that lots of people sneer at, but it’s a little odd that that should be true, and it’s not true everywhere.

    “I’m assured in Germany there are quite high-powered academics trying to understand how higher education works and serves citizenry. And this is one way Chicago has been slightly at odds with the rest of America, in being more reflective about these things. Just think of Robert Maynard Hutchins or books like The Idea of the University of Chicago. We want to see if that can’t be developed further.”

    Some of the questions the project has proposed include: “How do we best understand the disciplinary history of the humanities and social sciences in the American university over the last century? How do earlier theorists of the modern university shape this disciplinary history? What happens to the humanities globally in the context of the push for globalization? Does cultural studies take its place? Can universities outside the West—or even those in Western countries—construct ‘classics’ in a non-Eurocentric manner? Do they need to?”

    The first event in the “New Perspectives on the Disciplines: Comparative Studies in Higher Education” project will take place at 1:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24, in Swift Hall.