April 27, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 15

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    The Fate of Disciplines: Dialogue on disciplines continues with Franke Institute conference, while critical reflection begins at new Center for Disciplinary Innovation

    By Jennifer Carnig
    News Office

    Title page of Margarita Philosophica by Gregor Reisch (Freiburg: Johanne Schottus, 1504). Courtesy Special Collections Research Center

    The University may provide a crystal ball on what the future of higher education will look like as an international audience attends “The Fate of Disciplines,” a conference sponsored by the Franke Institute for the Humanities on Friday, April 28 and Saturday, April 29.

    The conference, the culminating event of a three-year Franke project titled “New Perspectives on the Disciplines: Comparative Studies in Higher Education,” also will serve as the launching point for a major new initiative in higher education: In the 2007-2008 school year, the University and the Franke Institute will open the Center for Disciplinary Innovation.

    The new center will be a place for pedagogical collaboration and innovation, which will foster critical reflection on the idea that a rigid set of disciplines is the best way to organize the American research university, explained James Chandler, Director of the Franke Institute and the leader behind establishing a new center.

    “The last several decades have seen a great deal of change across the disciplines,” said Chandler, the Barbara E. & Richard J. Franke Professor in English Language & Literatures. Across the board, new disciplines have been added to curriculums and older ones have been transformed into new centers, workshops and institutes, he said. Often these units are praised for being “interdisciplinary.”

    “The era of interdisciplinarity, however, has had its problems,” Chandler said. “The proliferation of units in itself is a problem, both intellectually and administratively. Further, the rule of interdisciplinarity depends to a large degree on an ill-defined notion of what a discipline is in the first place. And insofar as it offers an idea of the disciplines, it tends to represent them largely as static and atomic, rather than in themselves comprising a dynamic system, a changing set of relationships.”

    The humanities institute movement might be evidence of how the humanities side of a research university has been addressing problems with the changes in disciplines, Chandler admits. Yet, representatives from approximately 100 humanities institutes around the world will attend The Fate of Disciplines conference, as the weekend also will serve as the annual meeting of the Consortium for Humanities Centers and Institutes.

    The audience will include people from humanities institutes diverse in size and scope from Australia, Canada, Finland, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, United Kingdom and the United States.

    “The University is the ideal place to have this discussion because this is a place where the rethinking of the disciplines can actually happen,” Chandler said, explaining that Chicago has a history of innovation in education since the 1930s, when it was quartered into four divisions of knowledge. Furthermore, for the past three years faculty at the University have been engaged with the task of taking stock of the state-of-the-disciplines in the research university.

    The Franke Institute launched an initiative three years ago called “New Perspectives on the Disciplines: Comparative Studies in Higher Education.” With a $300,000 award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, faculty members began tackling these tough issues in a series of conferences and discussions.

    A working group of a dozen senior faculty members began meeting in December 2004, in an attempt to make some of the work started in the New Perspectives initiative more concrete. That group recommended the creation of the Center for Disciplinary Innovation, a project the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation agreed to help support with a $350,000 award for a four-year test period.

    The goal is for the center to serve “as a valuable incubatorÉfor the development of a new model of flexible academic organization,” Chandler said. “In the bargain all this could help solidify the position of Chicago as a national leader in serious and reflective academic innovation.”

    Team-teaching of graduate students will lie at the core of the center’s mission, Chandler continued. Two faculty members will propose a subject but they will have to present a rationale for the course, framed not only with respect to its substantive issues but also to the disciplinary contexts—why the class cannot be offered under the current system or how it might advance the transformation of the disciplines. During the initial four-year period, there will be a total of 24 team-taught classes, a total of 48 instructors in the program and, because the courses will be capped at 20 students, 480 graduate student participants.

    According to the report drafted by the faculty working group, the center would neither admit students nor grant degrees, but would offer a laboratory to reflect on method and epistemology and serve as an accelerator for the normal process of disciplinary innovation.

    At the Franke Institute’s “The Fate of Disciplines” conference, many of those conversations will begin in earnest.

    Both sessions of the two-day conference will take place in the third-floor lecture room of Swift Hall, 1025 E. 58th St.

    On Friday, April 28, the day begins at 8:15 a.m. and includes an introduction by Chandler, a greeting by President Randel, and sessions on “What is a Discipline?,” “Cinema & Media Studies,” “Philology,” and “Cinema-Media Studies and Philology.” The last session ends at 5:30 p.m. and is followed by a reception.

    On Saturday, April 29, the day begins at 8 a.m. and includes sessions on “Religious Studies,” “Religious Studies and Science Studies,” “Disciplinary Systems/Disciplinary Economies” and “The Disciplines and the Arts.” The last session ends at 6 p.m. and is followed by a reception.

    Both days of the conference are free and open to the public, though advance registration is requested. To register, e-mail franke-humanities@uchicago.edu or call (773) 702-8274. For a complete and detailed conference schedule, visit http://humanities.uchicago.edu/institute.