A Better Way to do “Studies,” Perhaps


Hangover II, Charles Ginnever, 1983

by Massimo Pigliucci

This semester I’ve been running a graduate level seminar at the City University of New York, on the difference between philosophy of science and science studies. The latter is a broad and somewhat vaguely defined term that includes (certain kinds of) sociology of science, postmodern criticism of science, and feminist epistemology. It’s the stuff of the (in)famous science wars of the 1990s (think Sokal affair, or perhaps this most recent disgraceful episode).

I told my students upfront that my sympathies tend to be with analytic philosophy of science, as opposed to continental-inspired science studies. But also that I realize that there must be some fire behind that much science studies smoke, and that I am certainly aware that there is a significant bit of exaggeration and silliness going on in philosophy of science circles as well (like in pretty much any academic, no, make that human, activity). So the point of the seminar was to look at the primary literature and sift out the good kernels from the background mud (and mud slinging).

But this post isn’t about that, specifically. Rather, it is more broadly about the academic phenomenon of “X Studies,” where X is an increasing number of things, which includes but is by no means limited to: gender, women, African-American, Asian, Italian-American, Latino, Puerto Rican, disability, obesity, and so on; and, of course, science. Before proceeding, let me make clear that I am not about to pass judgment on the academic quality of these programs, neither in terms of the scholarship of the faculty involved nor in terms of the courses being taught. I simply have neither the expertise nor the experience necessary to do so. And of course my (qualified) skepticism of science studies in particular (where I do have both the scholarly expertise and the teaching practice) cannot be generalized to other fields of the Studies family.

Rather, what I am wondering is whether particular implementations of the Studies model are the best way to achieve the stated goals of these programs. The basic idea behind Studies is to provide room in the academy for scholarship and teaching that represents and caters to traditionally underrepresented and under-catered to groups: ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities, etc. Now, there are at least two ways of setting up these programs to pursue said goals. One way is to create separate administrative units — usually departments — on a par with traditional departments like Anthropology, English, History, Philosophy, and the like. A second way is to house the programs in a classic department, the choice of which depends on the specific type of Studies one is considering (e.g., if the focus is primarily on comparative literature, English may be the most appropriate house, if we are talking cultural history then a History department, epistemology in a Philosophy department, and so on). The CUNY campus where I teach has actually adopted both models, depending — I assume — on the history and relative impact of each individual Studies program (you can see the complete list here).

There are advantages and disadvantages in both cases. One clear advantage of setting up independent administrative unit is that the Studies are inherently interdisciplinary animals, and as such will always be somewhat constrained within the confines of one of the classic departments. Then again, higher level administrators at most American campuses talk the good talk when it comes to interdisciplinarity, but rarely walk the corresponding walk. As a result, independent mini-departments may end up being significantly under-resourced in terms of faculty, administrative assistance, and so on.

But in my mind there is a more compelling reason to house Studies programs within traditional departments, while at the same time treating them as true interdisciplinary units: diversity. Bear with me for a moment, because this is going to sound somewhat ironic. Remember, a pivotal idea behind these programs is to allow the exploration, both in terms of scholarship and of teaching, of areas that are not well served by traditional academia, because they pertain to historically undervalued minorities. But the reality of a number of Studies programs is that they end up creating a circle of like minded faculty teaching to like minded students. I don’t have quantitative nationwide data (anyone out there? Let’s do some decent crowd sourcing, shall we?) but I have been in a number of universities and have met a number of students and colleagues in these programs. It is relatively rare for, say, women studies not to be taught almost exclusively by women to women; or for Italian-American studies not to be taught by Italian and Italian-American faculty to Italian-American students; and so on. Yes, there are exceptions, but that’s what they are, exceptions. So the likely result is precisely the opposite to the one sought: instead of bringing more diversity of opinions and more interdisciplinarity to campus, one may end up creating a number of isolated islands that inevitably begin to be looked at with suspicion by other faculty and students.

The way out of this, I think, is to take the second route mentioned above and install Studies programs, qua interdisciplinary programs, within broader classic departments. That way the faculty teaching in Studies programs will be in contact with faculty with a broader swath of interests (collectively), and will likely also have to teach more general courses than just those focused on the Studies approach. Which in turn would have the additional benefit of allowing Studies-focused faculty to attract a broader sample of students (those taking introductory courses in, say, history, or philosophy) to their area of interest. Likewise, students taking Studies courses as part of their major or minor will also have to take a broader range of courses as specified by the particular department’s learning objectives and degree requirements. Everybody wins, so to speak. Moreover, integrating Studies programs in this manner will help them transition from a small niche, low budget exercise in need of protection into a welcome and even necessary addition to liberal arts education.

Piece originally posted at Rationally Speaking | Creative Commons License