The University as Feudal State: The Abysmal Failure of Interdisciplinarity in Higher Education
by Doug Mann
Knowledge and research within the modern university has a curiously feudal character, given its division into a series of faculties and departments each with their own pedagogical self-definitions. By its very structure, which is specialized and hierarchical, the modern university is hostile to inter-disciplinary teaching and research. Interdisciplinarity flies directly in the face of the corporatist nature of the modern university, which divides knowledge and money into a discrete number of internal corporate bodies. We can no more expect our universities to be interdisciplinary than we can expect monkeys to speak French or cats to sing Wagnerian operas: it’s simply not in their nature.
2. The University as Feudal Hierarchy
Both the feudal state and the modern university share the basic characteristics of being hierarchies held together by power structures, flows of resources and the fealty of the lower orders to those above them. Just as the feudal kingdom was divided into a myriad of fiefdoms of various sizes, the university is divided into “grand faculties” such as the Arts, Social Sciences and Sciences, within which we find individual departments such as Philosophy, Sociology and Chemistry. Although some laws and regulations apply throughout the entire feudal kingdom (or modern university), many such laws are local in character, varying from fiefdom to fiefdom (or department to department). The local fiefdom is the real site of important decision making.
At the top of the feudal state was the King, who had little influence on “local” affairs, and relied on the great lords of the land to collect his taxes and defend his realm. The obvious parallel in universities is the President, the public face of the school, who is never seen in individual classrooms, and is a stranger to almost all the “lower orders” (more on them in a while). Checking the King’s power were the Pope and his bishops, paralleled in modern universities by the upper echelons of administrators. Beneath them a vast army of priests ministered to the spiritual needs of their flocks, just as a vast army of administrators and support staff minister to the technical and bureaucratic needs of the modern university.
each of the larger feudal fiefdoms, e.g.
In the town lived artisans, their equivalent at the university being graduate students who spin their intellectual wheels marking papers and writing theses just as the medieval potter spun clay on his wheel. At the bottom of the feudal hierarchy were the peasants, who toiled on the land and provided taxes to the lords. We have our own peasants, the undergraduate students, who fund the system with their tuition and their parents’ taxes. The parallel is uncannily precise.
3. Specialization in Graduate Education and Hiring
Interdisciplinary teaching and research is impossible without interdisciplinary scholars, yet the feudal nature of the modern university actively discourages the hiring and promotion of such scholars.
For example, in the discipline whose hiring practices I know best, Philosophy, most jobs require (a) a doctorate specifically in Philosophy, with those from “major” American universities such as Harvard, Yale and UCLA having favoured status, and (b) a specialization in a subfield of Philosophy such as Ethics, Philosophy of Mind, or Logic with some graduate work and perhaps teaching experience to back this claim on specialisation up. This pattern of “Major Discipline/Secondary Specialization” applies to the vast majority of academic hirings in modern university departments.
I conclude from my own tales of Chaucerian woe in pursuing a tenure-track job in several distinct disciplines that at least four “iron laws” apply to academic hiring, all of which favour feudal specialization and strongly oppose the hiring of interdisciplinary scholars:
! 1. Discipline: Almost all permanent positions require a Ph.D. in the specific discipline associated with the department doing the hiring: e.g. people with Sociology Ph.D.s don’t get jobs in Political Science departments, even if they know a lot about political science.
! 2. Specialization: Second, most tenure-track jobs require some sort of specific specialization within that discipline, sometimes defined so narrowly as to exclude the great majority of those with Ph.D.s in that discipline. This specialization trumps both general teaching experience and non-specialized publication lists.
! 3. Publications: A published book and 20 articles within a given discipline outside of the specialization a job ad calls for are worth less than a couple of forthcoming articles and graduate work within that specialization. Two or more books and a long list of articles and substantial teaching experience in discipline A are worth preciously nothing in discipline B, even if these two disciplines are intellectually related, e.g. Sociology and Political Science. Work simply doesn’t count unless it’s work within the “feudal fiefdom” associated with the job description. Formal university credentials are like noble titles: each entitle one to unique privileges within a given fiefdom, yet to little more than deference outside one’s fiefdom.
! 4. Logic of Hiring: Because of the discipline-and-specialization system of hiring and the feudal structure of the university, even a well published interdisciplinary scholar with substantial teaching experience and a genuine interest in a variety of subjects won’t get hired into a permanent position. Such a scholar is almost always automatically rejected by hiring committees. I know from personal experience that some disciplines even look down on interdisciplinary publication and teaching as a sign of weakness, an inability to “make up one’s mind,” to being a dilettante. This logic of hiring tied in well with our larger techno-bureaucratic society, which favours widget adjusters over deep thinkers.
These iron laws are very effective at weeding out interdisciplinary scholars from achieving success in the modern university. Specialisation is the name of the game.
4. Specialists and Generalists: A Fallacy Corrected
Underlying the logic of feudal specialism in university hiring and structure is a basic fallacy about how we learn new things, and how we apply this knowledge to research and teaching. Scholars learn by reading books and articles, by doing surveys and experiments, or in some disciplines by listening to music or watching video. Certainly graduate students do these things. But post-graduate teachers also do these things, especially if they’re contract or adjunct professors shuffling from one new course to another. Anyone with very basic research skills, time and willpower can educate themselves about a specialization within a field if they already have some vague familiarity with it.
Teaching a new course in an area one is only loosely familiar with is like taking a graduate seminar or two in the area, with one major addition: the teacher is expected to do twenty or more hours of presentations to his or her students, the graduate student (generally speaking) only one or two. I remember a couple of years ago preparing to teach my Comic Book Culture course for the first time: over the course of a year or so I went from being having a strong amateur interest in comics to being as much of an expert in the field as all but a handful of people in Canadian universities.
My point isn’t to establish pedagogical bragging rights over the X-Men or Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, but to make clear the obvious fact that teaching a course in a new field compels one to do some serious research in that field. Further, writing a series of articles or a book in a new field has the same effect. There’s nothing magical about graduate work that qualifies one for a job in a given specialization: learning should be a life-long process for all professors, and most certainly is for interdisciplinary scholars. The brain isn’t a static organ cryogenically frozen on the day of one’s graduation, and education isn’t limited to a few years of structured study, ending a year after one collects one’s doctoral diploma: to think otherwise is to wallow in a naive credentialism.
What is a specialist? Someone who knows a lot about a single field of knowledge, but not very much about anything else. What is a generalist? Someone who has a significant degree of knowledge in several allied fields, and bits of knowledge about many other things. The problem with specialists is that they don’t have the knowledge base to apply extra-disciplinary ideas to their writing and teaching. Yet in most cases the specialist is asked to teach undergraduate courses outside their specialization strictly defined, a task for which they’re ill suited. And besides, one doesn’t have to be a specialist to teach effectively most undergraduate courses in a given discipline: one just has to know where to get the knowledge needed to fill in the gaps between the things one already knows and the willingness to do so.
A humanistic view of education tells us that a knowledge of the classics, languages, history, politics, philosophy, film, art and music can inform and enliven a discussion of pretty well any field of study outside of highly technical or scientific disciplines. Students’ education is enriched by teachers who can bring in events from history, philosophical ideas, cinematic metaphors, or literary allusions, amongst other things. Yet universities don’t care about such general knowledge when it comes to hiring: they chose the narrow specialist over the more well-rounded generalist in almost all cases.
isn’t naturally divided into specializations: this requires an act of will on
the part of educational bureaucracies, as all good Foucauldians
know. The way that the current menu of disciplines have developed into islands
of knowledge in the modern university, each with is own canon of great works,
is the story of accidents, missed opportunities, and arbitrary decisions. If we
look at my own university, the
This division of labour makes no sense intellectually: it’s the result of bureaucratic struggles, not logical thinking. This makes even less sense when we remember that films are made specifically for TV, while TV networks broadcast films to entertain the masses. Like Hegel’s cats, in the night all disciplinary boundaries are grey.
Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and George Grant, important Canadian philosophers of media and culture, are discussed in only a handful of Canadian Philosophy departments, yet are widely taught in Communications departments. This doesn’t make sense either. The fact that Media Studies and Communications programs even exist in the first place speaks to fear and loathing felt by philosophers, sociologists, and literary scholars of a generation ago toward the study of mass media and popular culture. They didn’t want to get their hands dirty with the study of popular media, so they left this to the newly established communications departments.
I’ve taught Marxism in Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science and Media Studies programs, supposedly distinct disciplines, yet haven’t observed any changes in the basic tenets of Messieurs Marx and Engels as I move from one discipline to another. The way that knowledge is divided up between university disciplines is akin to the way that land was divided between feudal fiefdoms: in some cases the borders might sensibly follow rivers or mountain ranges, in others they run arbitrarily through a farmer’s field or across a deserted wasteland. Don’t look for some deep logical rationale in these divisions.
5. Follow the Money
Universities have a corporatist structure that channels money and other resources through a hierarchical structure to specific faculties and departments. These departments compete against each other for students in order to get more access to these resources. The more students they get, the more money they get (though certain key areas of research, mostly in the natural sciences, are partly immune to this tendency). The division of knowledge into disciplines or specializations each with its own administrative structure, followed by the competition of these structures for students and money, militates against the crossing of disciplinary boundaries. If we follow the money, we’ll find academic corporations competing for resources, justifying that competition by emphasizing the importance of their own intellectual specialty. Such a system cannot foster interdisciplinarity. It’s little wonder that when we scan the lists of permanent faculty in most departments we don’t find any.
 For example, my latest book Understanding Society (Oxford UP, 2008) is a history of modern social theory, which I wrote despite the fact that I don’t have a degree in sociology. Researching and writing the book was like doing a mini-doctorate in social theory, though I’ll never recieve any formal credentials for doing so. My point here isn’t self-congratulation, but to show that any scholar with a degree of open-mindedness and effort can do the same, travelling beyond the feudal boundaries of their own individual specialization.
 Needless to say, some of this division of labour is quite sensible, e.g. that between physics and fine art, which are distinct endeavours. However, there are many unexplored connections between disciplines that the feudal academy keeps in darkness, e.g. between sociology and political science or philosophy and communication studies.