Doing Away with Discipline: The Way of the Digital Scholar

In his 6th chapter, “Interdisciplinarity and Permeable Boundaries” in Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice, Martin Weller (2011) anchors the idea of Interdisciplinarity in digital practices that reshape society. Drawing from Chris Anderson, the current TED curator, he claims that “lightweight and unrestricted forms of communication found in many Web 2.0 tools may serve the needs of Interdisciplinarity to overcome existing disciplinary and geographical boundaries” (p. 2).

Weller suggests that open, digital, networked technologies are, in many ways, responsible for an “unexpected collision of distinct areas of study” (p. 2). To an increasing extent, digital culture permeates the walls of the ivory tower as technologies enable new practices, which “create[s] a common set of values, epistemological approaches and communication methods” that “override those of separate disciplines” (p. 3). Approaches to research emerge that refigure what it means to be a researcher as academic behaviors encompass more and more digital practices. Researchers adhere to new, emergent norms of discovery in their work, which often run counter to the traditional, fragmented, departmental models of an analog past. As a result, new pathways leading to different-yet-viable methods of knowledge production are formed, reshaping institutions and disciplines as they crystallize via publication. As scholars tread grounds beyond their familiar intellectual territory, pursuing innovative ideas outside of their academic home, they form alliances with others by way of new media. Blogs, social network sites, and Wikis evolve with scholars’ ideas as convergence cultivates creativity, play, and other forms of generative learning that cut across disciplinary boundaries.

This is a big deal for an academy structured around a model of institutionalized knowledge, which developed a fragmentary schema of disciplined study sometime in the mediaeval period. In the cliché words of Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changin’.”

For Weller, Interdisciplinarity goes beyond the physical constraints of pre-networked society where “Journals need[ed] to have an identified market to interest publishers, people need[ed] to be situated within a physical department in a university, [and] books [were] placed on certain shelves in book shops” (p. 2). Digital practices lead to virtual spaces where cultural norms and standards adhere to new possibilities, enabled by global networks of scholars who reform the functions of their trade and find innovative uses for new media tools leant to research efforts.

Problems in the academy arise when a clash of realities between digitally-oriented and analog-secure scholars lead to disagreements about rigor and relevance. Many scholars oriented toward tools of a pre-network society (i.e., analog technologies and traditional means of gaining public notoriety) remain unconvinced that digital practices can be rigorous or salient. As skeptical reactions toward Wikipedia’s credibility illustrate, many academic professionals who hold sway over tenure promotions and search committees remain suspicious of digital practices, distrusting the viability of knowledge that emerges through work that is digitally prodused under the cultural auspices of openness, free access, and quick turnover.

Interdisciplinarity is at once condoned when tied to emergent digital practices. Weller’s discourse frames the “schizophrenic attitude toward Interdisciplinarity” (p. 1) as a problem of exploding traditions.

He exposes a reality in the academy where scholars of an “old guard” who seek to defend the boundaries of institutional disciplines clutch to analog tools and methodological constraints of an old paradigm. The compendium of digital scholars entering the academy, as both students and new faculty, are forcing those who protect the standards of traditional approaches to yield their posts as they crash institutional gates with smartphonestabletsGoogle AnalyticsBlogger, and Twitter – all tools that diversify research audiences, amplify scholar’s messages, and ensure that scholarship has a larger impact when published.

In short, the digital difference in scholarship is Interdisciplinarity since digital practices break down barriers. With digital tools come digital practices and standards that academic institutions must take into account as they move into the future. Academic definitions of knowledge and discipline are forced to shift with a paradigm of practice that threatens the authority of institutions everywhere (see Weller’s discussion in Chp 3 regarding the music and newspaper industries).

In Weller’s view, Interdisciplinarity doesn’t only apply to academic work. In reference to blogs as a genre of writing that leads to inquiry, Weller suggests that the “personal mix is what renders blogs interesting” as he explains that, in one of his favorite blogs, the author “mixes thoughts on educational technology and advice on the blogging platform WordPress with meditations on B-horror films. The mix seems perfectly logical and acceptable within the norms of the blogging community” (p. 4). The takeaway here is that digital culture remixes other cultures, including the intelligentsia, and this leads to new social formations. Scholars reinforce altered practices of engagement, learning, and knowledge production with their research, regardless of its focus or content, as they use digital tools to conduct it.

This means that the academy is changing from the inside out—a centrifugal force pushing out old hierarchies as it makes way for new networks. As Benkler (2006) suggests in Wealth of Networks, there is value in these networks, which is derived from the network itself and the swarm that embodies it. New networks have their own energy, which establish new modes of evaluation, new means of discovery, and new ways of making meaning through human action that gnaw at the edges of disciplines keeping old hierarchies sturdy and analog identities intact.

As Weller notes in his 3rd chapter, “Lessons from Other Sectors”, academia should take note of alternative resources that lead to new forms of research and learning before it loses its institutional hold on knowledge as an ideological authority. While this may seem a bit pretentious, the everyday experiences of academics who utilize digital tools frequently reveal the pertinence of such a warning. As digital culture subsumes disciplinary culture, Interdisciplinarity becomes more of a reality and ideological apparatuses are reshaped to fit “the social classes at the grips in the class struggle” (Althusser, 1970). The “weakness of the other elements in the ‘university bundle’ could become apparent, and the attractiveness of the university system is seriously undermined” (Weller, 2011, Chp. 3, p. 8) if traditions remain carved in blocks of stone.

Digital practices chip away at those stones.

The networked foundation for digital scholars’ work gives them the stability and solidarity to tackle complex, societal issues in ways that “old guard” academics never imagined possible. As a result, they may find their efforts having a greater practical impact outside of academia because institutional standards fail to adapt. This is a dismal attitude to take towards schools, which have made technological development and intellectual growth possible for an eon. However, as Weller warns, we should not confuse “higher education with the university system” (Chp. 6, p. 1); people will find a way to accrue new knowledge in any way available, and if that means subverting the dominant, traditional university system, so be it. The integrated perspective of Interdisciplinary pedagogy that Weller draws from Ernest Boyer, which makes “connections across the disciplines, placing the specialties in a larger context, illuminating data a revealing way, often educating non-specialists” (p. 1), is more hopeful than the critical view taken by many scholars caught up in the current system. This may be because hard working academics who strive to climb social hierarchies do not stand in solidarity together.

It is no lie that many graduate students and untenured scholars are bent on dismantling the good work of their brethren, who have spent a lifetime building the best stocks of knowledge they can in contribution to their discipline. In the end, these scholars belabor tired points in graduate seminars and faculty meetings, more concerned with asserting their self-centered agendas and personal politics as a way of accruing social capital, rather than fostering ongoing dialogue amongst their colleagues that would lead to new ideas and innovative inquiry. Digital practices tap networks that provide academics with outlets to collaborate unilaterally and avoid the traps of corporate machinery embedded in the institution, nullifying the need to burn bridges and step on toes as one makes their way in academia.

The limiting scope that arises when scholars squabble over methods of research, play tug-o-war with the line over authority, and willfully thicken tensions that arise between “hard” and “soft” sciences is perhaps the very reason why Interdisciplinary work evokes a laugh when suggested as a bonafide approach to research. Weller sees diversity as nothing to fight over. The habits of discipline are hard to break “and interdisciplinary work requires transcending unconscious habits of thought” (p. 2). Scholars who commune through digital practices begin speaking new, integrated languages that bridge gaps between research agendas rather than widen disciplinary lacunas. This is because, in their practical nature, digital technologies dismantle boundaries of institutionalized thought, not thoughts of institutionalized scholars.

So what would Weller’s Interdisciplinary model of higher education look like?

I asked my girlfriend this question after I finished reading Weller’s book. We both have different opinions about what counts as research. You might say that we both have trouble transcending disciplinary habits. While we both attended liberal arts universities in our undergraduate studies, our affiliations as graduate students differ. I study Communication, so I consider myself a humanities scholar; she dons the tag “social scientist” as she studies Applied Anthropology.

In our conversation, I envisioned a school where scholars work together to diversify fields of interest and broaden student perspectives. Explaining my ideas, I began brainstorming for a curriculum that put Interdisciplinarity at the center of pedagogy, instead of the margin.

At first she was intrigued by my excitement.

“Could you imagine it? … What if, as an undergrad, you could take classes that blended different areas of study? Something like, “Environmental Ecology and Spirituality”, “Statistics and Performance”, “Graphic Information Systems and Food Cultures” or “Creative Writing and Biochemistry”. How cool would that be?”

Her expression went from hopeful to disturbed. “Everyone would be really confused,” she said.

Perhaps.

But I don’t see that as a bad thing. Then again, I’m a digital scholar.

Creative Commons License
PLE's Doing Away with Discipline: The Way of the Digital Scholar by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

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