Academia can be a fiercely jealous environment — jealous, that is, of the boundaries between disciplines. Rather than “scientists,” you’ll find physicists and oceanographers, biologists and chemists, neuroscientists and psychologists, all tucked away in their own, sometimes feuding departments. But even these categories are too broad. There are social cognitive neuroscientists and neuroimaging methodologists, theoretical evolutionary biologists and cell biologists, cognitive psychologists and developmental psychologists. Each speciality within a given field has its own journals, its own conferences. Interdisciplinary contact is rare. Two scientists with the same PhDs might occupy adjacent offices and yet never encounter each other in professional life.
The situation isn’t much different in the humanities. Gather a random sampling of three PhDs in, say, English literature, and you might find one expert in 10th- and 11th-century Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, one postcolonial studies guy with a focus on Sri Lanka, and the world’s foremost authority on gender in Victorian novels between 1840 and 1860. And let’s not even get started on comparative literature.
With this level of specialization and compartmentalization — or “siloing” — the big picture of any field can often be hard to keep in view. In fact, even asking whether there is a big picture can be an embarrassing faux pas. The ethos and the actual practice of academic life is so relentlessly analytical, so laser-focused on identifying differences and distinctions, that seeing connections between fields or subjects can be suspect, a sign of softness.
Yet it’s also true that many of the greatest research breakthroughs come when the insights or discoveries of one field illuminate the problems of another, or when researchers from only semi-related disciplines get together to swap ideas.
Connor’s former Boston University colleague Paul Cassell, who studies religion through the lens of complex systems, will be giving a talk next month for a new initiative that he and Connor are putting together for pursuing scholarship outside of the academy. Paul will give his lecture, “Between the Humanities and Sciences: Interdisciplinarity in Academia,” at 7:00 pm on Thursday, May 20. If you’re interested, RSVP here.