The division of disciplines and the implications for people like me

Registration time is upon us, and next semester, I’ll be diving into the deep end of the actual History pool, taking a colloquium titled “Essential Readings in Early Medieval History,” and a seminar called “Greek Democracies: Athens and Beyond.” The former is with one Prof. Deborah Deliyannis, from whom I took an undergraduate course in medieval history four years ago and who has been a great source of encouragement and help every step of the way ever since. I’m looking forward to finally getting to take a graduate course from her (and also reading some Latin under her supervision).

As we start to enter the last few laps of this semester, I’m starting to see some interesting challenges relating to the notion of interdisciplinarity. My academic interests center around the interaction of liturgy and history; the way I’m approaching the matter is necessarily interdisciplinary, so I’m doing things like sitting in on art history and ethnomusicology courses. I’m also pretty much having to go through yet another department — Classical Studies — to work on my languages, so there’s an interdisciplinary component there, too. The issues I’m starting to see appear to have to do with differing methodologies, different kinds of evidence producing different results, and different departments being protective of what they see as their own intellectual territory.

For example, in Art History’s “Problems in Early Christian Art” course for which I’ve been attending the lectures and discussions, I have been somewhat taken aback at how some of the students appear to be totally disinterested in textual sources. Now, I state that as somebody who is not an art historian, so I assume that what we’re talking about here is a methodological difference between disciplines, except that both the professor (as well as one of the other candidates whom I heard do a job talk for the position last spring) seem completely comfortable dealing with textual sources and actual historical context. This has manifested itself in a couple of different scenarios; a couple of weeks ago, when students were doing initial presentations on their paper topics, what seemed to be the common methodological approach was first to pick an image or set of images, track down as much secondary literature about the image as possible, and then construct an argument on that basis. In other words, the only relevant primary source is the image with which you are working. I asked one or two of the presenting students if they planned on tracking down any contemporary literary sources related to their topic, and all I got was a shrug, with an answer amounting to, “Sure, I could see how that might be useful. Maybe if I have time I’ll look into that.”

This week, our readings dealt primarily with literary sources. I was part of the group that was “leading the discussion” (what seems to be a euphemism for “doing the reading so that the rest of the class doesn’t have to,” given how involved in the discussion the rest of the class seemed willing to be), and the reading I was discussing was the an excerpt from Robin Cormack‘s book Writing in Gold: Byzantine Society and its Icons. Cormack examines how images function in the Byzantine world of Late Antiquity, using as evidence the Life of St. Theodore of Sykeon and then the Miracles of St. Demetrios of Thessalonica. I also put together a small slide deck about St. Nectarios’ monastery on Aegina as a contemporary example of what Cormack talks about.

The reactions all around were fascinating; they ranged from indifference towards using literary sources to what seemed to be active hostility towards what Cormack was trying to accomplish. “It’s really dangerous to be relying on these kinds of sources for what we do,” I heard more than once. The argument seems to have been that literary sources can only interpret the image for you, and art historians need to be able to see them with their own eyes. Historical context is a nice-to-have, maybe, but ultimately unnecessary and irrelevant compared to actually being able to see what you’re dealing with and to do one’s own analysis of the visual material. Never mind the open criticism I got from one student for trying to relate what we were talking about to a contemporary example, saying point blank, “You can’t do that” — even though Cormack, in the body of the text, invited exactly such an application of his analysis to other scenarios. The professor appeared to understand what I was doing, and tried to bridge the gap between the concerns and what I was actually saying, but my colleague seemed unimpressed and, curiously, quite upset. It was a very odd class session, and I’m still trying to figure out what to make of it. Is Art History, at least as taught here, just adamant about wanting to be Art History, rather than “History of Other Things Where We Occasionally Use Pieces of Art as Evidence”? Like I said, it not being my field, I don’t know exactly what to think, particularly since the professor herself seems to be somebody who is more than adequately conversant with matters of historical context.

Another example I’ve run into has to do with the relationship of Classical Studies to other departments that routinely refer to texts that are in the languages they teach. In History, for example, I have to prepare a reading list with a decent number of texts in both Greek and Latin for my exams; the trouble is that there is not a fantastically economical way of preparing these lists in the context of coursework. Readings courses are difficult for professors to make time for on the History side, and there just isn’t anybody in Classical Studies who is interested in much later than 100 B. C. The forensic oratory and rhetoric course I’m taking this semester starts to approach relevance (and I will be able to include all of these texts on my reading list), but that’s about it. I am reminded of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a faculty member on the Greek side; I told him my interests and asked if there would be a way of pursuing them in Classical Studies, and he just said, “You’re outta luck, kid. The last person here who was anywhere close to your interests retired ten years ago.” Along the same lines, I am told that the instructor for 2nd year Greek had originally included St. John Chrysostom in the curriculum for this semester, but dropped it almost as soon as the term began. Now, just as was the case when I took the same class from the same instructor two years ago, all they’re reading is Plato’s Ion.

Even if it the History faculty did have the bandwidth to do readings courses, so I am told, Classical Studies would oppose such offerings; they are very protective of Greek and Latin and don’t want anybody else going near them in a classroom setting. The only reason Religious Studies is able to teach Syriac and Coptic is because they have a course number coded as “Readings in Early Christian History” that can be used. It theoretically could be used for reading Greek texts, but not, it seems, without drawing the ire of Classical Studies, so it just isn’t done. Students can do individual readings if a faculty member has time, but good luck with that.

Now, on the one hand, I think I can understand some of where Classical Studies might be coming from. If I had to guess, I’d say that, not dissimilar to Art History, they want to remain distinct as Classical Studies, not “The Guys Who Teach Greek and Latin to Other Departments.” Thing is, they still make everybody else come to them to learn Greek and Latin anyway — and then they make it clear they don’t take the texts other people want to deal with seriously. There was the snarky remark I heard from one of their faculty once about “undergraduates who enroll in first-year Greek because they want to read a certain famous text that is decidedly not part of the Classical corpus”, and then there was the whole way said text was treated when I took second year Greek — we spent all of two or three weeks on it, the instructor was sightreading, they clearly weren’t familiar with the text at all, and constantly made remarks like, “Yeah, that’s not real Greek” and “Why is is this guy making comments about bridegrooms and all that? I tell you, you can’t make this stuff up.” (Frighteningly enough, this person went to a Catholic university for undergrad.) One solution might be to make people in History or Religious Studies adjunct Classical Studies faculty, but it sounds like that’s a way they don’t want to go. They don’t want to teach the texts we’re interested in, but they don’t want anybody else to teach them, either.

I’m told that right now, there just aren’t enough History students who need Greek to be able to influence Classical Studies’ thinking on the matter, but we’re close — sufficiently close that if we have the same rate of growth over the next couple of years we’ve had over the last two (that is, from zero to close to ten or so) the game could easily change.

Interdisciplinarity — it’s a nice buzz word, but when it comes down to it, you’ve got to be able to take care of yourself to make it work, it seems. I assume that will be part of my education.


1 Response to “The division of disciplines and the implications for people like me”

  1. 1 More on the division of disciplines « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 4 November 2009 at 5:03 pm

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