How many of you got to see John Elder earlier this week on campus? If you didn’t, you missed an amazing scholar speaking beautifully, even poetically, about environmental issues in an awe-inspiring setting. Adrian Ivakhiv and Sasha Woolson deserve a big, and sustained, round of applause for bringing him to campus.
One of the things that Professor Elder spoke about was how and why we use the words we use to talk about environmental issues, and whether we should be using those words. (I’m still mulling over “affiliation”, for those of you who were there). By chance, the day after Elder’s talk, I was reading this essay by Eduardo Brondizio. Brondizio’s essay is mostly about how interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching can thrive, despite the disciplinary and organizational structures at universities. It really is worth a read if you’re interested in interdisciplinary programs (like our Environmental Program), interdisciplinary scholarship and research (like what many of you do), and tackling vexing environmental problems (like many of you are). On campus, students hear about majors, programs, disciplines; faculty talk about departments, colleges, programs, and silos. Sure, there are differences among some programs and departments. But there’s also a huge diversity of differences within particular programs. Brondizio writes,
“Yet, there is so much diversity within the umbrella of most institutionalized disciplines that assumptions (usually stereotypical) about what a given discipline “is” can hardly match what people in a discipline “do.” The problem starts with definitions and classifications, which may list disciplines in the dozens or hundreds, using various types of hierarchies. New “disciplines” are created all the time at the convergence or divergence of scholarship and institutional organization. Furthermore, what is interdisciplinary today can be disciplinary tomorrow. The more “traditional” disciplines have become so large and diverse that it has become challenging to talk about internal coherence. It is not uncommon for colleagues in the same disciplinary department to be completely ignorant of each other’s areas of expertise—including related theories, concepts, and methods—which can be nonetheless comfortably shared with colleagues outside of one’s “discipline” but working on similar problems. Even across groups working on similar issues within a discipline, such as social-environmental issues, one may find completely different vocabularies and conceptual framings depending on one’s theoretical orientation.”
Essentially, Brondizio is asking why we even have disciplines if there’s sometimes as much variation within disciplines as among disciplines. So maybe we’re already making our way toward a silo-less (Editor’s note: glad that didn’t autocorrect to soul-less) university, right? Well, Brondizio questions that as well:
“Still, even if one considers the term “discipline” of limited utility, the same problem is true for concepts that have tried to “pre-fix” it, whether multi-, inter-, cross-, pluri-, or trans- (disciplinarity). Beyond their general reference to different types of combinations, have you ever come across definitions of one of these concepts that satisfy you? They often create more disagreement than productive engagement as some of them stereotype disciplines either as narrow and limited or as historical relics. Arguably, there is little hope for consistency across these terms, and perhaps not much need of it. But there is a point in these discussions: they bring attention to the impact of institutional organization on the fragmentation of knowledge, and attention to the distance within the academy and between it and society.” [bolded for emphasis by me]
As I hope you’ve picked up on over the past 10 months, one of the things many before me in the Environmental Program have tried to do, and I’m trying to continue, is to reduce the fragmentation of knowledge and the distance between the academy and society. There are such amazing environmental scholars scattered across campus. Alison Brody in biology is one of the world’s leading experts on the diversity of ways plants and animals interact. Mark Budolfsen is a leading scholar on the intersection among climate change, inequality, ethics, and public policy. Bev Wemple knows more about ecosystem services provided by water in mountains than anyone I’ve ever met. And that’s just to name a few people I’ve emailed with or talked to at UVM in the past couple of days. There are dozens more scholars I could mention here (and will, ultimately). But what do we need to do to reduce fragmentation of knowledge on campus? How can the organization of the institution change to facilitate that? Or should it?
OK. The day is too beautiful for me to still be in the office. Rick Paradis and I are off to talk about Natural Areas, not in the office.
Enjoy the weekend –
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