Re: Holism and Interdisciplinarity at Columbia University

Ralph L Holloway (rlh2@COLUMBIA.EDU)
Fri, 5 May 1995 21:04:36 -0400

This is hardly the place to air our linen and dirty wash, but I guess
that is Roger's prerogative. For those who have followed the posts
regarding this issue (in my opinion, debacle), the "majority vote " was 9
to 5, which included two votes that were switched in intention at the
last minute as an opportunity to at least have some retained breadth. One
of them was a proxy, so 'that' vote never did hear or follow the motion. On
the issue of straight voting as to whether there would be breadth
requirements or not (Roger introduced the seminar iseas, which then
became the basis for the motion to vote upon) the vote wouyld have been 7
to 7. Unfortunately, since I do Human Skeletal Biology, Human
Paleoanthropology, and the evolution of Human Brain and Behgvaior, these
had been defined characterized as archaic. Unfortunately, after 31
yearsof teaching at Columbia, that is all I know, and I am not interested
in merely filling new bottles with old wine. The department had a similar
structured required course years ago, and it was an abomination to
students and faculty alike. Roger's other recommendation for the "course"
was AnnFausto-Sterling's Myths of Gender, Over a year ago, I put a copy
of our AJPA Sex Dimorphism of the Corpus Callosum paper in each faculty
member's mailbox. It would be impossible not to know that A F-S's
Appendix and ours are in total conflict. Sorry, but this was typical
in-your-face-Columbia insensitivity, and nothing more. Ralkph Holloway.
Fri, 5 May 1995, Roger Nelson Lancaster wrote:

> From: Roger N. Lancaster
> 5 May, 1995
> I proposed the current version of the graduate breadth requirements in the
> Columbia department of anthropology. I do not count the new requirements
> as my own unique intellectual property -- such ideas have been batted
> around in the department for some time, and various constellations of
> them have come from biological and cultural anthropologists. A substantial
> majority of the department -- including wide majorities among both
> social-cultural and biological anthropologists -- voted for the present
> requirements.=20
> Much of anthro-net discussion has portrayed the new requirements as either
> a watering-down of graduate training, or as a move away from
> anthropological commitments to holism and interdisciplinarity. Some have
> attached dire consequences to this move, including the imminent break-up
> of the discipline. Needless to say, I do not see matters this way.=20
> In fact, the subdisciplines have each grown far too complex and
> specialized for graduate instruction to be organized around traditional
> ideas of four-fields competency. Most major departments of anthropology
> dropped four-fields graduate requirements years, even decades ago. I
> understand the concerns of my colleagues who voted in the minority -- I
> even share some of them. Over-specialization from the start bodes ill for
> a discipline understood as the study of humanity in all its dimensions.
> And I do not want to see my own subdiscipline absorbed into either
> sociology or cultural studies. The best response to our current dilemmas,
> I believe, is a more integrative and less mechanical approach to graduate
> instruction: an approach faithful to the traditional anthropological
> ideal of holism and interdisciplinarity, yet pitched to the concerns of
> current scholarly research -- and to the graduate student interests that
> will be the driving engine of future research.=20
> Those of us who voted in the clear majority undertook this curricular
> reform very much in the spirit of the approaching Boasian centenary. We
> did not simply eliminate graduate breadth requirements -- as most of our
> peer institutions have done in the past. We are pleased to announce this
> new curriculum, conceived partly in recognition of the weaknesses of the
> previous system, and partly in response to the ongoing discussions about
> the future of anthropology that have dominated the pages of the
> Anthropology Newsletter for the past couple of years.
> Under the old requirements, students took two courses out of their
> subfield. Most students took two introductory-level courses. While
> exposure to a range of subdisciplines is good and desirable, such a
> strategy shows few signs of informing students' graduate or professional
> work.=20
> The new requirements add two new courses that will stress the benefits of
> topically-focused interdisciplinary and interdisciplinarily-informed
> research. Rather than affording introductory exposure to discreet
> subdisciplines (an approach which scarcely advances a Boasian
> synthesis!), then, the goal is to introduce sub- and inter- disciplinary
> approaches through current research. Students thus focused in their early
> training may well opt to take more courses out of subfield. Nothing in the
> new requirements dissuades them from doing so. Hopefully, their
> experiences will encourage them to do so. The new requirements will
> facilitate focused inter(sub)disciplinary conversations, not only among
> graduate students, but -- for the first time in years -- among faculty as
> well.=20
> Below, I review the new requirements:
> Proposed Course Description (for graduate bulletin): "American
> Anthropology emerged at the turn of the century as a pliable, holistic
> practice, and it flourishes today as the space of an active and dynamic
> interdisciplinarity. This topically-focused course will survey
> contemporary research using interdisciplinary methods; it incorporates not
> only the traditional four fields of anthropology, but also spans the
> broader spectrum of the life sciences, the social sciences, and the
> humanities. By approaching topics of contemporary research from a variety
> of perspectives, this seminar provides exposure to the strengths of
> various disciplines, while modeling the methods, approaches, and
> creativity of focused interdisciplinarity today."=20
> All students, without exception, will be required to take this course for
> a grade.=20
> This course will always be team-taught by a pair from at least two
> different subdisciplines. The instructors of record will solicit input
> from their colleagues on course topics and contents. Here's an opportunity
> for four-fields enthusiasts to significantly shape the scope and content
> of students' research -- and their input will be crucial. By design, it is
> the responsibility of this course to explain to first or second year
> graduate students (a vast majority of whom are social-cultural) why human
> anatomy, or evolutionary genetics, or archaeology, or linguistics, are
> useful in understanding dance, or the body, or the modern city, or gender.=
> =20
> By way of example for a particular unit, I gave the following
> illustration: Problems of culture, biology, and perception can be
> introduced with lively and engaging material -- I alluded to the example
> of Oliver Sacks's "To See or Not To See," from AN ANTHROPOLOGIST ON MARS.
> Such problematics can then be unfolded in various directions, in some
> depth: philosophically, using chapters from Merleau-Ponty's PHENEMENOLOGY
> OF PERCEPTION or STRUCTURE OF BEHAVIOR; historically, revisiting the
> controversies of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; ethnographically, with any
> of the newer "ethnographies of the senses"; biologically, with the new
> research on sensory perception.=20
> Since my invocation of Oliver Sacks seems to be the object of particular
> mirth in these discussions, I offer yet another example of how his
> parables might work pedagogically: Excerpts from THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS
> WIFE FOR A HAT might well lead to Jakobson and Halle's wonderful
> linguistic treatise on aphasia; into questions about Saussurean semiology
> versus Peircian semiotics; into Chomsky's notions; into the prevailing
> textual theories that rule in the humanities and much of the social
> sciences; and into the new neural research on speech and language.
> Hopefully, students will emerge from a series of such units with a new
> perspective on the value of interdisciplinary approaches to focused
> questions.=20
> Any number of topics lend themselves to this kind of treatment: the new
> medical and genetic technologies; culture and ecology; studies of the
> body; and so on. If this course works, students will begin thinking of
> their own research interests in an interdisciplinary and holistic way
> from the start. Faculty will be exchanging ideas in a public,
> interdisciplinary forum. An interdisciplinary conversation -- not
> subdisciplinary monologues -- can begin.=20
> It seems to me that this approach is far more sound pedagogically than its
> forerunner. It is not meant to be a substitute for specialty training in
> biological, linguistic, or archaeological anthropology. But it does not
> assume that such specialty training is appropriate for every student.
> For the first time in years, the Wednesday once-monthly talk in the
> department will have a four-fields and interdisciplinary scope.
> Previously, the Wednesday forum has featured either social-cultural or
> humanities topics. Local and guest speakers will give talks on their
> current research. Graduate students are required to attend these talks for
> the first two years of their training, and will receive one credit
> pass/not pass each semester for doing so. This forum will thus provide
> sustained exposure over a long period of time to the discipline as a
> whole. (Faculty, too, will be expected to attend these talks, and will
> hopefully engage speakers in productive conversations.)
> -----------------------------------------------
> In the aftermath of almost any major decision, there will be anger and
> hurt feelings among participants, and second guessing by onlookers. I hope
> that the spirit of these reforms is not lost in the ensuing discussion.
> The new requirements, taken together, represent a contemporary innovation
> within the Boasian tradition. I think I speak for the majority of the
> department when I say that we are proud of this new curriculum. It
> reaffirms and modernizes anthropological holism and interdisciplinarity.
> And it might suggest a more productive model for graduate training in
> other departments facing similar questions.=20
> -- Roger N. Lancaster
> Associate Professor of Anthropology
> Columbia University
> =05
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