The World is not Flat; It Is Interdisciplinary

This past week, I and a number of my Fulbright colleagues here in Morocco traveled to Amman, Jordan in order to participate in a regional Fulbright conference.

Over three days, Fulbright researchers from Israel and Palestine, Jordan, and Morocco presented a snapshot of our current in-country research, discussed the various issues and challenges we faced along the way with the regional, cultural, and linguistic differences between our respective host countries, and got to know one another over numerous cups of coffee.  We not only came from all across the United States, but we also came from just about all the different academic and professional disciplines:  social work, medicine, sociology, art history, literature, economics, political science, education, and medieval history.  In short, we were living up to the stated mission of the Fulbright Program: to foster international exchange in order to increase mutual understanding and diminish the threat of conflict based upon an inability to see the world as interconnected.

While the architects of the Fulbright Program imagined this exchange happening at an international level in order to lessen conflict and promote peace, it also works on a domestic level.  By offering the grant to those in the sciences and in the humanities, Fulbright illustrates the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of our world and how much we rely upon the expertise of each other in their respective fields order to proceed with our own research.  The following sketches are but a few examples of the ways in which each of us Fulbrighters depend upon one another and our various subjects of expertise in order to complete our own projects.

  • One of the Jordan-based grantees is looking at the various hurdles faced by entrepreneurs and small-business owners in Jordan and in Palestine, including the time it takes to register a business, the types of documentation required, the amount of capital needed at the start, and the laws governing ownership.  It turns out that for Palestine, one needs an expert in the Ottoman legal code, the Mecelle, in order to start a business in 2017.  Not only does this mean that potential entrepreneurs need translations of the Mecelle from Ottoman Turkish to modern Turkish (which also involves a shift from an Arabic alphabet to a Latin one), Modern Standard Arabic, or English for consultation, but they also need historians and legal scholars to explain how the code functions, what its restrictions are, and its various historical precedents.  This particular Fulbright researcher needs articles summarizing all of this in order to gain a deeper understanding of the various hurdles their colleagues face and proceed with their own research.  In short: to study current business practices in Palestine, someone with a financial or business background has to rely upon the work of historians, lawyers and legal scholars, and translators.
  • On a similar note, one of the Morocco-based grantees who is studying divorce proceedings in Morocco needs to rely upon the work of theologians in addition to historians, lawyers and legal scholars in to order to understand divorce proceedings in Morocco and conduct their research.  Although much of Moroccan law is based on French civil law —which in turn requires them to depend upon the work of experts in French legal history— the family code is based upon Islamic religious law (Shari’a law).  However, the foundation for Morocco’s family code (as well as its name) comes from the Mudawwana, a 9th century book of juridical opinion based upon the legal writings of 8th and 9th century scholars and written in Classical Arabic.  It is also a code that is unique to the Maliki school of Sunni Islam, a school that has its origins in the Arabian peninsula rather than North Africa. Like all legal codes and religious texts, the Mudawwana also has numerous compendiums and guides for its interpretation and implementation. Thus, this particular Fulbrighter needs medieval historians (such as myself) to explain how the code came to Morocco and gained favor among the jurists during the Middle Ages, modern historians to explain the creation of a mixed civil and religious code during the Protectorate and post-colonial periods, linguists to help translate and explain Classical Arabic terms in Modern Standard Arabic and in French (the language of civil law in Morocco), and legal scholars to interpret the laws themselves and explain how they influence current rulings on divorce.

Such an illumination of intellectual interdependence needed to answer contemporary questions could not come at a more dire and drastic time.  The release of the the 2018 Fiscal Budget, with its draconian cuts to both the Sciences and the Humanities along with programs and initiatives designed for the public good such as the State Department (which runs Fulbright), is predicated on the idea that grants such as Fulbright and fostering intellectual and geographical exchange among grantees is not a priority.  The proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities is a sign from the US Government — the same institution that created the Fulbright Program in 1946—that the government (and by extension, its citizens) have no role in funding the study of humanity itself. Wrapped up in all of this is the idea that “academics,” especially those in the Humanities, are not “useful” for anyone outside of their narrow specialty, and that funds should be allocated to those fields which promote business and long-term employment.

Yet these ideas did not begin at the federal level, nor did they begin with this Administration.  The shift away from fostering intellectual exploration, research, and an interdisciplinary framework began at the state and local level as a way to resolve budget crises (often not brought about by education spending), and it has been pushed by many in higher-ed including College and University boards and deans.  As colleges and universities continue to push the idea that their graduates are “successful” and that such success is only measured by the imagined direct causation of undergraduate degree and major to one’s income across their lifetime, they re-write their curriculum requirements to discourage interdisciplinary study among the majority of their students.  Cutting or eliminating requirements to take a number of classes outside of one’s concentration while allowing SATII or AP courses to “count” for college credit means that our students will not be prepared to engage in intellectual exchange, much less have the tools necessary to turn to other fields and experts in order to answer their own questions.

Toting the equation of “undergraduate specialty = personal wealth” and “interdisciplinary study ≠ “gainful employment” (an argument that does not hold much water) undercuts the very support needed to answer legal and economic questions posed by these two Fulbright researchers.  If there are no specialists in Ottoman law, medieval history, legal codes, and Islam — to say nothing of language teachers and translators required to make these documents available to your average Anglophone who does not speak or read Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, or French—then it is impossible for these projects to move forward.  Yet in order to have specialists, you must have an education system that allows them to study the materials they need without telling them directly or indirectly that their choices are “economically precarious”  and hold “little to no weight in ‘the real world.’” You also need a civil society that promotes intellectual exchange, that underwrites programs dedicated to interdisciplinary study, and says that spending a (very very very small ) portion of taxes on such programs is necessary in order to create forums of intellectual exchange that lead to international understanding and peace.

The skeptic always asks “What’s the worst that could happen?” when faced with a narrative.  The answer in this case, I believe, lies within Jordan.  As part of the conference, we were treated to presentations by development experts about the various challenges within the kingdom today.  One of the most acute revolves around education and the lack of a robust civil society.  In Jordan, any degree other than one in engineering, medicine, or law is viewed as socially and economically worthless, because there are no jobs other than laborer or service work and because jobs themselves are not determined by aptitude or interest but by your high school exit exam scores, which then determine your university education and subsequent career path.  As a result, Jordanians themselves must depend upon the knowledge, insight, and vast amounts of money and trained foreigners in order to run their own country, understand their past, and answer basic questions.

Unlike Jordan, there is no other country who can underwrite the educational failings of the United States.

The world is interdisciplinary by default. Trying to understand our present relies upon the study of the past and the necessary experts to guide and shape that study.  Institutions such as liberal arts colleges dedicated to a broad education for all of their students (not just humanities majors), intellectual centers such as the Medieval Institute, and government programs like Fulbright not only recognize this inherent interdependence but point to it as the avenue in which additional interdependence can be and needs to be fostered in order to increase mutual understanding.  To insist upon the opposite against all evidence to the contrary and to do so by forcing our students into strict, narrow categories would raise generations against the very grain of their human nature and their environment and leave us utterly unprepared to see the world as it truly is.

“Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg:” Finishing a Medievalist Dissertation under the New Graduate School Paradigm

As I was re-reading earlier Chequered Board posts by my colleagues and friends both here at ND and abroad, looking for inspiration and guidance on how exactly one does this “blog” thing, I found myself distracted by the dates attached to each post. Each one reminded me of an important upcoming date: 31 May, 2017.

It’s not a date of excitement or performance anxiety. It’s a date of uncertainty and dread.

11 weeks left. That’s approximately how long until my final student stipend paycheck from the University of Notre Dame. My health insurance – to the best of my knowledge – continues until mid-August. Although I have three more years of tuition waiver, my institution will provide no further stipendiary assistance because I am reaching the end of my sixth year here.

It’s been an amazing six years. My first year in the Medieval Institute passed in a blur of fascinating courses taught by brilliant professors and the mandatory “Orientation to Medieval Studies,” which threw us into bibliographies of nearly every medieval topic under the sun with diverse faculty personalities. The Latin Exam haunted me, but also led to some of my closest grad student friendships here at ND with people who actually know Latin instead of hiding from it. The myriad lectures (attendance obligatory but never begrudged) exposed me to Gothic Architecture, French Romances, Paleography, Carolingian history, and more. The following year, dominated by the now-defunct 2nd Year Project, provided me with a new advisor and the glory of not being a first-year student. In my third year, I served as MI student representative and learned exactly how *not* to study for your comprehensive exams, while navigating the loss of our director, Remie Constable, whose sudden, premature death rocked our community. Afterwards in my fourth year, I began mucking around in the swamps of my medieval wetlands dissertation, and last year I was on a Fulbright student research scholarship in Uppsala, Sweden, learning the landscape of environmental humanities from a network of European scholars.

During these years, I’ve had the pleasure of being part of a robust medievalist community. Each time someone presented at a conference, published an article, received a grant, defended a dissertation or found a job, we all celebrated. New faces – faculty, staff, students, and visitors – have taken the place of those who once seemed bastions of the MI, but the medievalist community survives. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Only some things have significantly changed. The academic job market, though not nearly as bad as it was, has never and will never recover to its previous levels. The shift to adjunct faculty has radically altered the landscape; short-term postdoctoral fellowships and Visiting Assistant Professorships have replaced the tenure-track Assistant Professor positions on the job boards in ways that seem exploitative of a large pool of qualified candidates.

The expectations for grad students have also increased. ABD students and newly-minted PhDs need at least two articles to be considered seriously as job or fellowship candidates (I’ve even heard as high as four!). We must maintain a social media presence, have solid teaching records in our fields, and demonstrate involvement in non-academic outreach and planning. Even winning a widely recognized grant like the Fulbright or DAAD is not enough to merit a second look at your CV. Regardless of job market uncertainty, universities are pressuring students to finish faster (The University of Notre Dame, for example, began a new 5+1 program in 2016 with the help of the Arthur W. Mellon Foundation).

This poor state of affairs is exacerbated by the political state of affairs. Whatever your political leanings, it must be acknowledged that the current administration is anti-intellectual, and the new Secretary of Education isn’t invested in spending more on higher education systems she considers over-regulated and her approach to the massive student-loan debt problem is vague at best.

“How do we get through this?” I wonder almost daily. Not just for myself but for the peers who have shaped my graduate education perhaps even more than any individual faculty member. The refrain from the Anglo-Saxon poem Deor seems apropos, that “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg” (“that was overcome, so may this be”).[1] The poet, who gives his name as Deor, wrote six strophes that allude to individual or collective suffering that was eventually overcome, even if the denouement was not all sunshine and roses. Deor relates his own misery in the final stanza, that he has lost the coveted position of scop, a type of court bard that provided joy in the hall.[2] Parallels to the medieval graduate student experience include the traditional role of learning and reconstructing the stories of the past (as the Beowulf-poet says, wordum wrixlan, l.874a) combined with the collegiality of the academic environment; this makes it easy to relate to his sense of loss when Deor is no longer welcome in that hall. Our modern hallowed halls are no longer able to embrace and welcome the PhD graduates, who would be delighted to continue in the academic tradition.

The horizon has changed for the humanities and a consolatio refrain like Deor’s will not help us. We have convinced ourselves that a self-perpetuating cycle of academic mentoring of future academics was our highest goal, yet this approach has left us isolated in an ivory tower and our graduates ill-equipped to transition to non-academic positions. Recent initiatives such as the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program attempt to provide firsthand experience for recent PhDs in alt-academic positions. Despite this we still create hierarchies of success based on the proximity of our post-graduate-school life to the academic world. This does a great disservice to essential humanistic emphasis on understanding ourselves and our place in this world.

A close friend recently suggested that the core of the new humanistic engagement is retheorizing ourselves as academics regardless of where our pathways lead. The whirlwind meanderings under my professors’ rigorous watch during the last six years have provided me the necessary skills to continue in an academic career, should that prove feasible. As that eleven-week deadline marches closer, I continue applying to academic positions, but also university administrative positions, local off-campus positions that allow me to stay near my academic and social community, and cultural-engagement positions that would utilize my “extra-curricular” skills: project management, library sciences, professional development training, event planning, database management, community outreach, and cultural diplomacy. All of these so-called alternatives are not failures; instead they embody the essence of the humanities.

We humanists do ourselves a great disservice when we fail to maintain our own value. The humanities has the most to offer in the face of anti-intellectualism and resistance to human rights. If we are like Deor, lamenting a lost place in the king’s favor, we have missed the point. Our songs and stories, our research and engagement, our inquiry and curiosity are the most valuable things we have. External realities are outside of our control. Engaging in exploitative labor as an adjunct or full-time instructor is not justified by a love of our subject, commitment to students, or access to the scraps under the university table. We must recognize the equal validity of academic and alt-academic positions and reorganize our graduate programs to prepare students for a broader range of career pathways through service obligations, internships, or even dissertation alternatives that integrate the project management skills that employers seek.[3]

Although I initially intended to write about my current research project on medieval Icelandic water laws and contemporary debates on US state, regional, and federal jurisdictions, this post represents instead the opportunity to articulate what more often frames my discussions with my colleagues who are finishing or recently finished their dissertations: the economic and career uncertainty that encapsulates our lives. We can overcome the challenge individually, but our field will continue to suffer until we decentralize the post-baccalaureate training model from the ideal of a tenure-track position.

Mae Kilker
University of Notre Dame

[1] For an overview myriad attempts for translating this line, see Alfred Bammesberger, “The Old English Poem Deor: Its Structural Units and the Grammatical Analysis of Its Refrain,” Anglia 133.2(2015):322-26.

[2] “Sum sceal mid hearpan æt his hlafordes / fotum sittan, feoh þicgan, / ond a snellice snere wræstan, / lætan scralletan sceacol, se þe hleapeð, / nægl neomegende; biþ him neod micel.” (Fortunes of Men, l. 80-84)

[3] On the disconnect between skills employers seek and graduate school training across disciplines, see Denecke et al., Professional Development: Shaping Effective Programs for STEM Graduate Students. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.