discipline and such

[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my advising practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter — in preface to a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work — in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I will share the letters here.]

23 April 2012

Dear friends,

I’ve been thinking about interdisciplinarity. When I first started with our program we used to talk about it more. It used to be more central. It’s funny to me that an interdisciplinary MFA program shouldn’t be talking about interdisciplinarity all the time.

I have a few theories about why we’ve stopped talking about interdisciplinarity. They’re mostly related to our – programmatic and personal — self-concept and to our shared political moment. Interdisciplinarity asks us to step beyond what we already know, beyond existing frames of reference, and invites us to consider the world in a new way. Our shared historical moment is one that’s marked by the politics of safety and security, creating in us an aversion to risk. If for no other reason than everything in the culture is screaming at us to protect ourselves, it’s easier for us to intellectually focus on our perception of the tried and true than it is to jump into the unknown or risk change. It never feels safe to change. It especially doesn’t feel safe now.

Secondly, our program has become more populated by people who locate their practice in performing arts traditions. These traditions, some argue, are interdisciplinary because they combine the disciplines of music, dance, theater, and, sometimes visual art. I think this is a stretch and mostly untrue. More often than not, performing traditions are multidisciplinary, because the problem solving methods of the cooperating disciplines don’t really change by virtue of working together. In interdisciplinary practice, as I’ll explain a bit more below, the methods that come together develop something new, they grow by virtue of the interaction.

As a way of beginning a conversation with each of you, I want to map four concepts related to the ways knowledge is created and organized: disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity. I then want to offer a few thoughts and questions about interdisciplinarity as it relates to the development of your practice and completion of this program.


Academic disciplines emerged through several European traditions. In the Medieval period, they began to be recognized through the organization of universities and monasteries around subjects like theology, law and medicine. By the mid-nineteenth century, the German universities started to codify the modern academic disciplines that we recognize today. Harvard adopted the model in the late-nineteenth century, catalyzing the reorganization of the American University into disciplinary units.

Disciplines represent both specialization and depth, on the one hand, and traditions and method of problem solving, on the other. They maintain their centrality to the contemporary university because they are able to look at pieces of problems very precisely. Their limitation has to do with complexity and the inherent problem of only looking at a piece of any question, rather than seeing the question in all of its complication, as it manifests in the world. For example, Biologists are good at studying and analyzing the various functions of cells, but face challenges when it comes to synthesizing all the data necessary in understanding cancer. To look at a question like cancer requires broader methodologies than one discipline can offer.

While we understand the limits of solving our questions through the disciplinary system, universities have been slow to adopt new ways of organizing and creating knowledge. This largely has to do with the self-interest of those who’ve created careers in the disciplines and the difficulty in changing the recognition and reward structure of the individuals and institutions that are invested in the discipline system.


When an individual studies, either simultaneously or in sequence, two or more areas of knowledge, but does not make connections between them, we refer to the person (or their practice) as multidisciplinary. This can also relate to collaboration or group efforts. For example, when a director, choreographer, and lighting designer work in parallel, but don’t make efforts to synthesize their knowledge, the result is multidisciplinary. In general, this approach results in a series of overlapping or sequential actions or solutions, but doesn’t integrate to create a new method for problem solving in any synthetic way.


Interdisciplinarity generally starts with a question that organizes the disciplines necessary for a solution. In everyday terms, it takes seriously the old axiom that everything becomes a nail when your only tool is a hammer by asking us to assemble the best tools (or strategies) for solving the problem (or engaging the discourse) in front of us. In terms of the arts, it invites us to consider our content and intention before we decide the method or form we’ll engage.

Significantly, interdisciplinarity isn’t really concerned with collaboration between existing methods. Rather, it invites us to transform our methods (or create new methods) by bringing what we already know into dialogue with ways of knowing that are new to us. For example, doctors and artists working with cancer patients have developed new therapeutic approaches that utilize both empirical forms of knowledge and intuitive ways of approaching embodiment that are central to the arts. Climate scientists and graphic designers have collaborated to create new models for data visualization, creating new ways of seeing and understanding complicated data sets. Poets working with environmental scientists, using both data and metaphor, have created ways of knowing and communicating about the non-human world that disrupt false assumptions about development and consumption.

In my own experience as a painter and social activist, my interdisciplinary methods don’t involve bringing painting to my public work. They involve me bringing the problem-solving methods that I’ve learned as a painter – methods that are non-linear, intuitive, and iterative – into dialogue with other ways of problem solving. As a result my work tends toward hybridity rather than reproduction of existing knowledge. For me, this is where creativity lives.


Transdisciplinarity is an area that I’m just starting to learn about, so I offer this reflection cautiously and welcome conversation with you about it. In its simplest form, transdisciplinarity represents efforts to organize knowledge in ways that reflect the complexity of the world. One way to visually conceptualize it is by thinking about it as four interconnected layers. The base layer is what we do – reflecting the existing disciplines. The layer on top of that is what we can do – reflecting multi- and inter-disciplinary fields. The layer above that represents what we want to do – a reflection of the questions and lines of inquiry that we choose to pursue. And on the top rests the questions of what we must do – a reflection of the most pressing ethical issues that face our moment in history. Tethering the layers together are lines of relationship and inquiry, creating a lattice or web of connectedness and complexity.

I’m offering these reflections to both contextualize interdisciplinarity as a concept and to offer some working definitions of the ways about which people think about organizing and creating knowledge. Our lifetimes are being marked by a dramatic shift from the monoculture of the disciplines to the complexity of transdisciplinarity (or returning to the complexity of the world after a period of trying to understand things in a fractured way) and understanding these concepts will help you develop the skills to advance your creative aspirations. The arts will be in the middle of these changes because metaphor, embodiment, and intuition – long standing tools of the arts – are critical parts of the transdisciplinary lattice.

I’m also using these reflections to open up a dialogue with you about the nature of interdisciplinarity in our program. We have not, historically, required students to develop interdisciplinary practices as a requirement for graduation. Indeed, we’ve only required students to reflect a working understanding of interdisciplinarity in their portfolio – often through a definition. It’s my sense that students are increasingly less interested in taking up the invitation to think outside a narrow disciplinary focus – which feels like a lost opportunity to me. Ultimately, I think the invitation isn’t being taken up because the program hasn’t been explicit enough about the possibilities inherent within interdisciplinary practice. So, this is my effort to begin opening a conversation and to make that invitation.

I realize that my interest in these matters is tied to my aspiration to make change in the world. I understand that the arts have many uses beyond knowledge creation and distribution, including decoration and entertainment. Of course, even decoration and entertainment convey knowledge and values; so my interest in these matters also is intended to open consideration of how this happens, too.

When I was young, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “The American Scholar,” sparked my intellectual life. In it, Emerson calls out the intellectuals of his day, namely the faculty of Harvard, his teachers, for reproducing the knowledge of European scholars. He called for a distinct and new form of scholarship – by which he meant philosophy, theology, letters, and (later in an echoing essay, “The Poet”) the arts – that reflects America’s democratic project. By this, I’ve come to understand, he’s inviting us to bring our individualism and intuition into relationship with existing structures of knowledge – and to trust our innate ability to create theory. He challenges us to consider whether a life entrusted to reproducing the ideas and thinking of others is a life that’s wasted. Walt Whitman claimed that this challenge is what awakened him to writing Leaves of Grass, in doing so revolutionizing American letters.

This challenge speaks to me as an artist, too. The limitations of academic disciplines echo Emerson’s concern about the structures of European thought in the early 19th c. The possibilities of interdisciplinary practice offer me a means of thinking about the possibility of more generative ways of engaging the world.

I wonder how you might receive this challenge and might interpret the definitions I’ve offered in this letter. How do you think about these things in relation to your own creative aspirations and art practice? Where do you want to situate yourself? How are your intentions and questions relating to your artistic forms and media? Which of your questions might require you to immerse yourself in some new disciplinary, multidisciplinary, or interdisciplinary investigation? Do you feel like you’ve immersed yourself deeply enough in your disciplinary home to achieve your goals? How do you push yourself to think beyond what you already know?

These are complex and broad questions that obviously don’t have correct answers. They are meant to help you to discern where you live on the spectrum of disciplinary to transdisciplinary practice – and to help you own and embrace your location. My goal in naming them is not to prescribe the kind of artist you should be, but to help you name, claim, and achieve depth in the place you’re located.

There is more I could write on this topic, but I realize that this is a heady letter in some ways so I will leave it here. I hope that you find this useful. I look forward to hearing your reactions.

All my best, Pete

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