When you transition from faculty to administration, you tend to go to conferences focused on institutional questions – assessment, retention, general education, equity, and so on. It is not often that a dean or provost has the opportunity to attend a conference in their discipline, so it is wonderful treat when we do. This past weekend, I spent some time with friends old and new at the annual conference of the Institute of General Semantics, and thoroughly enjoyed the thinking it provoked.
General Semantics is one of the roots of the development of the field communication. It focuses on how language shapes our realities and how a more precise use of language might improve our understandings of all that we encounter. Inspired by Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, general semantics asks us to consider the frames our words are setting (and therefore what is outside of the frame), the level of detail we are choosing (and therefore what details we will ignore), and the impact of time on what we are defining (noting that people and things change from time 1 to time 2). There’s much more, of course, but at its core, this is an optimistic field; there is an assumption that we can improve our circumstances, relationships, and experiences through a more precise and thoughtful examination of the words we use.
IGS attracts an eclectic group of artists, philosophers, mathematicians, and communication scholars. Making sense of the myriad ideas and arguments presented is often a challenge because of that diversity. I enjoyed the presentations by people most closely aligned with my field, particularly Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker’s observations about the links between flashmobs and the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Drucker’s expertise in law and language was particularly compelling. I was also intrigued by the work of Eva Berger as she explored ideas about the ways in which ideas of the self are reshaped (erased?) by the focus on the performative self (selfies and TikTok). Her arguments evoke the work of Marshall McLuhan in the linking of our media not just to cultural practice but to the development of the biological self. But as I endeavored to understand the work presented by the scientists, mathematicians, and artists there, I found myself leaping to the institutional questions that are my focus as an administrator.
The ability to make sense of ideas and arguments developed in diverse contexts from varied perspectives seems to me to be the fundamental purposes of education. We start with our children, explaining that there are clusters of ideas called history, science, literature, religion, and so on, and those ideas explore different questions about the world. In teaching them that these are distinct categories, we put a frame around clusters of learning, helping to organize paths to understanding within those frames.
We also (inadvertently) erect the barriers to connecting ideas across fields. It is rare that we make the space for our K-12 educators to bridge the divides between fields, as we have organized them into class times devoted to each topic. On occasion, a school will coordinate learning in a connected way – by selecting literature, history, and religious texts of the same era across classes. A very creative school might also find a way to weave science into this strategy, but mostly, we separate science from this kind of thinking. We quickly discover that we have not just organized clusters of ideas, we’ve established things called disciplines.
In higher education, we follow the same pattern, dividing things by discipline and major. We are exceedingly proud of ourselves when we manage to link the topics in two courses together, but most of the time students experience their education in course-based structures, occasionally making connections to other courses. This habit of dividing up the learning territory is deemed a necessary element of education, in order to give adequate attention to detail in one’s area of expertise. Surely there is an element of truth to that need, but as I worked hard to draw connections between ideas at the IGS conference, I wondered if we were overdoing those divisions.
Higher education has been reflecting on those divisions of late, most often under two conditions: interdisciplinarity and austerity. These conditions are not mutually exclusive. Interdisciplinarity of subjects seems to be emerge fields evolve. At WCSU, we have a relatively new degree in Digital and Interactive Media Arts, which draws together expertise in film and video, graphic design, and computer science (three separate departments). Professions associated with digital media evolved in such a way that these disciplines had to collaborate to better serve our students. We also have a degree called Interdisciplinary Studies that allows students to make connections for themselves. A student in Justice and Law Administration, for example, may wish to reimagine their degree with connections to history or literature. These new combinations may help us see the emergence of new areas of expertise or just demonstrate the eclectic ways that ideas can come together.
Under conditions of austerity, we see waning interests in long established disciplines driving thinking about new combinations of ideas and disciplines. This change is more disconcerting than those that come when we see new patterns of interest. The apparent loss of interest in any discipline is disheartening at best. I won’t try to pretend that it is easy to move from that loss to invention; it is not. But in those losses there is the opportunity to remind ourselves that all disciplines have emerged from other disciplines, and all have changed over time. Perhaps, we are not so much at a moment of loss, but instead, we are undoing the borders (walls/silos) we have created.
What would be even more exciting, though, is not just to engage in the slow process of realignment of ideas and expertise into new combinations. That is exciting, to be sure, with lots of room for interesting collaborations. But perhaps this moment is an opportunity to be more bold and try to reorganize college around the connections between ideas, instead of separations.
I think that connecting ideas might be what we wanted to have happen in the first place, but we got distracted by the names of subjects and structures of departments. K-12 did the work of establishing the broad categories of learning, the map of knowledge if you will. College is the opportunity to help our students understand just how far those categories are from the lived experience of trying to understand anything at all. Experience always reveals that a single disciplinary perspective will help us solve nothing at all.
Those useful maps of disciplines that allow our partners in primary and secondary education lay a foundation for learning are not very useful after those foundations are in place. Just as the alphabet must disappear if we are to achieve fluency as readers, so should the disciplinary boundaries disappear if we are to become fluent thinkers. Maybe college is where we can learn that the map of knowledge we have encountered so far, is not the territory in which we live and learn at all.