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Resisting expertise

As I read more on interdisciplinarity, learn more about it through my daily work, talk more to colleagues who do fascinating interdisciplinary work and lead fascinating interdisciplinary lives, there is pressure on me to become an expert in the discipline of interdisciplinarity.

There is something obviously ridiculous about this, and I am resisting.

Although I think that so far I am right to resist in this case, it forces me to reflect on what might be perceived as a lack of intellectual commitment on my part. Why do I appear to want to hold on to as wide a vision as possible? Is this lack of committing to one academic discipline simply a form of adolescent insistence on ‘freedom’, the same impulse that stops many of us committing to marriage or to a career? Is this, on the other hand, a type of commitment to the very generalism which I have criticized as being too diffuse and which risks being too superficial? Looked at negatively, it certainly looks something like that.

In almost daily fits of soul-searching I feel compelled to confess to colleagues – many of whom probably couldn’t care less – that I do not have a PhD, as if this needs a firm and full apology in an intellectual setting. There is no doubt that a PhD is a mark of great achievement. It is tough, lonely, often repetitive, often frustrating, frequently demanding and it should require one to ‘make an original contribution to human knowledge’ – which, of course, sounds wonderful and significant.

When I look at my own life, the reason I think that I never did a PhD is that the only thing I might possibly have wanted to do a PhD in was theoretical physics, and I don’t think I was quite good enough: not good enough to do anything worthwhile by my own standards. No doubt these standards were stupidly, self-defeatingly high – especially when one sees people of less ability going on to do perfectly good PhDs in the subject – but those are the reasons I give myself: I was not good enough in the area of theoretical physics to do something significant. Much more recently I was teetering on the brink of doing a PhD in philosophy – particularly in the aesthetics of mathematics – but this job came along. Now I am recently enrolled, in fact, in a PhD in Cardiff – in something to do with the Sociology of Higher Education – but I am not clear at all where this is going or even, frankly, if it will go.

For really, for things I am interested in: philosophy, political economy, music, literature, politics, sociology, future of employment, sport – I just don’t see the point of becoming the sort of expert that is badged by the PhD. I’m sure others do, but I don’t. It does not seem to me that one gets the kind of depth one is looking for by narrowing one’s focus in these areas. And PhDs certainly require you to narrow your focus.

It seems to me that an understanding of philosophy is best informed by reading (and, indeed, experiencing!) very widely, an understanding of literature is best informed by reading well outside novels and poetry, in history, philosophy and science – and so on.

And now it seems to me that a deep understanding of interdisciplinarity is likely to be best achieved by continuing to read political economy, literature, history of higher education, philosophy of education, sociology of employment – in fact, pretty much everything, as everything can be part of an interdisciplinary project (!) – and not focus too much on interdisciplinarity as an academic subject.

There is a general trend in academia, which in turn feeds out through the media, to academicize – admittedly horrible word, but useful, and I would like to coin it!; to academicize  things which do not benefit from being treated in a technical, academic matter. The most obvious examples of these are the bits of research – often paraded gleefully in the media – which just confirm trivial things that everybody knows: ‘research shows that heterosexual men find young, pretty women more sexually desirable than old, ugly ones’; ‘research shows that crossing the road with your eyes closed increases your chances of being killed’ and so on. But there is a continuum between these sorts of pieces of research through to those minutely detailed studies of one aspect of one writer in one period of her life or to irradiating one particluar worm with one particular frequency of light to see if it responds more or less in specific, identifiable ways to radiation by another frequency of light.

This is a parody, of course. Academia is where the great, life-changing, historic research still goes on. It is not too portentous to say that future of mankind is likely to be bound up in this research. But it is difficult to entangle the brilliant worthwhile experts and researchers from the drones and pedants. And better not to risk being a drone or a pedant if you are not sure you have something truly significant and worthwhile to say.

The other way to look at it is addressed in my blog 10,000 hours . Perhaps the expertise I am in some ways seeking is not strictly academic expertise. It may be intellectual, it may be pedagogic, but it is not the expertise defined by the PhD or some other forms of specialism. Such alternative expertise is legitimate and justified – as I say in that previous blog – but it will require me to think how I integrate it into a world-class university such as UCL and justify it in a culture which has historically had a different view of a particular type of expertise and its endorsement.

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