An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education details the parlous state of Black Studies programs, particularly at the University of Minnesota. Some parallels with Middle East Studies are inescapable.
Established in 1969, the program is one of the oldest ones of its sort in the country. But enrollments are dropping and interest is waning: "I don't think society would take that seriously," he says. "They wouldn't be impressed." Thus spake an African American student – a freshman no less – about the University of Minnesota's Black Studies program.
Forged in the fury of the 1960s, perhaps an intellectual and social counterbalance to the stolid curriculum of the History of White People in America was called for. But the times they have a changed and the sweet smell of success doesn't exactly fill people with joy: "African-American studies has seen other academic departments at Minnesota encroach on its territory. "Everybody is poaching," says Ms. Atkins. "Women's studies is teaching African-American women's literature. History taught a survey of African history. Where does that leave us?"
Black Studies is a success story. Black history and culture are accepted and respectable concerns in mainstream academic disciplines. Why not simply declare victory? Why not move faculty into mainstream departments where they can thrive in a collaborative setting with diverse colleagues? But of course, this almost never happens, except for financial reasons, since doing so would require faculty members to give up their fiefdoms. In a Weberian sense this refusal to enter the mainstream looks like the irrationality factor, technocratic thinking applied efficiently but at odds with the rational needs of society at large. In a local sense is of course rational for bureaucracies, like Black Studies programs, or Middle East Studies programs, to try and preserve themselves, but in the larger sense, their rationale as bureaucratically separate programs is suspect.
As for all the talk of interdisciplinary this and cross-disciplinary that, I have two comments. The first was a comment from a professor of mine in college, who heard it from a professor of his in college: before you do interdisciplinary studies, you must do disciplinary ones. Discipline, in the sense of mastering a method and body of data, is one of the glaring weaknesses of interdisciplinary studies, which typically substitute ethereal theory for evidence, Middle East Studies included. The second was suggestion by a colleague of mine at Penn State: randomly shuffle office assignments yearly. Except for the problem of remembering where one's office is at any given time, this seems like the best suggestion of all.