After writing my first blog post and contemplating the project some more, I have some more clarified thoughts on the ethos of this project.
A couple of years ago, stories were circulating about Finland’s decision to scrap disciplinary learning for a more phenomena-based approach. This might look something like this: instead of having separate engineering, physics, forestry, history, philosophy, and policy courses where we address issues related to earth remote sensing satellites and earth data, we have one course that incorporates all of these subjects. Furthermore, the course wouldn’t be seated within any one particular discipline. Rather, this class would involve a holistic discussion of earth remote sensing. It might include everything from orbital mechanics to the ethics of environmental conservation and natural resource management and all nuanced subject matters in between. The idea is to break down entrenched disciplinary boundaries to explore learning phenomena in deeper ways.
Virginia Tech is already doing this, to some extent. We have 14 Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Programs (or IGEPs), all of which have broad themes (like Remote Sensing and Regenerative Medicine). And they each comprise disciplines from multiple colleges across the university, in order to address those times. All 14 IGEPs are largely STEM-based (STEM is an acronym we frequently use when we speak of any Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math-based field). That is, they begin with topics in science and engineering fields, and add folks from the humanities and the social sciences later on. Not all IGEPs have curricula, but the ones that do have a selection of courses mostly based in the STEM fields. This can make it difficult for students and faculty from non-STEM fields to participate in a way that’s fair and that speaks to the rigor of their disciplines. Many folks in the IGEPs — across all disciplines — are aware of this issue and are working hard to incorporate the humanities and the social sciences in ways that give them a seat at the table. It is difficult work. It is worthwhile work.
All IGEPs have faculty and graduate students — from STEM fields, the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts — who are both dedicated and overextended. In other words, they do this interdisciplinary work on top of all of the other grant proposals and papers and syllabi that their home disciplines already require of them. And while both students and faculty in these IGEPs work hard to create and/or participate in truly interdisciplinary discussion, we oftentimes find ourselves without a map. It is easy to promise ourselves that we will try harder to think beyond the disciplinary structures in which we are brought up; it is much more difficult to actually break the existing structures and create new ones in their place. It is particularly difficult when one’s career is dependent on one following those old structures.
This does not mean that creating truly interdisciplinary work is an insurmountable task. It can’t be. It is also not a task that is only relevant to Virginia Tech or to the institution of academia. No, interdisciplinary is a far broader issue. Just look around you: the problems that our collective futures hold for us are inherently interdisciplinary problems. We can’t address climate change or international conflicts or epidemics or broken educational systems with a single mode of thought. But we should acknowledge our predicament with honesty: we are without an interdisciplinary map, in an unyielding academic structure that favors STEM fields and quantitative social sciences over the humanities and the arts; that favors hard grants over soft funding; that favors projects chock full of results over projects filled with questions. And furthermore, I will argue that these structures, however angering, exist, at least in part, for a reason. We ought to have clear standards about what is fundable and what isn’t; we ought to be concerned with the impacts that academic research will have in the world; we ought to demand that questions ultimately beget some kind of recommendation that we can put into action and utilize in ways that we deem best (see: virtue ethics). However, we ought to think through these issues of impact and practicality differently than we do now. And we ought not assume that those in the humanities and the arts are not equipped to think through these issues in practical ways.
And so I am knitting.
Just kidding. I mean, I am knitting. But I wasn’t about to argue that knitting itself is practical.
Or was I?
I’ll pose a question to you: is knitting practical? And then I’ll pose another question: how do we go about deciding whether or not knitting is practical? First, we have to define our terms, and the conditions under which they exist. It’s impossible for me to tell you whether or not knitting is always, has always been, or will always be practical. For instance, if you are in search of an affordable blanket but big box stores don’t exist anymore in your post-apocalyptic dystopia, knitting a blanket is utterly practical. Or maybe you’re a graduate student that wants a beautiful handmade pair of gloves but can’t afford to buy a pair that are of the same quality as the ones you could make. However, if you’re looking for a way to travel from Baltimore to Kansas in in under a week, knitting a blanket or a pair of gloves won’t be of much help to you. So let’s narrow our scope a bit: Is knitting practical within the context of this dissertation side project I’ve set out to do? That’s a more reasonable question. But of course, we can’t answer that until we decide what knitting and practical mean.
I’ll lay out those terms for you, in ways that I hope will convince you of my definitions. Practical, in the instance of this project, should require that the project do something in the world, or at least within the fields in which I participate. If the project is truly practical, it will, by way of its existence and an audience’s interactions with it, change some minds and help its audiences think through problems in new and interesting ways. (Should we define new and interesting? Maybe, but I think it’s turtles all the way down. So let’s just remain on this turtle for now.) Furthermore, the project is situated within the fields of Remote Sensing and Science, Technology, and Society (STS), and Fiber Art. And so, I will put forth the notion that, if this project creates places for these fields to talk to each other in ways they could not before (in STS, we call these places trading zones), then we can accept this project as practical. I also think these tenets of practicality are relatively achievable within the scope of this project. Don’t you agree?
I would also like to point out that the definition of practical that fits this project is not the same kind of practical that fits all projects. For instance, if I apply this working definition of practical to a Boeing 737, it wouldn’t be a good situation. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to sit on a Boeing 737 that is more concerned with creating places for fiber artists and aerospace engineers to find common ground than it is with, you know, flying me to my destination in one piece. Does this mean that people who design and fly Boeing 737’s should never be able to comment on my knitting projects, and that I should never be able to comment on the fly-ability of their places? Of course not. Sign me up for any knitted airplane that I can take apart and put back together, or for a knitting pattern that teaches me about algorithms that control plane hydraulics. Sign me up for a knitting that helps us think through issues of aerospace engineering, and an aerospace engineering that helps us to think through the technicalities of knitting. But sign me up for these projects under the right circumstances. Just as my project’s working definition of practicality shouldn’t apply to all situations, I urge those who are reading this and are questioning its use or practicality to ask yourselves: what is your definition of practicality, anyway? Is it one that is situated within this project, or one that originates from somewhere else? And if it originated somewhere else, why should we equivocate it with the working definition in this project?
I think I am trying to find a new language for the ways in which we might decide where to put boundaries around issues of interdisciplinary, and where we want disciplines to interfere (in the diffractive and productive sense, rather than the destructive and oppositional sense) with each other. We should carefully consider our definitions and contexts of practicality. That way, we don’t find ourselves sitting on a Boeing 737 filled with yarn-covered aerospace engineers, spiraling into oblivion, or receiving blankets made of bracing wire as gifts, forcing us to pretend they are snuggly and warm when they are actually injuring us. This practicality should allow us to diffract aerospace engineering and fiber arts through each other in the best possible configurations.
Which brings me to another question, my very first question: why knit the world? I’ve outlined a couple of reasons in this post: (1) to put seemingly disparate disciplines into conversation with each other in new ways, and to explore new configurations of interdisciplinary thought; (2) to experiment with phenomena-based thinking and learning in a fun and low-stakes project that doesn’t involve grant money or overextended faculty and graduate students (except for this overextended graduate student and some guidance from her overextended colleagues and mentors); (3) to show you that even something as simple as a knit square can involve a multitude of theories, techniques, and legacies that span the interdisciplinary spectrum (by way of reasons 1 and 2). These reasonings don’t provide a complete answer to the question, of course. But what ever does?