On the impossibility of Trans-Disciplinary Research in Universities


A while back  ( http://malina.diatrope.com/2014/06/28/why-is-it-so-difficult-to-establish-and-run-trans-disciplinary-programs-in-universities/ ) we started a discussion initiated by Lewis Pyenson who has served twice as a university Dean and draws conclusions about the difficulties of setting up and operating inter-trans disciplinary programs in universities


At the end of this post we have a response from Sundar Sarukkai at Manipaul University in India who has also served as a dean and describes the ‘polytechnisation’ of universities in India which often have no schools of Social Science or Humanitites- and we publish here Lewi’s response


we would welcome reader commentaries which we will be publishing in the leonardo journal together with Pyenson’s text


roger malina


Why is it so difficult to establish and run Trans-disciplinary programs in Universities

We have published in Leonardo Journal an article by Lewis Pyenson.


Entitled: Realization in Arts and Sciences

Lewis Pyenson is Professor of History at Western Michigan University, and was Graduate Dean from 2006-2010.  Before then he served as Graduate Dean at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Professor of History at Université de Montréal.

After many years of experience dealing with disciplinary disputes, his conclusion is that embracing the liberal arts might best succeed under guidance from administrators who are themselves accomplished across a wide range of the humanities and the natural sciences.

Here is Sundar’s response:

Response to “Realization in Arts and Sciences”, Lewis Pyenson

Sundar Sarukkai


When art is placed within an academic context, how is it understood by non-artists? Today’s academic world is largely about disciplines that are primarily about ‘knowledge’. Generally speaking, disciplines make meaning only in contexts and this is especially true of the study of art within universities. Given that universities are programmatically aligned along the axis of particular notions of knowledge, the greatest challenge to the understanding of art in contemporary academics is the understanding of art within the context of knowledge. Literature studies now flits between anthropology, sociology, philosophy and other disciplines. This ‘mutation’ of literature and the formation of new boundaries of literature as a discipline is a response to the academic pressure of foregrounding the activity of knowledge. So it is not a surprise that the theme of ‘literature as/and knowledge’ has now become an accepted theme within literature studies.

The difficulty in making sense of art through the context of knowledge is not just an academic phenomenon but also a societal one. Public perception and response from parents and peers to art education strongly reflects this difficulty in understanding art as an academic discipline. Universities today are legitimizing themselves either through the rhetoric of creating new knowledge (as embodied in the idea of research) or through imparting certain skills. The function of art, so much still caught up in the rhetoric of giving pleasure, runs counter to the perceived functions of disciplines like science, which are seen to be primarily concerned with ‘truth’. In spite of philosophical attempts to recapture the sense of truth within art – and indeed make the truth of art more supreme to the truths of science – this project of associating truth with art remains at the academic periphery.

One of the biggest challenges to establishing meaningful art-science programs within universities lies not only in the ambiguity of this interface but also in the ambiguity in not knowing what the university really stands for today.  If the universities, as in India, for example, have become a mechanism for generating a workforce or to give functional degrees to students then it is no wonder that there is almost no presence of art-science initiatives in these places. If  universities, like in France as I was recently informed, believes that they are places not of inclusion but of exclusion (reportedly over half the students drop out of the university system in France after one or two years) then again these notions of quality and rigour influence the perception and establishment of arts education in universities. So the real issue is as much about the changing nature of global education in universities.

Increasingly, globally universities are primarily seen as producers of a workforce. Courses are becoming more specialized and more skill-based. There is a tendency for universities to polytechnicize themselves when they start offering highly specialised technical courses. The idea of polytechnic universities came as a response to the overtly knowledge-based, theoretically oriented universities education. Polytechnics were clearly seen as skill training institutions where students could be taught, for example, how to repair things, without the necessary engineering knowledge that was taught in the university. However, with the advent of new courses in universities, this distinction is being constantly put under erasure.

In India, there are clear symptoms of the polytechnization of art programs. Successful programs in art often train students in commercial art, graphic art and the like. Good students from theatre very often join the film or TV industry. These trends influence what is being taught as art and why art is being taught.

In such a scenario, three questions become important. One, what is the relevance of art education within the broad idea of contemporary university education? Two, what kind of knowledge production arises through artistic projects? Three, what kind of societal impact comes through the application of art?

I will conclude by emphasising two points. First is the role of university administrators in supporting such programs within the university. It is definitely the case that artistically-challenged administrators can be great inhibitors to such programs within a university. Although I do believe that being an artist or engaging more seriously with art is not necessary for being a sympathetic administrator, it is nonetheless useful for a person to have knowledge about art in general and also about art practice. We do not expect administrators to know economics in order to support a program in economics and the reason this is not happening with art is primarily because of the lack of knowledge about what an arts program is all about. It is not only arts that is in this position; recently, the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University (who was a scientist) went and sat in classes in literature and social sciences to evaluate what these subjects were about!

Second, art-science is still dominantly seen as an artistic practice. While there are influential texts on this subject, the discourse of art-science has still not been established as an autonomous one. For this to happen within universities, there has to be a decisive shift towards the creation of a theoretical discourse around art-science, one which will also deal with questions of knowledge inherent in these practices.




One Comment

  1. I agree with these comments. This is why I created two transdisciplinary research groups : the Group of Plasticians in 1994 & then the Plasticities Sciences Arts group (2000, see url above) to elaborate such programs. Nevertheless it begins to move in Europe, and particularly in France with the emergence of transverse programs in several universities like the Sorbonne and open schools. The High schools like ENS etc create also arts-sciences doctorates but remain elitist in their choice.
    The best,
    Marc-Williams Debono

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