Faculty Perspective: Interdisciplinary Humanities – a grand old Scripps tradition

by Tony Crowley, Hartley Burr Alexander Professor in the Humanities

Tony Crowley and Clio Korn

I knew about Scripps and its distinctive curriculum before I arrived on campus for my interview, but once I started to talk to prospective colleagues, I soon realized, as many people do, that there was something very special about this place. Others have their own reasons for finding Scripps attractive, but my interest was stimulated by the Core Curriculum and the Humanities Major in Interdisciplinary Studies in Culture. Forget the beautiful landscape, the modern facilities, the blend of tradition and innovation, the outstanding students, the great colleagues, the soccer pitch also known as Jaqua Quad… It was the opportunity to work in interdisciplinary studies in the humanities that brought me to Scripps.

What I didn’t understand until I actually arrived is that the Core and the humanities major are directly linked — both historically and intellectually. Originally designed 10 years ago to cater to the interests of a number of students who wanted to pursue the issues and ideas raised in the Core program, the development and success of the major (26 students declared in the field this year with 12 graduating seniors) indicates that there is a clear demand among our students for the type of interdisciplinary education that will enable them to analyze and engage with the local, national, and international aspects of our globalized world.

Teaching the humanities major is fascinating and fun for a number of reasons. First, it takes as its object of study the topic that has dominated intellectual life in the humanities in modernity — culture. From anthropology to history, sociology to English literature, language study to political science, the recognition that we are the subjects of culture and cultures has completely transformed our knowledge of ourselves and our sense of our place in the world. We are now aware of both the complexity of the cultures we inhabit and the opportunities and dangers we face. And if anything can be said to characterize the humanities major, it is precisely a focus on the possibilities and difficulties of our contemporary historical situation.

Another reason why the humanities major is so exciting is the emphasis on interdisciplinarity, which is built into the structure of the degree. The intricacies of culture and cultures can’t be studied simply from within a particular discipline, but require a genuinely interdisciplinary approach — a willingness not just to cross intellectual borders but to breach them and extend them. And that is what we seek to foster in our students — a mode of intellectual honesty and confidence that encourages the creative scepticism which will allow them to challenge the accepted boundaries of knowledge. Once instilled with that turn of mind, through the required introductory courses in theory and method and the interdisciplinary humanities options, the students in the major are then well-equipped to study disciplinary topics that complement their interests and prepare them to focus on their thesis.

My final reason for finding the humanities major exciting and rewarding is that it allows me to participate in an example of Scripps collaboration at its best. I get to work with a set of colleagues drawn from different disciplines, all experienced teachers of Core I, who come together voluntarily to teach the degree. It would not be possible without the invaluable contributions of Andrew Aisenberg (history), Roswitha Burwick (German), Marc Katz (German), Marina Pérez de Mendiola (Hispanic studies), Nathalie Rachlin (French), David Roselli (classics), and Cheryl Walker (English).

I suppose one way of accounting for the interdisciplinarity of the humanities major is to see it as a reflection of the significant recent shift in scholarly method that has taken place internationally. But there is another way of thinking about it.

Although the term wasn’t used in those days (its first use dates from the 1970s), interdisciplinarity has been at the heart of the Scripps education since the inception of the College—part of what has made the place unique. In that sense then, rather than being a radical innovation, the humanities major is simply a continuation of a grand old Scripps tradition. Given the problems and complexity of our present moment in history, it’s one we should embrace, celebrate, and cultivate.

Above: Professor Tony Crowley and Clio Korn in Holden Court. In early April, Korn, a junior, learned she had been awarded a Goldwater scholarship, the nation’s premier scholarship for undergraduates studying science and mathematics; Korn is pursuing a double major in humanities and in cellular and molecular neuroscience.


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