Columbia University

Communications and Calendars


Akeel Bilgrami and Nicholas Dirks Receive Mellon Disciplines Award

Office of the President

June 26, 2007

Dear Colleagues,

As we are easing into the summer months, I would like to announce a Mellon Foundation award Akeel Bilgrami, Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities, and I received for a Disciplines Project (conducted with a consortium of institutions made up of the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and Cambridge University) that we believe will be of interest to many of you. 

In comparison to many of its peers, Columbia has been slow to stretch the boundaries of its basic disciplinary structures.  The limitations posed by the disciplines themselves have been exacerbated in recent years by some of the prevailing national trends in disciplinary method and focus.  For instance, many of the core social science disciplines have been increasingly preoccupied with modeling and mathematically rigorous method, in place of more traditional empirical and area studies.  While the increasing sophistication of work in disciplines such as economics, political science, and sociology has furthered some forms of interdisciplinary work, it has also been held to account for the lessening of ties with other disciplines that have been more preoccupied with specific linguistic, cultural, and historical knowledge.    

On the flip side, regional studies departments such as EALAC (East Asian Languages and Cultures) and MEALAC (Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures) have provided institutional spaces for significant interdisciplinary innovation, even as the peripheral character of area studies has muted the larger impact of this innovation and hardened divisions between core disciplines and those concerned with global affairs.  In a similar vein, the changing character of the world has raised questions about the future of departments in the humanities that focus on the literature and language of a single nation state, or that restrict their focus to discrete parts of the world even when claiming universality.  At the same time, new disciplinary concerns have relegated discussions of value increasingly to humanistic disciplines rather than the whole spectrum of arts and sciences departments where they used to flourish.

We hope that the Disciplines Project will provide an opportunity to assess the state of our core disciplines, to reevaluate the long-standing disciplinary divisions that in many ways no longer correspond to many of our research agendas, and to re-assess the relationship between regional studies (whether Italian or Chinese) and the disciplines.  The purpose here is not to celebrate interdisciplinary projects simply because they are “interdisciplinary.”  Indeed, the call to interdisciplinarity has signally failed to change the disciplines in fundamental respects.  To shed light on these issues, our investigation will consider the international nature of the disciplines as well, by examining the differences between disciplinary definitions and boundaries in a range of world regions.

To lay the groundwork, we will organize and chair a set of workshops, over four years, focusing on the state of specific disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.  These will be like departmental retreats, with a few invited guests from other departments at Columbia as well as from Berkeley, Chicago, and Cambridge, that will involve collective discussion about the future of each discipline and its relationship to changing knowledge in the University at large and across the globe.  In addition, the Heyman Center for the Humanities will organize a set of seminars that will include, but not be limited to, an examination of the linkages between area studies and the disciplines, normative reflections on the philosophical implications of the social and natural sciences, changing configurations of disciplinary and interdisciplinary alignment within the liberal arts and sciences as well as with professional schools, and the larger challenges of globalization in the context of our effort to become a genuinely global university.

We hope that this project serves as a stepping stone to reassess the core academic disciplines and that the conversations fostered here will continue within and across disciplinary departments, centers, and institutes.  With the support of the Mellon Foundation, we can investigate possibilities for real institutional change, across both the humanities and social sciences, not just at Columbia but in a number of peer institutions.
As you will see, the scope of this project and its implications are substantial and we can only hope that this will spark a fruitful and long-lasting conversation. 

As we embark on this endeavor, we will need your participation and cooperation, and will keep you updated on our planning.

I hope you enjoy the warm summer months.

Best regards,

Nicholas B. Dirks
Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology and History
Vice President for Arts and Sciences
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences