Book By: Jerry Jacobs
Review By: Kay Hamada
Colleges of Arts & Sciences Student Academic Services
University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

In the book In Defense of Disciplines, Dr. Jerry Jacobs sets out to critically examine arguments against academic disciplines and counter the popular belief that interdisciplinary programs are a “panacea” for the issues cited.  A running theme throughout this text is disciplines are not completely isolated from each other: “the notion that disciplines are hermetically sealed silos can be laid to rest” (p.99). The author uses clear and specific examples including broadness of liberal arts disciplines, research citations, interdisciplinary research centers, and adapted research approaches to illustrate the abundance of outlets to promote communication and knowledge-sharing across disciplines. A key point is interdisciplinarity does not rely on the formation of interdisciplinary academic programs; it is established through shared ideas and collaboration appropriate to the task or problem.

Throughout his discussion, Jacobs presents the essential inquiry of how interdisciplinarity is defined.  Using theoretical and real-world paradigms, Jacobs points out that “interdisciplinary” is not by design synonymous with “integration” or “broadness” as is commonly assumed. Furthermore, Jacobs presents the paradox of interdisciplinary programs’ reliance on traditional disciplines (e.g., for PhD alumni, finding teaching positions in parallel disciplines). Jacobs notes that the history and longevity of established disciplines is a significant strength to both students and faculty/researchers, and that disciplines are not indubitably stagnant but dynamic. Jacobs highlights the importance of the liberal arts disciplines to illustrate the lasting benefits of progressing previously established programs. He states, “Liberal Arts disciplines are uniquely valuable because they take the long-term as well as the short-term view” and “Disciplines create the intellectual space for scholars and researchers to ask deep questions, to take the longer view, and to make extensive investments in learning that pay off not in months or years but over the course of careers” (p. 224). Through this approach, Jacobs implicates the importance of creating coherent links in curricula and applicability of lessons for students as life-long learners.

While Jacobs critiques interdisciplinary programs by observing problematic aspects, he does not imply that interdisciplinary programs are “bad” or insoluble.  Instead, this work is a reflection on the complex processes and deep consideration necessary in creating, maintaining and strengthening programs, which presents lessons in the effects of interdisciplinarity (both positive and critical) on the institution, its employees and students. In short, Jacobs counsels that curricular issues and arguments against disciplines be revisited and reframed, and the argument of interdisciplinary programs as a successful reformation be closely re-examined.

In Defense of Disciplines encourages further discussion regarding the intersections of disciplines and invites readers to reconsider institutional and literary definitions of interdisciplinarity. Jacobs’s work also encourages recognizing the value of disciplines and seeking ways to further reinforce their strengths.  By presenting a historical perspective of disciplines and interdisciplinary programs, Jacobs’s study reminds readers of the long-term impact of academic programs, not only for students but also in the careers of those employed by the institution, such as academic advisors. While readers may not agree with all of Jacobs’s conclusions, a relatable message he presents is the need to fully understand problems and consider alternative solutions that utilize existing frameworks rather than simply replacing them—solutions that may be just as effective if not more in meeting the needs of students and the institution.

In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and specialization in the research university. (2014). Book by Jerry Jacobs. Review by Kay Hamada. University of Chicago Press. 288 pp. $30.00, (paperback). ISBN #978-0-226-06932-6.

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