Paper #5: Epistemological Stance: Fragmented in the Disciplines


A fragmented academic life offers opportunity for interdependence. Credit: Joz Jimenez

In my early twenties, which feels like a lifetime ago, my then significant other told me that I was “fragmented.”  Still full of young angst, I felt insulted by her words.  I asked her to clarify, and in typical fashion, she never fully explained her declaration.  That said, I assume what she meant was that I had seeming inconsistencies in my interests: I read nineteenth-century literature but professionally worked as a word-slinging copywriter, creating ads for everything from auto parts to visual arts; listened to the Smiths, Pixies, and Cure but held down the rhythm section for a couple of praise-and-worship bands; and found comfort with conservative-leaning friends but explored liberal ideas. These supposed disparities, while mostly related to leisure and thought, set a trajectory for what was to come, not in my avocational interests but in my career within academics.

If said significant other thought I was “fragmented” twenty years ago, then she should see my career now: a full-time library and learning center administrator who teaches courses, part-time, in research, writing, and technology studies; a writing center administrator by nature but a STEM-center administrator by nurture; and an online course developer dubious of the efficacy of online instruction.  Of course, fragmentation is not only, to use Peter Elbow’s phrase, “embracing contraries,” but it is the separateness of a whole, the parts of a sum, so if I were to look at my academic life in those regards, I could add data analyst, FYC course coordinator, success coach, and lead or chair on numerous projects, from the quality enhancement plan to the common reading program. I will stop there, however, in order to spare my readers from what might be perceived as narcissism.

Readers should know, though, that I divulge a lengthy list of seemingly fragmented streams here not as a matter of conceit, but to demonstrate my full life as an academic, and while some may call this brokenness, I call it separateness, uniqueness, holiness*; and I don’t mean these labels to sound haughty or self-righteous; rather, the more separate I become, somehow the more part of something else or someone else I come to be.  This paradox is seemingly like the quote attributed to Jacques Cousteau:  “However fragmented the world [. . . ] it is an inexorable fact that we become more interdependent every day.”  Likewise, this interdependence is deeply needed within academics, especially English Studies with all of its ruptures and discord, and for me, interdependence translates into valuing interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and inclusiveness within the academy.

Primary texts in the field, like Isocrates'

Primary texts in the field, like Isocrates’ “Panegyricus” remind us of the importance of unity. Credit: Creative Commons

Julie Klein Thompson writes, “Nowhere […] is the genealogical reach of interdisciplinarity longer than it is in humanities. The underlying ideas of synthesis, holism, connectedness, and general knowledge developed in ancient Greek philosophy were transmitted throughout the history of liberal education “(3).  As part of the humanities, and with a strong foothold in tradition, through rhetorical communication and literary creativity, English Studies works best in its intersections, its common ground among the many disciplines it incorporates.  On the rhetorical side, I think of Isocrates and his call for Pan-Hellenism — political harmony among the Greek states — through the use of rhetoric, like his Panegyricus, where he writes the following: “Our duty, on the contrary, is to put aside these plottings and apply ourselves to those undertakings which will enable us both [. . . ] to feel greater confidence in one another” (Isocrates § 173).   Likewise, on the literary side, I consider Shakespeare’s peacemaking prince Escalus in Romeo and Juliet who says, “Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while / Till we can clear these ambiguities” (5.3.3190-91).  Certainly, before the research or even the presentation, the primary texts — the very subject matter of which many have grown so fond — has reminded us of the need to connect and unify, not vilify and disown. Accordingly, I have listened and will continue to comply, knowing we are better together than we are apart.

But with all that in mind, I still must ask: how can I sustain such a spirit of interdisciplinarity? Well, if my readers will allow me to indulge in some open pondering for a moment, then I would be most grateful.

First, it appears that, through collaborative projects, I could achieve greater solidarity with other faculty in the field. In fact, my object of study for this course seems like a good example of a project offering opportunity for inquiry-based research and interdisciplinary interaction. No matter if the faculty member is a literary and cultural studies guru or rhetoric and writing studies authority, if he or she is interested in helping students carry what they learned from one class to the next, then the idea of digital learning objects standing in the gap to aid in transfer is more than likely a point of inquiry that the faculty member can buy into.  The invitation only need to be made.

Through curriculum building exercises, I could also achieve interdisciplinarity.  This year I have been deeply involved in a course revitalization project for FYC, and my partner on the project only occasionally teaches FYC, but she offers significant expertise in ESL, so while developing the course was a great deal of work and sometimes full of frustration due to a short span of time to complete the project, working with this faculty member proved to be rewarding and a learning experience for me about how to approach FYC with the second-language learner in mind. This partnership may have been pre-arranged by the dean, but our open minds, and focus on common goals, like student learning and success, despite our different backgrounds, created a bond and stands as a testament to interdisciplinarity’s strengths.


Collaborating at a distance offers good opportunities for research and innovation across geographical boundaries. Credit: Kids-in-Tow

Looking at interdisciplining another way, I cannot ignore the possibilities of collaborating with others outside my home institution.  Perhaps it could be fellow students in the PhD program at ODU or a special interest group.  I can certainly see the value in this type of action, and as The Horizon Report on Higher Education says, this collaboration at a distance “is allowing universities to unite across international borders and work toward common goals concerning technology, research, or shared values” (10), creating desirable implications for new practices and greater leadership in the field, or as Andrea Lundsford and Lisa Ede remind concerning collaborative projects, they give us pause to reevaluate “not only what we are but also what we do” (qtd. in Pifer 191).

Speaking of identity and action vis-à-vis Lundsford and Ede, I have here given a roundabout address of how I would dare to define myself and my values within the field, and I essentially used my own vocabulary in the beginning, discussing how I am situated in my fragmented world of academics, but as I conclude here, I’d like to use the language found in the literature to expand my epistemological stance, for this type of fragmentation — this many parts to make a single whole — as found in community colleges and small universities is referred to as a generalist or teacher-scholar, and as Pifer points out, the generalist “turns teaching into epistemology, a way of knowing that reveals how the various subjects of research ultimately impact, transform, mutate, and rupture the illusions of its audience (our students)” (193).  Here, Pifer reminds me of something so obvious that I practically overlooked it when thinking about my beliefs and theories regarding education: students and their learning are central to my world, even as fragmented as it is, and I’m glad for that.  After all, interdisciplinarity and collaboration, as discussed here, not only offer me deep meaning, but they also, through thoughtful demonstration or declaration, are important qualities, practically in any field, for students to learn.

Works Cited

Isocrates. “Panegyricus.” Perseus Digital Library. Ed. George Norlin. Tufts University, 1980. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Johnson, Larry, et al. “Horizon Report – 2015 Higher Education Edition.” New Media Consortium, 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Klein, Julie Thompson. Humanities, Culture, And Interdisciplinarity : The Changing American Academy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Pifer, Matthew. “On The Border.” Transforming English Studies. Ed. Lori Ostergaard, Jeff Ludwig, Jim Nugent. West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2009. 179-194. Print.

Shakespeare, William.  “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.” OpenSource Shakespeare. Ed. Eric M. Johnson. George Mason University, 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.


*The Old English Dictionary defines holy as “kept or regarded as inviolate from ordinary use, and appropriated or set apart for religious use or observance; consecrated, dedicated, sacred.” Here, I am playing off the “set apart” portion of the definition.

4 thoughts on “Paper #5: Epistemological Stance: Fragmented in the Disciplines

  1. Matthew, I find comfort in your thoughtful paper. My professional work has diversified quite a bit the last few years, and though I do not know that I am necessarily a better teacher because of the infusion of ideas and research from other fields, I do feel reinvigorated when I enter classrooms. Plus, I love collaborating across disciplines and across different parts of the institutional to reduce insularity. I was telling someone the other day that our doctoral program really does give us a unique opportunity to research across institutions, and I would love to take advantage of that opportunity. I’m interested in what kinds of digital learning objects you are considering. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you for the uplifting comment, Casey. Certainly, administrative work makes us better partners and inter-disciplinarians. Now, if we can just find the time to do greater inquiry among all of the paperwork 😉

  3. Matthew,
    I immediately honed in on your statement, “the more separate I become, somehow the more part of something else or someone else I come to be.” Fragmented you are! We all are! I appreciate your connection here to the idea of the generalist we discussed last week and the future of English Studies as creating generalists. A hesitancy could be that if we are all so fragmented then does anything exist for us to grasp on to before dissolving completely? What value (if any) does the specialist have? More important, what value (if any) does the specialist have if she doesn’t collaborate?

    After reading your paper, I found myself thinking how ironic it was that I, as a student in K-12, undergraduate, and MA courses absolutely despised collaboration with others. But now, I seem to be reading about it, enacting it, and calling for its existence. Oh how our identities change! I imagine most of us who teach come across similar students – ones who hate group work and anything cooperative. How then do we encourage fragmentation in these students? How can we create spaces that call for multiple perspectives?

  4. I am finding myself with more questions than answers as we approach the end of the semester. Like you, I find myself looking forward to collaborative research, but the PhD is an endeavor in independent research (at least when we get to the dissertation). Similarly, I am torn between this notion of being a generalist while also needing to choose something to specialize in for the dissertation. I do like the idea that in our cohort we can find research partners for future endeavors.

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