Transcending disciplinary divisions

Or, Part 2 on Why and How I Started this Blog & Website

August 13, 2014:

While I explore a variety of divide and conquer strategies used to perpetuate systemic racism, I think it’s also important to acknowledge that boundaries between scholarly disciplines also keep us divided. There is so much valuable scholarship being done in many different fields with the same goal of addressing systemic racism and economic inequality, yet disciplinary divisions often keep these scholars from being aware of each others’ work and communicating about it. Academic conferences can be especially narrowly focused on just one discipline. While it’s important for scholars in a specific field to gather and discuss their scholarship, I think we need to develop ways of having more conversations that transcend these boundaries. Furthermore, conferences seem to attract either college faculty or activists who are not college faculty rather than both, even when they all have the same common goals of dismantling systemic racism and economic inequality. For example, Netrooots Nation, considered the biggest progressive conference of the year with thousands of participants, attracts very few college educators, despite the fact that many would be interested in the panels and discussions.

I have been trying to address these disciplinary boundaries for over a decade. I wrote my English PhD dissertation on the connections that I saw between contemporary American women novelists and Critical Race Theorists (who are legal scholars). I was surprised that literary scholars didn’t talk about Critical Race Theory and Critical Race Theorists didn’t talk about literature, when they all seemed to have so much in common. The Critical Race Theorists are generally all law professors, and their work does generally not get discussed much in English departments, but their work is powerful and valuable to all of us trying to understand systemic racism and end it. When I go to Critical Race Theory conferences, most of the participants are in the legal field, despite how much their work would appeal to an interdisciplinary audience.

I believe that the boundaries between academic disciplines make it especially hard for valuable scholarship to reach a general audience. If scholars are not working with each other across disciplines, is it any surprise that their work is often not reaching readers outside of academia?

In my course on race (both the college version and the community version), I try to bring together various disciplines (history, sociology, literature, science, anthropology, cultural studies, ethnic studies, American Studies, working class studies, and more) that collectively provide the most powerful and insightful analysis of systemic racism. My upcoming book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox, supports this work with an interdisciplinary introduction to understanding race and racism, with tools for action. My goal is to present important and much-needed scholarship on race to introductory college students and the general reader in an accessible and meaningful way.

We need to figure out better ways to connect scholars from different disciplines all fighting for racial justice together and in turn to connect them to K-12 educators, activists, organizers, and community members who are similarly fighting for racial justice.

3 thoughts on “Transcending disciplinary divisions

  1. This sounds wonderful, Karen! I look forward to the book as well. As an academic and policy researcher, I encounter this divide of the ivory tower, professionals in the field and policymakers all the time. We often have similar end goals but our needs along the way too frequently get in the way of productive collaboration. (i.e. Rigorous, publishable academic research methods don’t usually fit the timeline of the legislative sessions and time constraints of the policy work but having solid findings based in scientific study is also important…and obtaining funding for both is another behemoth task.) But, as you say, we really must find ways to bring aspects of these disciplines/people/struggles together for the sake of our world.


  2. Karen-
    Have you considered a free “get woke” course for all of us “Karens”? I’m a retired professor with a lifetime of social justice work frustrated and looking to help bring humility/ knowledge/ collaborative change — There just isn’t a singular place to help those who are searching to look within at our own intrinsic racism and to discover meaningful ways to act for social justice.
    I’ve had several interprofessional education & training grants and I’m here to help
    Jane Mohler


    • Thank you so much for your comment Jane. Yes, I’ve been participating in that type of antiracism trainings/workshops/discussion groups for several years in NJ. We’ve been transitioning from in person to online during the pandemic, but either way, this work is critical. And, as I’m sure you know, a one-time workshop or training doesn’t work in isolation – the work must be sustained. As a white person who has been doing this for many years, I’m still learning and always growing. Let’s stay in touch.


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