Transcending disciplinary divisions

While the primary divisions that I’m exploring here focus on stereotypes that divide us, 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, I just went to Netrooots Nation in July 2014; it’s considered the biggest progressive conference of the year with thousands of participants. However, I didn’t meet one other college professor there, despite the fact that many college faculty would have been 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. I’m honored to have my first opportunity to share my work at a conference of critical race theorists, at UCLA Law School in October 2014. While I have shared my research at literature conferences, I’m excited to have the chance to get feedback from legal scholars whose work I have been reading for over a decade.

My book project, much like my course on “Race in American Literature and Popular Culture,” brings together the best of various disciplines in order to provide a toolbox of theories that can be used to understand how systemic racism and economic inequality operate, especially in the context of the divide and conquer strategies I’m exploring. I present these theories, from the social construction of race (from the legal studies field of critical race theory) to ideology (from philosophy and cultural studies), in reader-friendly explanations so the reader can understand the complexity of the divide and conquer phenomenon. I think it’s important that we bring together the work of legal scholars, cultural and media studies scholars, historians, literary scholars, sociologists, and economists in order to see the best ideas and the most powerful ways of fighting racism and inequality.

I hope this blog can be a place where people who care about racial and economic justice can come together, regardless of whether they are professors, scholars, activists, or general readers.

One thought 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.


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