The Next Phase Has Commenced: Mellon Bets Big on Interdisciplinary Scholarship

Way back in 2001, The Onion published an article titled "Starbucks To Begin Sinister 'Phase Two' Of Operation." The piece played on the idea the coffee chain's massive expansion signalled that something more insidious and dystopian was afoot:

After a decade of aggressive expansion throughout North America and abroad, Starbucks suddenly and unexpectedly closed its 2,870 worldwide locations Monday to prepare for what company insiders are calling "Phase Two" of the company's long-range plan.

Now we don't mean to equate the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's "Big Vision" for the humanities with Starbucks, but there are parallels between the two, considering that the foundation's recent higher ed funding priorities fit methodically into its larger conceptual framework. They're a disciplined bunch.

For further evidence, we turn to Williamsburg, Virginia, where the foundation, in conjunction with William & Mary University, announced the first six teams of W. Taylor Reveley III Interdisciplinary Fellows. The fellowship, funded by a $2.6 million grant from Mellon, recognizes projects focused on "integrative and interdisciplinary teaching, as well as research and scholarship components."

Teams will receive an annual stipend for three years (or phases, if you will). The first year (phase?) will be devoted to course development, while years two and three will focus on course instruction. And so the fellowship homes in on this idea of "interdisciplinary scholarship" in a fast-evolving academic landscape where the conventional idea of the "humanities" and "liberal arts" seem increasingly antiquated.

So what, precisely, does "interdisciplinary scholarship" look like? And how can it adapt these ideas to a collaborative, digital age? For an answer, let's look at some of the winning projects.

One such project, led by Daniel Parker, associate professor of English and linguistics, and Maurits van der Veen, associate professor of government, aims to educate students in the humanities and social sciences around "big data." Specifically, they plan to create a course for these students that helps them to develop the skills to collect, process, and analyze vast collections of texts, without requiring prior programing skills.

The benefit of such a course is evident, but we'll mention it anyway. "Big data" has become pervasive, but for the most part, its handling and management generally falls within the purview of computer science students. Liberal arts students get shut out, which is problematic when they attempt to enter a workforce where most sectors rely on big data.  

Another project involves creating a research agenda and undergraduate course that "opens up students to study a subject with no clear disciplinary boundaries." Another calls for creating a course that focuses on the ways in which cultural products — film, literature, political discourse — craft and reflect society’s overall understanding of both race and education.

Bottom line? Mellon understands that academic fields like the liberal arts and scholarship have traditionally been siloed away from other disciplines. This model might have made sense in 1978 or even 1998, but not today, when information from all corners flows endlessly and the lines between the "liberal arts" and things like big data, race, and social and environmental science blur. Its a model they're actively seeking to change.

"The Next Phase," in other words, has commenced. Don't say you weren't warned.