Reading for this week, I was reminded of an op-ed in The New York Times that came out at least a couple of years ago. Like a lot of op-eds in this paper, it was about declining higher education: wherefore and what to do (I cannot find it anywhere, but swear to its existence). This particular article was about breaking down silo modeled departments in favor of topic oriented majors. The example it used was water. A student could learn about water crises historically and anthropologically, use poli-sci to get into the politics of fresh water distribution, and of course learn the science of water treatment, geology and geography of watershed, you get the idea. It is intriguing and, I think, not unlike the siloed model it seeks to replace, problematic.
The question of how to divide areas of inquiry (in or out of academia) is interesting to consider alongside Steve’s article on, among other things, the implications of causality in the construction of chronologies. Taxonomies, like timelines, come with assumptions, and any delineation means a potential leaving off or flattening. I wonder what work they do together. We of course already consider the what and not simply the when in constructing a timeline, but I think it is useful, if also a bit daunting, to consider how the boundaries of the subject matter have been demarcated. Which is to say, the subject matter and also the frame around that subject matter that makes it seem to all fairly naturally belong.
The issue I have with the water idea is that is geared to ‘solve the world’s problems,’ which seems increasingly to mean that historically contingent situations with real human actors can be reduced to a language of engineering and that all challenges are equally design challenges. Could a timeline help? Could it take the pinpoint of an issue and extend it back to a more complex understanding? Can interdisciplinary questions create, if not better, than at least, diverse chronologies? Of course timelines are by their nature history, but which histories bear relevance to one another seems to still be a fairly open field. Some of the suggestions in the reading highlight the ways in which the digital could be especially useful in thinking through these questions.