Distinguished Interdisciplinary Scholar’s Presentation:


The Interdisciplinary Play


Gordon M. Burghardt

May 1, 2003






I was honored to receive the award last year and hope that my remarks tonight do not lead you to wish to rescind it.  What I would like to do is to weave back and forth among three general topics: my own background in interdisciplinary studies, ruminations on the nature of interdisciplinary studies and the people who partake in them most assiduously, and my own current work on the nature and origins of playfulness. Since I view interdisciplinarity as a cousin to intermodality, I will incorporate visual as well as auditory stimuli, even some video clips, to make, and particularly to reinforce, my points, especially about play.  As this will be later in the talk it is timed to take hold about the time your interest in read words flags – for the same reason we serve more visually appealing and sweet foods at the end of a meal and call it dessert.


            Up until I received the award there had been 10 annual awards given and speeches presented.  Four of these are available in written form on the University Studies web site beginning with Neil Greenberg’s, who received the first such award in 1992, and more recent ones by Anne Mayhew, Beauvais Lyons, and Al Burstein. I read them all and found them both fascinating and diverse in style.  All in their own way reflected a particular view of the nature of interdisciplinary work.  I am reminded of the first conference I was invited to participate in 1968 titled Chemical Communication in Animals.  I was asked to participate because the organizer had seen a paper I had published in Science in 1967 based on my dissertation studies on how snakes identified potential prey using chemical cues, even if they were neonates that had never eaten before in their lives. I was proud to be invited to this interdisciplinary gathering of chemists, zoologists, ecologists, biochemists, sensory biologists, psychophysical psychologists, and ethologists.  The chapter that I wrote for the resulting volume turned out to be perhaps my most cited publication.  But I felt somewhat out of place because I could not see that the work I was doing was on communication – after all, why would a fish signal to a snake that it was a delectable meal?  So, I raised the issue of the need to perhaps define what we mean by communication.  I still remember a noted primatologist who arose and vehemently said that that was a waste of time: he knew what was communication when he saw it.  When a baboon female presents her rear to a male, there was no question that she was communicating and what the subject was! Fortunately, others also were not so sure this solved the problem and the editors asked me to write a separate introductory chapter on how we, in fact, recognize and define communication.  This concern with trying to come to a better understanding of a term we often use as if we know what we are talking about has concerned me throughout my career and I have turned my attention to a number of controversial concepts over the years including animal awareness and consciousness, anthropomorphism, instinct and innate behavior, and, most recently, play. 


Now the reason I recounted this story is that it seems to me that what is an interdisciplinary study or approach also often is viewed in the same way that the primatologist viewed communication: We know it when we see it.  Now I feel strongly that such a view is as intellectually lazy as using the same words, “I know it when I see it” to identify obscenity or art or beauty.  I know that there is enduring controversy as to what is history by historians.  The fact that our conception of history is shifting and changing does not negate the value of the inquiry into its nature; the kind of questioning that goes back to not only the ancient Greek philosophers but even earlier, including as I will point out later, the Hebrew Bible.


So, what does it mean to do interdisciplinary work or to be an interdisciplinary scholar?  I think the broad conception of these as exemplified in the work of University Studies is pragmatic and useful, especially while we are a small cadre in the university army composed of units each marching to different drumbeats and in different directions.  However, I also think that we need to reflect on what constitutes interdisciplinary work or, perhaps better, the different kinds of interdisciplinary work taking place in universities.  Clearly, University Studies has no monopoly on interdisciplinarity at UT.  One of our major roles is to encourage grass roots efforts by faculty and to incubate innovative efforts in an environment buffered from the stresses, demands, indeed selection pressures, to which endeavors viewed as peripheral to the main mission of departments and programs are often subjected.  Nevertheless, since I arrived here in 1968 I became involved in several interdisciplinary projects and, in fact arrived with a strong interest in combining insights and methods from different fields. 


I began college as a chemistry major with chemistry and reptiles, especially snakes, my major loves along with literature and music.  As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago I discovered a novel interdisciplinary major called Biopsychology and finally, as a junior, got up the courage to switch majors and never looked back after my first course with Eckhard Hess.  I ended up staying at Chicago for my PhD in Biopsychology also and did my dissertation, as mentioned earlier, on chemoreception in snakes, where I could combine my interests in chemistry, animal behavior, and reptiles.  Furthermore, my undergraduate Chicago education in the original sources non-textbook tradition introduced me to the value of the historical, conceptual, and methodological richness to be found in seminal thinkers in various fields.  So began my hobby, most professionally rewarding, of collecting and actually reading old tomes on natural history, animal behavior, psychology, and virtually all aspects of the evolution of the foibles, vicissitudes, and diversity among both human and nonhuman animals.  A good way to spend a boring night is to get me to start pulling my books from shelves in the several rooms full of old books and journals in my home. 


In fact, after receiving my degree at Chicago in 1966 I began teaching there in interdisciplinary team taught courses in biology and biology of behavior.  The first independent course I developed and taught was devoted to all the behavior writings of Charles Darwin, which at that time had been sadly neglected.  In retrospect, my interest in evolution as an integrating principle and framework for looking at almost every facet of human experience began with the Darwin Centennial celebration of the publication of the Origins of Species held at the University of Chicago in 1959.  Not only were diverse experts in almost all fields represented I even got to see and hear John Scopes (a premonition of my then unforeseen future in Tennessee).  The conference was not without controversy, especially when that Sunday’s sermon at the University’s Rockefeller Chapel was given by the renowned biologist, ethological pioneer, and UNESCO diplomat Julian Huxley, author of Religion without Revelation. 


When I left Chicago to come to Tennessee it was because of the charismatic and interdisciplinary vision of Bill Verplanck, who had already established a jointly taught and cross-listed animal behavior laboratory and lecture course involving faculty in psychology and zoology and had even hired faculty from England, Switzerland, and South Africa, one of whom had been a student of Niko Tinbergen’s, who later won a Nobel Prize.  Besides that course, I was invited to participate in an interdisciplinary course in Urban Studies that involved not only me and Harold Fine in psychology but faculty from Planning, Sociology, Political Science, Business, and even Agriculture. In fact, the latter representative was Frank Leuthold, who a number of years later ran for Knox County Commission and only recently retired after a very long tenure.  My main approach to this course was to use the zoo as a metaphor for urban life, and indeed, much more than a metaphor, a rather frightening simile.  This course was taught for several years well before University Studies existed and may well have been a model in the eyes of some of the early architects of University Studies.  The course finally foundered as first one department, then another, bailed out from supporting it for, of course, financial reasons.  If University Studies had existed then it may have survived.  Another early experiment on campus was the Biology and Society course that Aaron Sharp and Al Heilman taught in Botany for many years. This came about around the time of the first Earth Day.  I was annually invited to give my riff about the urban zoo and to discuss misconceptions about human and animal behavior.    


Thus, I have had some time to reflect on interdisciplinary endeavors in the academy.  I have observed those who get involved and those who do not; those who are comfortable thinking professionally outside their credentialed areas and those who are reluctant to pursue thoughts outside their current hard won plot of expertise.  And I have come to some conclusions that I will toss out for what I hope will be some debate.  Please remember that I am trying to be descriptive, normative, and not judgmental.  There is no one path to enduring scholarly success, though some paths do seem to lead to more immediate fame and financial success.  I also am not really saying anything terribly new but perhaps the packaging is a bit more so.


The first thing I want to note is that what is interdisciplinary changes over time.  Thus claims that interdisciplinarity fails when one component field seems to claim or gain more prominence than another misses the point.  The boundary points of knowledge and scholarship are always expanding and in flux.  It is when they are not, when there are long phases of stasis and unexamined underlying conceptual and methodological dogmas, that fields stagnate and are ripe for take over by my aggressive, resourceful invaders. Now, like obnoxious weeds such invasions may have only short-term success due to disturbances caused by environmental events.  For example, the take over of much animal research by AIDS initiatives or the coming influx of billions of bioterrorism and homeland security research funds can have harmful dislocating consequences for balanced and sustainable research progress.  Note that I am positing that evolutionary processes are at the heart of what happens in academia as the nature and purview of knowledge, and the selective forces impinging upon them, change and evolve.  Thus, what is interdisciplinary changes and evolves.  Was not biochemistry at the junction of organic chemistry and biology 100 years ago? Was not psychology just a part of philosophy before Darwin?  Yet, now we have calls for interdisciplinary work between these two now distinct fields.  Did not agricultural economics develop from interdisciplinary roots?  President Shumaker and Provost Crabtree have both noted that their fields, classics and religious history, necessitate knowing about many different fields including languages, art, archaeology, politics, and history.  True enough, but they did not mention biology, chemistry, engineering, or economics.  A first class ecologist, psychologist, neurologist, composer, librarian, literary critic, or artist would list many fields he or she needs to be cognizant of as well.  In one sense then, perhaps leading scholarship in any areas necessitates awareness of the value of diverse fields and the skills to incorporate them into one’s creative projects.


Perhaps.  But I think that the appreciation for diverse knowledge within a now recognized specialized field, such as neuroendocrinepsychoimmunology, is not what interdisciplinary programs are about.  In these areas, as in molecular biology, interdisciplinarity has done its work and needs to move on.  What was cutting edge interdisciplinary thinking 40 years ago, or even 20 years ago, is not always so today.  Where the interdisciplinary effort has taken hold, has been successful, the job at that level has been done.  But other areas, such as integrating biology and philosophy still need active work to be legitimized, even though it has been explored for 200 years.  Others, such as the interface between technology and society, may be perpetually needed because the two areas are in quite different academic realms and the nature of both is continually evolving, exposing new fractures that need to be explored and remedied. 


I think that the evolutionary model is an appropriate one to use here.  One of the most creative and innovative philosophers of biology, David Hull, has applied concepts of selection, population size, adaptiveness, reproductive fitness, and history to understanding what scientific paradigms in evolutionary biology itself have survived and prospered or gone extinct.  A similar analysis of interdisciplinary endeavors over recent decades might be most revealing and helpful in plotting and predicting the future. It might also help the cache of University Studies and similar movements that should be on the leading edge of the ever-changing nature of universities as Communities of Scholars, the phrase that both Al Burstein and I cherish as representing the visionary roots of our Chicago origins.


There is one other important issue here merits much more attention.  What are the characteristics of those doing, and most interested in doing, interdisciplinary work as compared to those resistant to its blandishments.  Some people want to explore the way their field connects with others and some people are far more comfortable digging a deeper hole in their own little plot.  It is not that the latter do not have diverse interests and skills.  I have been surprised at colleagues I have gotten to know across the country who, narrowly immersed in a highly specialized field, turn out to have diverse interests and passions be it woodworking, esoteric jazz, civil war history, theology, or science fiction. They approach these interests in an often deep and scholarly fashion, yet even when the connection with their own specialized research makes the potentially critical relevance of other fields resoundingly obvious, they demure.  Why?  There could be many reasons from the nature of their educational history, influential mentors and scholarly models, a commitment, even dependency, to the conventions of the day and current authorities, intellectual laziness, and even intellectual insecurity.  I have met more than my share of professors who, having mastered their trade and paid their dues, as it were, feel that keeping current in their own specialty is difficult enough to keep getting published in first rank journals or keep the grant dollars flowing.  Fair enough.  Most of us can sympathize.  Obtaining a respected venue for NEW, not old, interdisciplinary contributions is not that easy.


Furthermore, the specialists have their own critiques as they can compare and confuse interdisciplinary writings to the popular contributions of a Sagan, Gould, or Pinker and the public intellectuals of old that are often trashed by one’s scholarly peers in the disciplines.  They can point to writers, not experts in any field, who combine ideas rashly and uncritically to the chagrin of the experts.  Calling a study or approach interdisciplinary, they would say, does not excuse gross errors and ignorance of details. This kind of criticism even happens when a truly innovative scholar such as a Don Griffin, Dan Dennett, or E. O. Wilson ventures out of his or her specialties and I am sure colleagues in the humanities and social sciences can come up with many examples as well.  But, it seems to me, that those scholars who have an established national or international disciplinary reputation can survive the slings and arrows of their often jealous or outraged peers.  Furthermore, their disciplinary reputation often allows their ideas to be taken seriously, whereas the same thoughts by an unknown interdisciplinarian would go nowhere.  So what to do?  Forego interdisciplinary work until you are world famous?  No.  I think that those trying to make a seismic shift across existing fields do, need to think strategically and certainly have some home base to venture from and retreat to.  Most of us are not these kinds of leaders, however, and our ambitions are more modest.  We want to explore related fields that will enrich our teaching or current, and especially future, scholarly projects.  We want to meet and talk to colleagues who can both challenge and expand the universe in which we have embedded our interests.  We want exposure to people elsewhere in the university than those we interact and sometimes do battle with on a continuing basis in our departments or in our professional societies.  And some of us just get bored with the same old stuff with minor variations and have greater need for changing intellectual stimulation, even stress as Neil might say, just as many animals need more variety in sensory stimulation, diet or environmental challenges to prosper and maintain good health.  We may be a little low on serotonin along with active dopamine receptors.


So now we come to play, because interdisiplinarians, I hold, must be playful if they are to be both successful and happy with the interdisciplinary life, a life in which mental play with ideas and their implementation is at the heart of the matter.  And it does not matter if the result is not a truly new seminal creation as long as it provides novel insights to individuals that they can deploy in their teaching, research, and everyday life. 


However, what exactly is play and what are its origins?  To answer this issue led me into many byways over the last 20 years.  I think that I have, through much interdisciplinary study, come up with some answers.  These I will only touch on briefly tonight to show some of the diverse material I have gathered in what will be at least a 500 page book that should appear within the year.