Three Ways of Being Interdisciplinary in the Neoliberal University: Suggestions for the Future of Anthropology in the Undergraduate Curriculum [1]

Richard Handler
University of Virginia 

It is not news that in North American higher education, disciplinary majors like anthropology are losing undergraduate students to interdisciplinary programs like the Global Development Studies program I have directed for several years. Indeed, in the curricula of many institutions, the early twentieth-century majors like anthropology, biology, and economics now face an array of late twentieth-century “studies” programs that are almost as numerous as the much better institutionalized “real” disciplines.

The origins and orientations of these studies programs are various. They all in some way began as responses to the structured lacunae of the older system of disciplines (Stocking 2001, 305–14), birthed as this was from socio-evolutionary ideologies with their peculiar and destructive notions about what sorts of people count, and for what purposes. But these programs also are products of their times, so that the Cold War origins of American studies produced an initial impetus in that field that is quite different from the initial orientations of fields like African American studies and women’s studies, born a decade or so later. And the origins of these earlier studies programs seem quite different from the impulses behind today’s global studies programs, growing as they do out of a neoliberal or corporate-world understanding of the division of academic labor to solve human problems.

Like their predecessors, these new interdisciplinary programs can be understood as responses to the lacunae of the classic system of disciplines. In the neoliberal university, however, those lacunae are understood not politically but functionally—as spaces for renewed productivity. The classic disciplines, whether respected (like economics) or derided (like anthropology) have well-institutionalized boundaries. University resources are largely canalized by those boundaries, which protect academic departments and their conventional disciplinary identities. But those boundaries also suggest a new intellectual terrain, all the intellectual space that lies between the classic disciplines—the space of the interdisciplinary.

It is convenient, if nothing else, that this intellectual terrain remains to be discovered, since intellectual work in the contemporary world, like the productivity of consumer capitalism, depends on the discovery of the new. Almost by definition, one way to “make it new” (Pound 1934) in the world of higher education is to discover and colonize unsettled or undisciplined interdisciplinary space. Indeed, the word “interdisciplinary” has become something of a fetish. Fetishized, the word has power, but its aura also seems to ward off examination of its meaning. “Interdisciplinary” is new and therefore it’s good. That’s all we seem to need to know.

But, of course, “interdisciplinary” means different things to different people in different contexts.[2] In the present paper, I examine three distinct meanings of the term that I have experienced in my work directing an interdisciplinary undergraduate program at a research university. I will focus particularly on the social dynamics of our program considered as a learning community, and ask what they suggest for the future of anthropology in the liberal arts curriculum.


On February 18, 2016, when I was beginning to work on this paper, I experienced two acute interdisciplinary moments. The first occurred in the capstone seminar I teach in our Global Development Studies (GDS) major. This major consists of four required core courses and six electives from across the university, plus language study. The readings for our core courses are drawn from any number of disciplines, but since I am the founding director of the program, the pedagogy has a decidedly anthropological bent. The students know this. They understand that while they are not learning anthropology in a disciplined fashion, they are picking up an anthropological worldview. They also understand something of what makes that worldview different from those of other liberal arts disciplines and from the curricula of the undergraduate professional schools.

In our seminar, overpopulated with about thirty-five majors, students write a thesis or final research paper. Each student has half a class period to present their topic. They choose readings for the class that they find useful for articulating their topics, and in the ensuing discussion, their classmates offer suggestions on related readings and on ways to narrow and focus their papers.

On February 18, a student named Lizzie asked us to look at several online images and postings concerning the inclusion of pop-culture icons into mural painting in Buddhist temples in Thailand. She conceived her topic broadly in terms of globalization, Westernization, and authenticity. She had us read one “academic” article by an anthropologist, Sean Ashley, in a journal called Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, on immigrant highland communities in Thailand (Ashley 2013). These immigrants consider themselves to be authentic Buddhists of long standing, but the Thai government treats them as primitive hill tribes who need to be civilized and developed by metropolitan institutions, including the country’s Buddhist establishment. The relevance of this reading, as Lizzie saw it, was its illustration of competing authenticities in a Buddhist context: between the highlanders or the state, who possessed the more authentic form of Buddhism?

This was my first interdisciplinary moment of February 18. Lizzie needed to read relevant materials to be able to zero in on the question of authenticity in Thai Buddhist mural painting. She herself had stumbled across an anthropologist’s account of competing Buddhist authenticities in Thailand. I thus found myself wondering: should I suggest to Lizzie that she read such anthropological classics as Edmund Leach’s (1954) Political Systems of Highland Burma? Lizzie’s academic and career focus was museums, art, and politics. She was not double majoring in anthropology. After a few minutes, I concluded that the answer was “no,” at least not without a much more specific reason to consult such works. My disciplinary classics were not necessary for Lizzie’s work in our interdisciplinary major.

My second interdisciplinary moment came out of my own writing. I had been gathering my thoughts to write a paper on the too-little-known anthropologist Dorothy Lee for a conference on anthropological approaches to comparison. I had decided to analyze Lee’s comparison of individualisms in US and Native American cultures.

In a series of essays written between the 1930s and 1970s, Lee worked up a critique of US individualism by exploring Native American notions of personhood, autonomy, responsibility, and group. She did this in part through her grammatical analyses of the California languages she studied, like Wintu (1944, 1950). And she did it in more popular, less academic essays, with titles such as “Autonomy and Community” (1965), which drew on classic texts like Black Elk Speaks by Nicholas Black Elk (1932) and Indian Boyhood by Ohiyesa (Charles Eastman) (1902).

And so, in February, I found myself immersed in the fascinating autobiographical volumes of Ohiyesa. And on February 18, before Lizzie’s presentation, I had been wondering explicitly about my disciplinary and professional relationship to this literature. I remembered Black Elk Speaks as a text that had become notable in the 1970s as part of the countercultural politics of the time. But I also knew, vaguely, of it and of Ohiyesa’s work because, I suppose, almost any anthropologist trained in North America has some rudimentary acquaintance with the literature on “Indians.”

To be honest, I felt vaguely ashamed that I had not read these classic works earlier. In graduate school, Leach was part of our core curriculum, but not Ohiyesa. I imagined that only those students who were “working on” Indians would have known, or been asked, to read the latter. Was Ohiyesa’s book anthropology, or did it belong to some other discipline? If so, which one: literary studies, Native American studies, ethnohistory? And what were the racial politics of disciplinary professionalization that made Leach central and Ohiyesa peripheral? (Indeed, what were the disciplinary politics that prompted me to think that we anthropologists can claim Ohiyesa?)

To learn more about Ohiyesa, I consulted a colleague who referred me to the works of historians and Native American Studies scholars. Thus, I found myself with an interdisciplinary reading list on Ohiyesa, which would help me, ultimately, to write about how the anthropologist Dorothy Lee had interpreted him—and, coincidentally, help me to think about ways of being interdisciplinary.


My Ohiyesa reading list belongs to the way of being interdisciplinary that anthropologists and many other disciplined scholars experience most frequently. To learn about a culture, society, person, place or event, we read widely beyond the boundaries (however we imagine them) of our discipline. We read history, fiction, biography and autobiography, newspapers and Internet materials, and “theory” from everywhere. In short, ours is a literarily defined interdisciplinarity, and this is the first of my three ways, types, or models.

This model of interdisciplinarity differs from the second type of interdisciplinary work that I discuss here. This is the type that other university “stakeholders”—administrators, parents, donors, legislators, fundraisers and public-relations officials—imagine when they think of interdisciplinarity. For those folks, university knowledge production is first of all functional: we produce knowledge to solve the world’s problems. Because those problems are complex in a globalized world, we need, they imagine, input from multiple disciplines working together. This second way of being interdisciplinary is akin to a corporate model of knowledge production, where bureaucratically organized teams of workers bring different skills to bear on a problem their superiors want solved.

In contrast, the literarily defined interdisciplinary work that comes naturally to us anthropologists and to scholars in many liberal arts disciplines is defined in terms of “wide” reading. And we read widely not to solve a problem, but to formulate one; not to “fix” some aspect of other people’s worlds, but to interpret or explain how those people put together their world in the first place. And this is a project that has no end and no ultimate answer. (As Thorstein Veblen once wrote, “the outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where one question grew before” [1919, 33].)

The very idea of reading widely is disciplinarily defined. We have a strong sense of academic writings emanating from and belonging within particular, well-bounded disciplines. Indeed, academic success in higher education depends on publication in journals and with publishing houses that one’s colleagues can recognize as important or at least respectable in their discipline. An anthropologist might struggle to win tenure with a record that included work published exclusively in, say, history journals. One or two such articles make one interdisciplinary, but too many would call into question one’s professional identity as an anthropologist.

Beyond the disciplinary categorization of academic writing, there is the question of genre. When we make use of fiction or autobiography, we are drawing on genres that are not in the first place defined by academic disciplines. University scholars are not the only people who write. When we read widely in these other genres, we do so to make contact with and listen to “native voices.” Such writings, we imagine, are part of the human scenes we are studying. They are primary sources, as we say, not the secondary sources produced by scholars like ourselves. We both hyper-value and devalue such writings: we hyper-value them because we imagine them to have a kind of primary reality and authenticity that scholarly secondary sources cannot by definition have. (Primary sources are the world, we might say, whereas secondary sources are merely about it.) But we also devalue them because they are often not put together with the same attention to argument and evidence that we require in scholarly writing.

As anthropologists and other scholars train graduate students, we teach them in these disciplinary and generic features of wide reading, almost without knowing we are doing so. And graduate students want to be disciplined. (That’s why they made the apparently illogical choice to go to graduate school.)

“Graduate study, we might say, is an apprenticeship, but the undergraduate major is play. It is play because both we and our students know that most of the latter are not going to ‘be’ academic scholars.”

But undergraduates, very few of whom are aiming for careers in academia, have no particular desire to be disciplined. And the course of instruction that constitutes an undergraduate major is in many ways an ersatz disciplining. Graduate study, we might say, is an apprenticeship, but the undergraduate major is play. It is play because both we and our students know that most of the latter are not going to “be” academic scholars. As our students approach adulthood and full participation in the labor market, the undergraduate major shows them what it’s like to work in particular academic fields, but it is almost as if, at this final moment of their adolescence, it does so in order to give them one last chance to pretend. The serious business of their lives will lie elsewhere.

Returning, now, to the first interdisciplinary moment I sketched, in the fourth-year GDS seminar: that moment, too, was literarily defined. As each student presented their thesis topic, their colleagues made suggestions for relevant reading. And I described the suggestions that came to my mind but which I did not make, thinking they were too narrowly disciplinary and not relevant for Lizzie’s topic. But the students’ suggestions, it seemed to me, came from a different orientation to knowledge, an orientation grounded in the liberal arts as a broad tradition of learning but not in particular disciplines. Often one of Lizzie’s student colleagues said, “I took so-and-so’s course on such-and-such topic, and we read something that I think would be useful for you.”

It’s true that some suggestions came from students who had taken a particular course because they had added a second major to their GDS program; the anthropology double-major offered readings by anthropologists, the economics major, by economists, and so on. But not always. Indeed, from the students’ perspective, one of the great strengths of GDS and other interdisciplinary majors is that they do not require them to take a fixed number of courses in a single discipline. Rather, an interdisciplinary major allows them to choose their courses based on their interests. The GDS major becomes a topically focused, individually constructed set of courses. And because our students have a socially cultivated attachment to our program, they choose their courses with a seriousness of purpose that advisors in disciplinary majors may not quite believe.

This brings me to the third way of being interdisciplinary: to speak of a “socially cultivated attachment to our program” is to speak of GDS as a community of learners. While the moment I described when we offered reading suggestions to Lizzie was, on the surface, a typical scholarly (literarily defined) interdisciplinary moment, it was socially quite different from similar advice offered in graduate training within a disciplinary department. In what ways was it different?


Let’s start with the institutional form of interdisciplinary programs at research universities. First, programs are not departments. While the structural details vary widely, it’s generally the case that departments are much larger and control far greater resources than programs—by several orders of magnitude. Departments are local, institutionalized instantiations of academic disciplines that exist as professional associations nationally and even internationally. As such, the first duty of academic departments is to reproduce their disciplines, by producing both research and graduate students. Undergraduate instruction is a secondary business in such departments. It is perhaps a business of crucial importance, given the fiscal implications of enrollments. And it is perhaps a business that faculty members take seriously, depending on their institution’s commitment to excellence in undergraduate teaching. But at least in my experience, the undergraduate curriculum at a research university is something of a bastard child in a disciplinary department; the real children (at least from the faculty’s perspective) are graduate students and publications.

By contrast, undergraduate interdisciplinary programs do not (by definition) have graduate programs attached to them and they do not produce either graduate students or research. They are usually created by small groups of faculty from several disciplines who find a common interest that, they feel, is underrepresented in any of their departments.

These faculty groups set out to create an interdisciplinary major first of all as an undergraduate pedagogical project. Sometimes they have more ambitious plans that include the creation of graduate programs and ultimately the institutionalization of their interdisciplinary program as a new department. But not always. Sometimes widely published and distinguished older scholars simply want a chance to work collegially with teachers and students in an area that interests them.

These programs come and go. Their longevity depends on a number of factors: the continuing relevance of the topic to students, and the willingness of other faculty to participate and of administrators to fund the programs. A robust program can last for decades, yet often such programs start with a burst of excitement but, having gained enough institutional clout to be taken for granted, linger on with one or two faculty advisors and a small number of majors—until, perhaps, a particularly decisive administrator decides to pull the plug on programs that have no students.

The current wave of global studies programs that are popping up across the institutional landscape presents a variation on this pattern. With “global” having become another one of those fetish terms (Handler 2015), university deans, provosts and presidents have an interest in it. At my institution and many others that I know of, the creation of a global studies program was a priority of the provost’s office—and the program was conceived as a university-wide initiative, integrating teaching and learning not only across the liberal arts but also across the college and undergraduate professional schools (commerce, nursing, education, architecture, engineering). This is super-charged interdisciplinarity, and it stems from the corporate model of problem-solving I sketched above. In that model, it is not “abstract” knowledge that counts, but “skills,” and these latter are taught first of all in professional schools, and only secondarily in colleges of arts and sciences.

The initial backing of the provost and other high administrative officials from the provost’s office will not, however, guarantee the long-term success of global studies programs. Upper administrators are too distant from the classroom to pay much attention to what I’m calling communities of learning. And the current success of global studies at the University of Virginia grows above all from the program’s communal life.

Some historical background is necessary here. At UVA, our large Global Studies [GS] program, with over 200 majors, which makes it one of the largest majors in the college, started from a student initiative to create a Global Development Studies major. Acronymically, GS got started as GDS.

As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere (Handler 2013), the students who founded GDS (which began in 2009 and graduated its first class in 2011) wanted to combine their academic interests and career goals into an interdisciplinary major. These students, like many of their peers, wanted to work in development, which, phrased in terms of contemporary cultural trends, means they wanted to do “service” in the wide world and perhaps even work professionally in a development field. And they wanted a college major designed to help them achieve those goals.

As the founding director of GDS, I took seriously the students’ career motivations, but as a liberal arts scholar, I also did not want what I considered to be properly academic or intellectual work to take a back seat to what I saw as skills training. The trick, I thought (and still think), was to integrate experiential learning that teaches skills into a liberal arts curriculum that above all else teaches students how to ask theoretically informed critical questions about development, and about other real-world projects and occupations they aspire to.

Our GDS program—which is now a “track” within the larger GS major, but which retains its identity, its distinctive curriculum, and its communal esprit—has been fortunate to attract funding both from the university and from private donors. We used that funding to hire a full-time practitioner-teacher, David Edmunds, a geographer with extensive work experience in development. Since he joined the program in 2013, David has focused on building a theoretically grounded experiential component for our curriculum. This involves, above all, fostering service and research projects, both local and distant, in which David and other faculty can responsibly mentor students to be respectful learners, not the global “leaders” that university promotional discourses celebrate (Handler et al. 2016).

Thus GDS has in place the factors which, I’ve learned, are making for a robust interdisciplinary undergraduate learning community: a liberal arts orientation, faculty capacity in both theoretical and experiential learning, and active student interest and engagement. It is all of these factors that made the classroom moment I described—with its recommendations of readings—something different from the recommendations for wide reading that individual graduate instructors give to individual graduate students.

In the GDS seminar, we sit in a circle. While I cannot claim that all 35 of the students have done the day’s reading, and that all of the students, while they sit with their laptops and phones, are focused on the class discussion, I am willing to bet that a significant number on any day are prepared and attentive to the work of the day, if for no other reason than that they respect each other as colleagues in a common endeavor. Indeed, confirming my inference, one of these students told me that GDS “restructures your obligations to academics,” creating a socially generated sense of responsibility to the group that is not present in other majors.

“We talk about the different kinds of knowledge that we bring together in GDS, comparing qualitative and quantitative orientations, theoretical and practical knowledge, the differing perspectives of different liberal arts disciplines, and the ways in which the liberal arts curriculum differs from those of the professional schools. We also talk about the political implications of different kinds of knowledge. And we talk about the connections that can be made between what one learns in the classroom and what one might do in the work world, after graduation.”

The group of students I described had a strong sense of themselves as a GDS class, the class of 2016, the sixth GDS graduating class. In the major, we talk not only about global development but also about Global Development Studies as a development project. We talk about the institutional context in which GDS has developed—which means university politics and university fundraising. We talk about the different kinds of knowledge that we bring together in GDS, comparing qualitative and quantitative orientations, theoretical and practical knowledge, the differing perspectives of different liberal arts disciplines, and the ways in which the liberal arts curriculum differs from those of the professional schools. We also talk about the political implications of different kinds of knowledge. And we talk about the connections that can be made between what one learns in the classroom and what one might do in the work world, after graduation.

In all this work, we faculty are not disciplining students. We are not even trying to produce development workers. We are, rather, working to create, and to recreate, with each new cohort of students, a community of learners. Our interdisciplinary major has a topical focus, the one chosen by the founding cohort of students. We have a general theoretical orientation, one congenial to the faculty group that helped create the major and that derives from those areas of the liberal arts curriculum described by such terms as cultural studies or the humanistic social sciences. We have a political orientation that comes from left-wing disciplines such as anthropology. And we have a pedagogical commitment to linking the curriculum to the students’ concerns about their postgraduation careers. In all these ways, then, GDS aspires to be not merely a curricular category, but a social community or a communal project.


Disciplinary majors like anthropology, at least at large institutions like mine, are not socially organized in this way. And teaching in the two types of majors is a different experience. Indeed, studying the student response to the GDS interdisciplinary major has given me a better understanding of my own career as an instructor, first in a combined sociology-anthropology department at a liberal arts college and, since 1986, at a research university. Working in the GDS community, I’ve come to understand why, although I am as partial to anthropology as a discipline as most anthropologists I know, I have never been comfortable teaching anthropology to undergraduate anthropology majors.

My favorite teaching assignment has always been to teach introductory anthropology in large lecture classes. The cultural-critical message of anthropology has great power to disrupt the conventional truths that many younger college students have always accepted. Introductory courses provide an instructor with a large audience of undisciplined students. Perhaps I should say “a-disciplined,” since these students have only the foggiest idea of what an intellectual discipline is. They have not yet chosen their majors. They are shopping for courses, fulfilling their “general education” requirements, amassing elective credit hours toward the bachelor’s degree. They are, in a word, clueless as to what they’re getting into. As a result, they can be made receptive to a disciplinary message, a disciplinary orientation.

Provided, of course, that one knows how to teach introductory anthropology. The trick here is not coverage but “uncoverage” (Calder 2006). The task is not to cover the basics of the four fields of North American anthropology, but to uncover its underlying orientation to human life and its potential as a critical perspective that students can use in their own lives. I do this by organizing my syllabus in terms of those Boasian warhorses, “race, language, and culture,” illustrated with ethnographic accounts of both contemporary US culture and other places and times. Along the way, I draw on readings from all four subfields, but the energy of the course is elsewhere, on the total disciplinary orientation. It is in courses such as this, I think, that we can reach a wide audience.

And a wide audience is what anthropologists claim they are interested in having. Ever since the death of the superhumanly hyperactive, media-savvy Margaret Mead, iconic grandmother to the world (Lutkehaus 2008), anthropologists have bemoaned their lack of a public voice. It is thus profoundly ironic that we do not see the teaching of introductory anthropology to tens of thousands of college students every year as an instance of having a public voice. After all, this is our chance to speak in a sustained way to the most educated, or at least most credentialed, people of a generation—from among whom the future elites will be drawn. I think we fail to see introductory anthropology courses as a forum for the public and political speech it is because we conceptualize it as the gateway to our undergraduate major, instead of as a chance to orient students to the liberal arts and critical thinking more generally.

Over the course of my teaching career, the more I came to savor teaching introductory anthropology, the less I came to enjoy teaching the capstone courses in the major. At a large university, a classroom of majors is a group of students who mostly don’t know each other and among whom only a handful has an intellectual commitment to anthropology. In US undergraduate education, the choice of a major is an important moment for students, one in which they apparently acquire an intellectual identity but in which what is actually acquired is a bureaucratic label. After the initial rush of excitement that comes from knowing their label, students may throw themselves into their major courses during their junior year, but often by their senior year, they are bored by them.

This is not surprising since their commitment to their major usually has more to do with progressing through the bureaucratic stages of a college career than with the discovery of a disciplinary passion. And this is true for most college majors, whether the broader public approves or disdains of them. I have talked to many economists who complain about the fact that their popular major is full of students who have no interest in economics as a theoretical orientation to human life, and only in its value as a credential for entrance into the business world. Similarly, biology is full of young strivers who wonder why they have to take organic chemistry on their way to medical school.

In other words, at our universities (if not at liberal arts colleges), majors are not communities of undergraduate learners. For both students and faculty, the undergraduate major is an inconvenient social formation they are required, for different reasons, to participate in. Students need a major to complete their degree requirements, while departmental faculty need majors to bolster their enrollments. For both students and faculty, the real business of their lives lies elsewhere.

And of course, the real business of the lives of our GDS students lies elsewhere. Indeed, the fourth-year seminar is a poignant experience, because the students are simultaneously engaged in the culminating experience of their undergraduate education and searching anxiously for a job outside the university. One piece of evidence I have for my claim that GDS has created a learning community among our cohorts of students is that in the seminar, students remain intellectually engaged with their theses and with those of their colleagues until the end of their college careers.

What are the implications of this discussion for the survival of traditional liberal arts majors like anthropology, threatened as they are by interdisciplinary programs like global studies? In a recent essay (2013), I argued that anthropology departments can respond to global studies in two ways: either their faculty can participate as affiliated faculty or they can reorganize the anthropology major in terms of the topical issues of current interest to students. It is the latter solution I will privilege here.

Anthropology departments need to reconceptualize their majors as communities of liberal arts learners, not as disciplinary training programs. The major should focus not on the facts and facets of anthropology but on an anthropological orientation to the world the students live in. The requirements for the major should not start and end with a given number of courses within the department, but on combinations of courses—some under the label anthropology, others in other disciplines—that provide a coherent approach to a few key topics, selected with reference to student interest and the particular strengths of departmental faculty.

In any anthropology department, faculty members have research interests in topical and geographic areas that are important to students. Moreover, anthropology as a discipline has a global focus that is perhaps unmatched by any of the other liberal arts disciplines. An anthropology department should, then, be able to construct one or more topical curricular tracks that will draw today’s students, eager as they are for global perspectives and hot-button issues.

But taking the final step to bring those students together as communities of learners requires a kind of social work that anthropologists, as undergraduate instructors (at least at research universities), are not accustomed to. Two or three faculty members will have to take responsibility for advising the students, teaching some core seminars, perhaps creating some social events for the group, and, above all, asking the students to engage self-consciously in building the community of learners. To put this last task in different terms: anthropologists should engage their students in a cultural-critical analysis of the American higher education system, and the liberal arts curriculum, in which they are participating.

“What I have described is not an anthropology major but rather an interdisciplinary major hosted by an anthropology department. This major is to be infused with an anthropological orientation to the world. It is to be infused with the cultural-critical attitude that is central to our discipline. But when creating such a major, we need to understand that we will not be reproducing our discipline for and through undergraduate students. Instead, we will be teaching anthropology to the wider public in a way they can internalize and perhaps use later on. And in doing so, we may just enable a nineteenth-century discipline to thrive in the twenty-first century.”

There is one, final strength of disciplinary anthropology that should be brought into the service of this project. Anthropologists, after all, are the masters of the research methodology that everyone outside the hard sciences wants to claim: ethnographic fieldwork. Our discipline is notoriously uninterested in teaching field methods, or to put this in terms of a positive instead of a negative, we are committed to mystifying the fundamental secrets of the guild, secrets to be obtained individually and experientially through the rite of passage of field work.

For the purposes of our undergraduate interdisciplinary learning community, we should instead highlight our methodological strengths. We should do this in creative ways, teaching more than a field methods course. I’d recommend a field methods course enhanced by serious attention to ethical community engagement, and I’d connect such a course to the kinds of experiential learning projects that today’s students (and their parents) desire: research, yes, but also service learning and internships. Ultimately, such experiential learning should be connected to students’ career aspirations and to their job-market searches. Following students beyond graduation, so that we can connect current students with recent graduates of the program, is another important step toward building the major as a community of learners.

In the final analysis, what I have described is not an anthropology major but rather an interdisciplinary major hosted by an anthropology department. This major is to be infused with an anthropological orientation to the world. It is to be infused with the cultural-critical attitude that is central to our discipline. But when creating such a major, we need to understand that we will not be reproducing our discipline for and through undergraduate students. Instead, we will be teaching anthropology to the wider public in a way they can internalize and perhaps use later on. And in doing so, we may just enable a nineteenth-century discipline to thrive in the twenty-first century.


Aldrich, John H., ed. 2014. Interdisciplinarity: Its Role in a Discipline-based Academy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ashley, Sean. 2013. “Narrating Identity and Belonging: Buddhist Authenticity and Contested Ethnic Marginalization in the Mountains of Northern Thailand.” Sojourn 13 (1): 1–35.

Calder, Lendol. 2006. “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey.” Journal of American History 92 (4): 1358–70.

Elk, Black. 1932. Black Elk Speaks, Being the Life History of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. New York: William Morrow.

Frickel, Scott, Mathieu Albert, and Barbara Prainsack, eds. 2017. Investigating Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Theory and Practice across Disciplines. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Frodeman, Robert, ed. 2010. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Handler, Richard. 2013. “Disciplinary Adaptation and Undergraduate Desire: Anthropology and Global Development Studies in the Liberal Arts Curriculum.” Cultural Anthropology 28 (2): 181–203.

Handler, Richard. 2015. “What We Don’t Talk About when We Talk About the Global in North American Higher Education.” In Development in Crisis: Threats to Human Well-Being in the Global South and Global North, edited by Rae Lesser Blumberg and Samuel Cohn, 191–203. New York: Routledge.

Handler, Richard, and David Edmunds, Daniel Ng, Susan Tewolde, and Marta Woldu. 2016. “Between Engagement and Critique: Development Studies in a Liberal Arts Tradition.” Canadian Journal of Development Studies 37 (3): 261–78.

Leach, Edmund. 1954. Political Systems of Highland Burma. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lee, Dorothy D. 1944. “Categories of the Generic and the Particular in Wintu.” American Anthropologist 46:362–69.

Lee, Dorothy D. 1950. “The Conception of the Self among the Wintu Indians.” In Freedom and Culture, edited by Dorothy D. Lee, 131–40. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lee, Dorothy D. 1965. “Autonomy and Community.” In Valuing the Self: What We Can Learn from Other Cultures, edited by Dorothy D. Lee, 28–41. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lutkehaus, Nancy. 2008. Margaret Mead: The Making of an American Icon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ohiyesa [Charles Eastman]. 1902. Indian Boyhood. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Pound, Ezra. 1934. Make It New: Essays. London: Faber and Faber.

Stocking, George W. 2001. “Delimiting Anthropology: Historical Reflections on the Boundaries of a Boundless Discipline.” Delimiting Anthropology, edited by George W. Stocking, 303–29. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Veblen, Thorstein. 1919. The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation, and Other Essays. New York: B. W. Huebsch.

[1] This paper was prepared for a conference on Anthropology and Global Studies: Challenges and Opportunities, organized by Christopher Roy, in the Department of Anthropology, Temple University, March 30, 2016. Thanks to Professor Roy and his colleagues for their helpful comments.
[2] There is, of course, a vast literature on interdisciplinary teaching and research; several recent collections provide a good entrance into the discussion: Aldrich (2014); Frickel et al. (2017); Frodeman (2010).

Handler, Richard. 2017. “Three Ways of Being Interdisciplinary in the Neoliberal University: Suggestions for the Future of Anthropology in the Undergraduate Curriculum.” American Anthropologist website, February 24.