[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]
The dialogue composed by Charles Hirschkind captures a key challenge for our New Directions in the Study of Prayer meetings and virtually all Social Science Research Council-type projects. In order to land a typical job in the academy, you need to have some sort of disciplinary home. But as any reader of Stephen King’s Misery can attest, a home can become a prison.
Sometimes the metaphor is shifted slightly and the challenge is referred to as a matter of “intellectual silos,” highlighting the tendency to gather and guard one’s disciplinary fodder in what is perceived to be a safely personal, private environment. While there are different kinds of silos with distinct purposes in the life of a farm (that’s for a different blog!), a commonality is that what is put into silos is generally meant to be taken out in a relatively short span of time. If you don’t follow this guideline you can end up with an amazingly pungent aroma that permeates clothing and skin more deeply than soap can cleanse. The situation is not so very different in the academy.
Part of the SSRC mission is to get knowledge out of the disciplinary silos and into circulation so that it can be combined with other intellectual material to create quality products fit for mental consumption. This process requires some heavy thought-labor that is highly collaborative and fairly unnatural.
It is unnatural because it can be profoundly uncomfortable. It requires learning the foreign languages of other disciplines. It requires more listening than talking (especially hard for academicians). It requires confronting and exposing some of our own layers of ignorance in a supportive but nonetheless rather public forum. It requires an abundance of humility. All of these facets of the process are easier to avoid than to embrace and not every scholar has what it takes to thrive in this sort of environment.
Those, however, who can be critical without lapsing into ad hominem criticism and can defend a position without becoming defensive are those who will succeed in advancing the discussions. They will collectively create fresh, new knowledge that is distinctly different from material left too long in an airtight, argumentative disciplinary silo.