New School 2019 Orientation Keynote

I was asked to keynote The New School’s 2019 graduate orientation by addressing the value of interdisciplinarity and using my own work as an example. I was told the event’s theme was “takeover” (guess what?: it wasn’t!*) — so I planned my talk around the concept of productive disciplinary “takeover” (familiar to The New School, with its history of protest and progressive politics), and other actions that readily lend themselves to spatial or cartographic metaphors. I also asked folks on Twitter what they would like to hear in an orientation talk, and I received lots and lots of valuable recommendations. Thanks to all these generous people, many of whom are (visually) referenced in the talk!

[*the theme changed in late summer, yet I wasn’t informed!]


Even if my these metaphors were misplaced, I still think the talk served its intended purpose. I got some really nice emails afterward.

Here are my slides (also downloadable here), and my text [with slide #’s marked thusly] is below. I was given the title slide, and it was only after the fact that I realized my title is wrong: I’m a FULL Professor of Anthropology. Wrong titles abound, apparently, for this particular event!

Mattern OrientationKeynote by shannonmattern


[[In my introductory paragraph, I attempted to transition from the broader orientation theme of “Takeover” to my focus on interdisciplinarity by acknowledging the value of strategic map-making — knowing one’s terrain, and particularly its interstitial spaces. I tried to poke a bit of fun at the problematic “Takeover” theme, but as a thoughtful Twitter critic pointed out (after I posted this text on August 25), I was remiss (and complicit) in making light of the theme rather than denouncing its militant connotations. I apologize for that.]]

[4] Speaking of in-between-ness: I was invited here today to speak with you specifically about interdisciplinarity, a term that, in the vast majority of conversations in which I’ve taken part over the past two decades, has connoted curiosity and inventiveness and a refreshing refusal to be bound by convention. [5] Thus, when I turned to Twitter for input about what new graduate students should know about interdisciplinarity, I was surprised to discover that some people regard interdisciplinarity as a form of institutional or epistemological takeover. I heard echoes of those worries in other forums, too. [6] Particularly for those folks in more conventional institutions and those committed to the integrity of their disciplines: interdisciplinarity seems to represent an invasive force – a dangerous dilettantism, or an intellectual “trend” that threatens to sully or usurp the established order. And those in more precarious positions, like students, also worried that working in-between fields would render them illegible to authorities like hiring officers and review committees. [7] Whatever the source of their trepidation, these folks’ map of the academy was more like those apocryphal medieval maps covered in dragons and other mythical creatures that purportedly warned people to stay away from dangerous unfamiliar territories. Hic sunt dracones – here be dragons.

[8] The intellectual terrain of the academy, as it’s organized into colleges and schools and departments and programs, can also be intimidatingly inscrutable. And those structures seem impenetrable, unchangeable, since they’ve been reified – that is, made real, made material – through architectures and offices, websites and brochures and org charts. A campus map and a building plan make disciplinary structures seem like spatial and material facts. [9] But if you look at the disciplines we have today – English, history, political science, sociology, graphic design, media studies – a lot of them didn’t exist a hundred years ago. And some that flourished a half- or quarter-century ago, [10] like various languages and arts programs, have been cut not only because of declining student enrollment, but also because some conservative leaders have sought to engineer the university in the market’s own image, as if capital gets to decide what’s worth knowing.

[11] Disciplines are historical artifacts and political tools and commodities. They’re products of their times and cultures and ruling classes. The history of knowledge – which is itself a field of study – shows us that knowledge, and the way it’s structured and operationalized through educational apparatae like disciplines, [12] has a history, and that history intersects with political-economic and cultural history.

[13] The disciplines do serve a host of useful functions: they set boundaries on what their members need to know (like, if you’re a literature major, you needn’t worry too much about math, which is both good and bad). They also create intellectual community and systems for mentorship, they establish common discourses and protocols for ethics and quality control. [14] Yet they also serve some more bureaucratic and selfish functions. They provide convenient frameworks for structuring our hiring and curriculum design. And as Andrew Abbott writes in Chaos of the Disciplines, disciplines allow academics to reproduce themselves.

[15] Now, as you probably know, The New School is celebrating its centennial. Thus, it’s not “new” in the sense of “new to this world” – but one thing that does make it ever-young is its sense of obligation to continually redefine itself, to reimagine what a relevant, timely curriculum – one that’s both responsive and anticipatory – looks like. [16] Consequently, a lot of the “disciplines” we have here at The New School – Design and Urban Ecologies, Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism, Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management, Transdisciplinary Design – don’t exist elsewhere. Or, maybe we could say that our programs aren’t defined so much by discipline as they are by problems and methods. That doesn’t mean they’re not legitimate fields of study; it simply means that we, here, in this particular educational community, have carved up the world of knowledge in a different way – just as thousands of people have done before us, for hundreds of years.

[17] And that’s part of the institution’s founding mission. The New School started as a “takeover” of the traditional academy – specifically, a rejection of the conservatism many had seen uptown at Columbia University (no offense, Columbia friends!). [18] In 1919 Charles Beard, a co-founder of The New School, noted that most colleges “began as institutions for the education of those who were preparing for law, medicine, the church, or teaching” – that is, their disciplines were defined by profession. “When all is said and done,” he wrote, “the modern university does not have for its major interest and prime concern the free, open, and unafraid consideration of modern issues… The New School has no other concern.” And among such concerns in 1919, Beard proposed, were “the relation of labor to industry, … the relations of nations to one another, the organization and machinery of civil government, … public utilities, [and] theories of social progress.” These are the kinds of issues that extend far beyond the purview of any one field – particularly if you want your research to have real-world impact.

  • [19] Imagine studying public utilities or infrastructure solely through the lens of, say, economics. What do we miss out on? (Politics, organizational change, urban design, architecture, etc.)
  • [20] Now, what about the “machinery of civil government”: what if this were examined only through political science, or what we call “politics” here at NSSR? What would we overlook? (service design, role of social media, histories of discrimination, etc.)
  • [21] Now let’s take a contemporary example: technology’s impact on democracy: what if this research took place solely in computer science – or solely in a politics department? [22] Just last month the Knight Foundation disbursed $50 million explicitly to interdisciplinary teams

[23] Beard’s concerns from 1919 are just as pressing now. But we add to them new problems and opportunities, and this is precisely what Beard and his colleagues anticipated. The New School, they said, “does not regard the existing institutions and practices of mankind as unchanging or unchangeable….” Our current vision statement identifies democracy, urbanization, technological change, economic empowerment, sustainability, migration, and globalization as the pressing concerns of today. And we aim to approach these problems through a superimposition of lenses, or the intersection of disciplinary approaches, that The New School is uniquely equipped to provide – specifically by asking how we can engage with these concerns simultaneously through design, the arts, social research, management, and public engagement. We have entire programs that combine these approaches, including many I listed earlier. [24] I’d add to that list Fashion Design & Society, Strategic Design & Management, Public and Urban Policy, and International Affairs, among many others. [25] We also have extra-curricular initiatives like the Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography, and Social Thought; the Center for Data Arts; the DESIS Lab; the Vera List Center for Art and Politics; the Collaboratory; the Tishman Environment and Design Center; the Urban Systems Lab; the India China Institute; the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility; the Integrative PhD Program – and many other opportunities to approach our work prismatically, to see it from multiple vantage points and through diverse practices (many of which come with funding!)

[26] I’ll briefly highlight a new concentration that I was asked to build within the Anthropology department at NSSR. Our new concentration in Anthropology and Design, which is launching this fall, allows students to explore the designed world through the conceptual frameworks and grounded methods of anthropology. Simultaneously, it examines how anthropologists, by engaging with designers, can not only enhance their own techniques of aesthetic analysis, but also think more critically and creatively about the mediated and designed forums in which they share their research. [27] I’m teaching the brand-new core course this fall; we’ve got a great mix of anthropologists and scholars and designers from across Parsons and Media Studies. If you’re interested to learn more, you can visit our course website.

[28] But even within a more traditional discipline, if you’ve chosen a more conventional pathway, there’s still opportunity here to infuse your curriculum with some of this exploratory spirit – and I strongly encourage you to do so. The New School has worked really hard over the years to align the various divisions’ schedules, and to consolidate the registration system, so students can move freely across the university. I have to tell you: this fluidity has helped to make possible one of my greatest pleasures in working here: thrillingly diverse students. [29] Last year, for instance, in my “Data Archive Infrastructure” seminar and “Maps as Media” studio, I had students from 10 to 12 different programs, from across four or five divisions. Anthropologists, political scientists, fine artists, creative technologists, programmers, environmental policy experts, poets, and media scholars all shared their disciplinary insights, methodological training, and creative skills. In every single atlas generated in our Maps class, we could see the impact of an interdisciplinary encounter. And in our Data class, we came to see how knowledge resources are best framed simultaneously as cultural objects, media forms, legal entities, and technological constructs; everyone’s critical repertoire was enriched by the various voices at the table.

[30] And this isn’t only my perception. It’s something I hear repeatedly on my course evaluations and in advising conversations: students really value this cross-pollution, as well as the atmosphere and ethos it generates in the class- or conference room: there’s minimal grandstanding when we all appreciate that each of us knows something the others don’t. I also meet regularly with – and advise dissertations, theses, and independent studies for – students from other departments and divisions. Many of my colleagues do the same. These are incredible learning opportunities for us.

[31] But The New School doesn’t only value interdisciplinary work in the classroom. I mentioned earlier that some of my Twitter interlocutors expressed concern that their interdisciplinary work wouldn’t be validated by their thesis or dissertation advisors, or by their future hiring or review committees. I hope that by describing The New School’s history and its enduring mission, I’ve convinced you this is a place where scholars and practitioners can build a career in the in-between zones. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met colleagues from other institutions who’ve expressed envy of the creativity we enjoy here. The New School also recognizes that, for students, there are both academic trajectories and career opportunities in these interstitial spaces. I’ve had Masters students go on to PhD programs in media studies, performance studies, architecture, environmental resource management, and a host of other fields. And my advisees have been offered jobs in libraries, tech companies, media activist organizations, design firms, museums, and so forth. The challenge is being able to translate what you do for various audiences – and demonstrating that you’ve developed some degree of expertise in each of the fields your work engages. [32] This, as my Twitter friends acknowledge, is one of the great challenges of choosing an interdisciplinary pathway: you have to work really hard to do justice to the work in the disciplines you bridge.

[33] But the rewards are incalculable. Not only is your work made better and richer, more useful and, in many cases, more accessible for a wider audience; [34] but you as a thinker also grow tremendously by forcing yourself to be multiperspectival. This also means that your repertoire of potential research or creative projects expands greatly; the world becomes so much more interesting, and you become a more interesting, versatile, and adroit interlocutor.

[35] I’d like to think this is true of myself. I have indeed built a career by moving through the duct-work and all those other interstitial spaces – both figuratively and literally. I do write about infrastructure and back-stage sites of labor and invisible logistical systems, but also about their forward-facing counterparts: interfaces, architectures, and furnishings – all of which are portals to hidden logics. Nowadays, when I’m invited to give a talk, I take a bit of pride in the fact that most of my hosts don’t know what to call me – and, in most cases, that’s precisely why they’ve invited me. I write about a pretty wide array of topics, and I collaborate on projects in a range of fields. And because I make a big effort to validate and engage carefully with the scholarship and practice in those various fields, I’ve been warmly welcomed by architects, geographers, archivists, literary scholars, media activists, and data scientists, and professionals in a range of other disciplines and industries. They’ve kindly invited me to speak and publish in their venues and work with them on real-world projects. In the time that remains, I’ll tell you a bit more about that work, as the grad student advisors have asked me to do.

[Apologies for the excessive self-referentiality of the following]

[36] I grew up with a woodworker dad and a teacher mom. My grandfather and his three sons owned the hardware store in our Appalachian town of 6000 people. Thus, my childhood was filled with (1) playing school and (2) making stuff. We had an endless supply of scrap wood and nails and PVC pipe, so we didn’t have to worry about messing thing up. We just tried shit. I was good in math and science, so I thought I would go to medical school. In anticipation of that career, I majored in chemistry in college, yet I found the lab significantly somewhat liberating than the workshop. Meanwhile, I always took a literature class as an escape from the more technical courses – and I ultimately realized that the humanities were my jam. I ended up with a dual major in English and media studies, then went on to do a PhD in Media, Culture & Communication at NYU, [37] where I wrote a dissertation on Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library Building. This work required that I learn a lot about not only media, but also architecture, urban planning, information science, and the tech industry. After a postdoctoral fellowship in Art History – where I realized that, as much as I appreciated art historians, I was really glad I wasn’t one (don’t hate me!) – [38] I ended up here, at The New School, as an assistant professor in Media Studies. I directed the Masters in Media Studies program for a while, and stayed there for 15 years before moving to Anthropology just this past January, to start the Anthropology + Design concentration I mentioned earlier.

From grad school to now, my work has been defined much more by scale than by discipline. [39] For nearly two decades I’ve been examining how material architectures map onto, or mediate, intellectual structures, and vice versa – how our material world, and the spaces and objects we design within it, both shape and are shaped by our structures of thought. The ways we know the world shapes the world we build, and that built world reflexively informs our knowing. And because different architectures or infrastructures are commonly nested – like the card in the card catalog, or the widget in the interface – my exploration has traversed various scales: [40] from the scale of the object, to the architectural scale, to the urban scale, to the scale of the networks and “clouds” that link together and extend beyond these other sites of mediation. Thus, my research has also spanned different practices of design: interaction, product, furniture, interior, service, architecture, and urban design. And it’s linked design to other fields: particularly information science, intellectual history, media studies, geography, anthropology, and archaeology.

[41] I’ve written three books – one on public libraries, one on maps, and one on the 5000-year history of urban intelligence. [42] A new collection I edited with a bunch of geographers – on what would happen if tech companies took over city governance – is coming out in a few weeks. [43] But the long-read article is really my thing; I’ve written a whole bunch of them – about ice and sediment archives and the role they play in climate change research; the creation of “field guides” for our global intelligence systems; about how cities are and aren’t like computers; about urban development projects like Hudson Yards; about maintenance and care, sonic infrastructures, spatial data, border technologies, and hardware stores and the future of mapping; about the history of product sound design and the furniture in Silicon Valley workspaces and underground repositories; about the history of the closet as a space where we store all of our dead media; about data dashboards and noise and archival art – and a host of other topics. [44] You can find everything here, on my website.

This might sound like an indiscriminate takeover of myriad fields. [45] Yet it always comes back to that single through-line: how we design a material world that reflects and shapes how and what we know, and the politics of that knowing. It’s a theme that, I’ve been glad to see, has wide resonance. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been welcomed by academics and practitioners a wide range of disciplines. I mention this not to toot my own horn, but to help convince you that, interdisciplinary work, if done responsibly, can have a wide reach, and can allow you to demonstrate your versatility and cultivate a really exciting career. There is a public for this kind of work; there’s a need for scholarship and practice that expand beyond those artificial intellectual categories defined by the academy.

[46] And just as rewarding is the fact that the perceived need and utility extend beyond the academy itself. Josh Sheppard, who’s a historian of public broadcasting and an archivist at the Library of Congress and an international advocate for audio-visual preservation, says the same thing. I’ve been invited to work with a lot of local, national, and international arts, design, and cultural heritage organizations to organize design competitions, host programs, and edit publication series. I’ve collaborated with various colleagues – and with the city’s libraries and the mayor’s office – on exhibitions. And I’m currently serving as president of the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, which serves nearly 300 libraries and archives in the city – from museum and hospital and university libraries, to small activist organizations’ archives. I’m not a trained librarian. It was the interdisciplinary resonance of my work – and the respect that work demonstrates for others’ professional expertise – that led them to invite me to contribute.

[47] I guess you could say I’ve launched a benevolent takeover. I – and all these folks whose voices I’ve ventriloquized here on my slides – strongly recommend that you start planning your own. [48]

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