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Galaxy Brain

June 28, 2024 |  3 min read

The reception of the ‘Co-Assignment Galaxy’ has been a minor ongoing puzzle in our work. The Galaxy is generally recognized as the coolest thing we’ve built – a navigable, bird’s eye view of all of anglophone higher education and a very novel way of looking at fields and subfields. And it does attract a lot of oohs and aahs. What is doesn’t attract is substantive conversation, which has surprised me because it provides a way of visualizing and characterizing everyone’s field. And people argue about those constantly.

So I’ve taken a stab at the question of why the dog didn’t bark – why people are fascinated by the Galaxy but don’t know what to do with it, or how to argue about it. And the answer, I think, comes down mostly to the lack of habits of interpretation of large-scale plots, which are an increasingly common but also very recent way of representing data. New forms of representation need new forms of literacy, and then the specifics of this representation – of fields composed of teaching choices – bring additional requirements. I’ve explored both issues in a piece at Public Books, and in the process tried to convey what I think we can learn about fields and the structure of higher ed from the Galaxy.

Big, well-consolidated disciplines often resemble archipelagos that spread out along their major teaching subdivisions. This subfield geography in English is distinctive and reflects the continued periodization of teaching by century, country, and—to a lesser extent—genre.

The disciplinary gravity that holds these clusters together, though, can be fragile. In the real world, classes that tick more than one disciplinary box can be cross listed. In the Galaxy this tension has to be resolved through color and spatial location. Most fields have inflection points where disciplinary commonalities can be outcompeted by strong thematic or problem-centered curricula, which “pull” titles into their orbits. Such tensions between disciplinary and topical organizations of teaching and research have been the starting point for many new fields over the years, such as the area studies fields that emerged in the postwar decades in part through SSRC programs.

Area studies fields turn out to be strong attractors of disciplinary titles. There is, for example, a large semicircular cluster for Asian and South Asian studies, composed of an arc running from India in the southeast to China and Japan in the northwest. What’s the main thematic connector between South Asia and East Asia? The study of Hinduism and Buddhism, here in teal and gray. There is a corresponding regional Africa cluster with differentiated political science, history, and literature subclusters and a similar one for Latin America. And there is a more nebulous cluster covering the Middle East, North Africa, and the study of Islam—with the last contributing a strong interdisciplinary dimension to the field.