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Research without a Product is not yet Research

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It is often said that universities have three purposes: 1) the education and formation of their students; 2) the scholarly inquiry of their faculty, and 3) service to the common good. Of course, all of these are synergistic. This is a post about scholarly inquiry or research, which could be viewed as a successor to the last post, which argued that research experiences are key to the future of our students.

The above trio of missions merely notes the need to support “the scholarly inquiry of faculty.” However, the key method of increasing the impact of universities to the common good requires that the results of the research be absorbed by the parts of the society that can profit from the research.

Research results that are undocumented or not disseminated are not too valuable. The notion evokes, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If research results exist without anyone other than a lone scholar knowing about it, does it matter?

I have known many scholars in my lifetime. Some of the very brightest are not the most successful. They may follow and critique the latest developments in their field. They may be eloquent questioners in seminars and conferences. But they underperform in their own research. Some are hypercritical both of others’ work and of their own. Their critical powers are so acute that little they themselves do meets their own high standards. They fail to end research projects, seeking one more step that will fill in a gap, in an endless loop of polishing. They critique their own writing to such an extent that they actually produce very little.

Knowledge “discovered” by one scholar is not yet “research” in the full meaning of the word. It is a necessary step in the process of research and scholarship, but it is not sufficient. Research by universities is a vehicle to achieve the other two goals of a university — student formation and service to the common good. Hence, the goal of research or scholarship is not complete until their results are disseminated. Research is original inquiry whose results are shared so that they can become part of humanity’s documented knowledge base.

It is at the moment of dissemination that the rest of world can digest, evaluate, and make judgments about the marginal worth of the new product. Some products are judged as mere minor additions to a field’s understanding; others represent field-changing events. Sometimes the early judgment of the usefulness of a product are contradicted by later judgments. But without the dissemination step, little common good can result.

As we teach students how to form research questions or scholarly inquiries, how to engage in the various steps of ingesting information, and creating their own scholarly conclusions, we must also teach them that scholarship products must be freely shared, to fully complete the research step. Scholarly inquiry whose products are widely disseminated maximizes the chances of service to the common good.

Why Do Universities Support Research?

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We live in times of diminished reputation of the higher education sector within the US. In the last few years public opinion has leaned toward less trust in the institutions of higher education, either because of their perceived ideological homogeneity and/or their high cost. The Great Recession forced attention on getting jobs, as the labor market swelled with the unemployed. Many, therefore, focused on the content of the classroom that advances one’s work career.

The discussion of the value of higher education has morphed a bit over time. For example, more people seem to know that lifetime earnings tend to be $1 million or so higher among college graduates versus others. There seem to be fewer calls for young people to reject going to college in favor of immediate entrepreneurial activity.

However, I find that even many college graduates hold in rather low regard the role of research (versus teaching) within universities. Some say glibly, what is the value of a published article in an obscure journal read by 20 people? (Said that way, I must admit, even I have my doubts.) This is less often said about research in the lab sciences, in my experience, but quite common concerning those fields in which the scholarship is often done by single scholars.

One hypothesis I have about this attitude is that most college students see the lives of their faculty members only as instructors. Their exposure to faculty is in formal classroom settings. The research lives of their faculty members are often not as visible to them. Especially in fields where faculty research and scholarship is done in archives or in the solitude of one’s office by oneself, students don’t see their faculty members engaged in research. It evokes the metaphor of thinking that an attorney only argues cases in court, ignoring the assembly, evaluation, and synthesis of evidence outside the courtroom.

I worry about two phenomena: 1) the need for every undergraduate to develop research skills, and 2) the need for universities to articulate why research and instruction are inseparable.

First, we know that large portions of undergraduates now entering college will live to be over 100 years old. This means that their undergraduate years will form less than 4% of their life course. The notion that all learning to prepare one for adult life must be packed into 4%, placed very early in life, seems unwise at best. We expect our graduates to have multiple careers, not just multiple jobs. We should have no illusion that the content of many courses will remain the same 40 years later.

We expect that many will find in their 40’s or 50’s that their chosen career line has been completely disrupted by technical, social, or political change. How can they cope at that moment? At those turning points, they must identify options; they must learn whole new knowledge domains; they must self-teach; they must assemble volumes of information, some relevant, some irrelevant; they must synthesize and form judgments about the way forward. These are precisely the steps exercised in scholarship and research projects. Providing students with 2018 content without giving them the skills to assemble and synthesize 2058 content is a mistake.

This leads to my second worry. If we organize the work of universities to separate instruction from research, we fail to prepare our students for their own original inquiries so necessary to their long-term success. We want our faculty to be active in research because they can convey to our students the then state-of-the-art content of a field. We also believe that it is through research that major contributions to the common good are made by universities. It is rather easy to document that almost all major improvements in our lives built through new knowledge have some of their roots in university research. But it seems increasingly obvious that we also need to integrate research and instruction in order to truly serve our students. Georgetown faculty are active in experimenting with organic integration of research into courses. With this development, we give our students the ability to continuously refresh their lives and careers throughout their 100+ year lives.

The National Urban Fellows at the McCourt School

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A few days ago, we had a wonderful announcement and reception for a new program at the McCourt School of Public Policy: an alliance with the National Urban Fellows (NUF). This alliance will bring to the School an annual cohort of 30-40 midcareer professionals to pursue a Master’s of Policy Management degree.

The mission of the NUF states, “National Urban Fellows develops accomplished and courageous professionals of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, particularly people of color and women, to be leaders and change agents in the public and nonprofit sectors, with a strong commitment to social justice and equity.” The program’s primary focus is to prepare Fellows to be leaders, managers, and analysts in public affairs, public administration, and public policy or related fields. 

The NUF was started in the late 1960’s, a time of great unrest and violence in cities throughout the United States – a result of the combined ills from discrimination, poverty, residential segregation, and related injustices. With support from the Ford Foundation, the National League of Cities, the US Conference of Mayors and New Haven’s Community Action Institute, the National Urban Fellows program was built. From the base, other related programs were launched, all related to building new generations of leaders devoted to public service.

The typical fellow selected for the program is in her/his early 30’s with 6-8 years of post-baccalaureate experience. The academic curriculum is enriched by fellowship placements for real-world experience. These placements are in organizations that have agreed to take on mentoring responsibilities for the fellows. The fellows commit to disrupting their current lives to have on-campus experiences as well as placements away from their current home. At this point, there are scores of private sector and nonprofit sectors organizations that have played the mentoring role. Many of these then recruit the fellows who graduate into their ranks. There are hundreds of graduates of NUF who have obtained leadership roles in every sector of the society.

The National Urban Fellows program was seeking an academic partner that shared a set of values including pursuing the public interest with accountability and transparency; serving professionally with competence, efficiency and objectivity; acting ethically so as to uphold the public trust; demonstrating respect, equity and fairness in dealings with others, and fully recognizing the benefits of diversity and higher education.

In my experience, it is rare that two institutions find themselves so totally aligned in their mission. The McCourt School aspires to educate the next generation of leaders in public service, with deep attention to creating leaders that resemble the diverse society the US has become. NUF wants to help identify those leaders and seek support from partners for advanced education of them. The synergy was evident to the McCourt School immediately.

The first cohort of fellows will hopefully arrive in 2019. We seek to welcome them into our community, to learn from them, and enjoy the enrichment that they will offer to the classes they attend. We share the mission of the National Urban Fellows program, and treasure them as a new partner in the McCourt School’s mission.

Faculty Search Requests

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This is the time in the year when deans present proposals to the university for additional members of the faculty. In most cases, the proposals originate through faculty initiatives. They are vetted within departments/units and forwarded to the school dean. The deans then review the proposals and attempt to fit them into the budgetary constraints of the school. Then they move to the provost’s office.

My starting opinion on these matters is rather simple – all of the units of the university could be strengthened by a larger number of faculty. In almost every unit, there are subfields for which we do not yet have a faculty expert on board. In contrast, there are no effective arguments that a new faculty member in a unit will harm the university. But all universities operate under finance and space constraints.

Hence, the decisions regarding searching for a new faculty member are ones that require trading off one good for another. We’ve attempted in the provost’s office to become more transparent about these tradeoff decisions. We have little expectation that negative decisions regarding search requests will be well-received by the proposer, but we believe that we all have the right to know the ingredients of the decision. Hence, we distribute each year a list of all proposals forwarded for search requests, with explicit rationale for the decision.

It’s worthwhile, I suspect, to review what criteria are used in the provost’s office for such decisions.

First, we seek to review the role that the new hire will play in the intellectual portfolio of the department/unit. How does the expertise being sought add to the coverage of subfields in the unit? Is the missing subfield one of growing importance in the discipline? How
will the research profile of the unit be enhanced through the proposed hire?

Second, we ask the question of whether the demand for students for the field is growing, staying the same, or declining? Are there large waitlists for courses offered by the unit? Are there growing numbers of undergraduate majors? Is the unit experiencing graduate student enrollment pressures? Are the current faculty in the unit teaching larger numbers of students than comparable departments?

Third, we link the proposal to other strategic efforts in the university. Does the proposal address one of the areas related to university initiatives? Does the proposal contribute to the interdisciplinary strength of Georgetown? Is the proposal compatible with a joint appointment between two units?

Fourth, do our revenue expectations two years from now give us assurance that we can afford a new hire? For example, searches approved for academic year 2018-2019, will generally yield a new faculty member no earlier than fall semester 2019. Hence, a decision this year to search has implications not on next year’s budget but the year-after’s budget.
Fifth, has a faculty member left the unit? When a tenure-line assistant professor leaves a unit, other things being equal, we seek to replace them with another tenure-line assistant professor. In contrast, when a tenured member leaves the university, we attempt to make wise allocations to those units that most need the position.

Sixth, does the proposed rank of the search improve the mix of fulls-associates-assistants in the unit? Are the needs of the unit best served by a tenure-line appointment, a non-tenure-line appointment, or adjuncts? It is healthy to have a mix of experience within the faculty ranks. For example, in fields that are rapidly changing, it’s important to have newly-minted PhD’s to teach the latest developments in the field to our students.

Seventh, is it critical that the faculty search occur next year, or could the unit’s goals be fulfilled with a later search? We are attempting as a community to think about our work in multi-year sequences. When we can plan ahead for a search, we generally can make wiser decisions.

Decisions on faculty searches are some of the most important a university can make. None of them can be made easily because rarely do the answers to the seven types of questions above all point in the same direction. We spend hours of review and reflection on how best to move forward.

We’re in the thick of the process now. We will try our best to make wise decisions.

It Takes a Village, With Special Help from Long-time Residents

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One of the problems with a modern research university is that every member of the community is fully busy on their own affairs. Much communication is via email. Many are so busy that it’s difficult to take advantage of all the various stimulating activities ongoing. This is especially true of urban universities, in which commuting and external events complicate the normal bonding of co-workers.

This is true of provosts as well as faculty and staff, but provosts’ obligations sometimes allow them to stop and reflect on the nature of university communities.

I had such an experience yesterday, at the Georgetown Service Awards Presentation. This is a celebration of staff members who have completed, 20, 25, 30, 40, and 45 years of service at Georgetown.

The staff so honored came from all parts of the university. Some worked in the Medical Center in clinical activities. Some were part of the Georgetown transportation department that operates shuttles to and from campus. Others were gardeners or maintenance staff. Still others worked in the admissions, academic support, or other units where they interacted with the students at the university. Some were custodial staff. Others worked in libraries around the university.

Some, featured in a video, described why they spent so much of their career here. It was uplifting for a relative newbie to see the manifested commitment to Georgetown among them. A theme that was repeated over and over again was the felt connection to the mission of Georgetown. They truly believed in the commitment to build a better world by service to others. They had absorbed the belief that their lives were given more meaning by devoting them to an institution that was animated by such values.

It wasn’t difficult for me to begin thinking how modern university life, with internet-mediated communication and constant desire to do more, interferes with our knowing what others in the university are doing. We all have a notion of how our work contributes to the mission of the university. We’re not reminded enough, in my opinion, about how our individual work depends on a whole host of people – some of whom we’ve never met – who do their jobs supporting ours. Of course, the threat posed by this isolation is one of illusory superiority of our self-image.

I was moved in seeing the different long-term staff receive their awards, getting just a glimpse of their role in the university, and seeing, especially in some, the obvious pride they had in their achievement.

I was reminded how happy I was recently seeing new carpet installed in one of our buildings. I reflected on the gratitude I have for the colors of new flowers and blooming bushes on campus. I’m proud that we’re offering shuttle transportation into campus, as a way to be a good neighbor to the Washington community, especially the drivers among us. I count on the Internet being accessible to me throughout campus to do my work. My office depends on properly functioning hardware, Xerox machines, and a safe campus 24/7. I know that the care of students is not just performed by faculty who instruct them but a whole host of others, some providing food, others providing spiritual nurturance.

Those who makes these things happen are easily forgotten. Forgetting that leads me at times to underestimate the value of an interdependent group of people sharing one mission.

That sense of shared mission was clear among these long-term employees. I was humbled to be reminded of how much we depend on one another.

An Innovative Blend of Business and Global Affairs

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At a recent Georgetown Board of Directors meeting, the deans of the Walsh School of Foreign Service (SFS) and the McDonough School of Business (MSB) described a proposal for a new degree program, a BS in Business and Global Affairs. The program is unique organizationally because it is a collaboration between two schools, equally contributing to the curriculum and research activities. Indeed, it will be the first such shared undergraduate degree program in Georgetown’s 229-year history.

The motivation for this program, like many collaborations ongoing at Georgetown, is the need to form new kinds of leaders to succeed in our service to a rapidly changing world.

Almost all economic activities these days are globalized. Even the smallest service provider or manufacturer can easily have customers throughout the world. Similarly, understanding geopolitical influences on nation-states and other actors requires a deep understanding of financial flows, international trade of enterprises into and out of the relevant countries, and the evolution of the private sector. It’s increasingly obvious that global affairs are greatly shaped by global business, and that evolution of business around the world is shaped by geopolitical influences.

Georgetown is fortunate that it enjoys a strong school in international affairs in the School of Foreign Service and a strong business school in McDonough. Further, we are located in one of the world’s great cities, Washington, D.C., which is the home of many international organizations of relevance to global business (e.g., the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund). We draw on a set of students attracted to our mission of “women and men for others,” and we aspire to tackle the world’s important problems by liberating faculty and students to work across units and disciplines. In short, I can’t imagine a better institution to create a new educational program, educating the next generation of leaders in business and global affairs.

Over the past few years, both in the SFS and MSB, pilot programs developed ways of effectively teaching global business, involving global experiences and active learning exercises with enterprises throughout the world. The new program builds on the success of these efforts, but will involve more faculty and a more integrated curriculum.

The curriculum designed for the program was led by a task force of faculty from both schools, led by Irfan Nooruddin, from SFS, and Pietra Rivoli, from MSB. The entire program has a theme – understanding the causes and consequences of globalization for societies and economies around the world. Instead of merely collecting a set of existing courses from each school, the faculty created a new set of courses, combining knowledge from both business and international affairs into each course. This means that faculty from the two schools, appointed as core members of the program’s faculty, will collaborate in delivering the curriculum, also in an innovative format.

Finally, the program incorporates a variety of experience-based learning protocols, involving projects with enterprises outside the US. These, led by Georgetown faculty, will be intensive exposures to the application of the theories learned in traditional classroom work. The goal of these experiences, as well as all the other features of the program, is to produce future leaders who are comfortable doing their work in diverse cultures throughout the world.

This unprecedented collaboration of two schools will offer Georgetown students unique opportunities. We are proud of the design of the program and look forward to its launch.

Research Cartoons

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I greatly enjoy cartoons describing research. One of my favorites is a view of a home’s entryway with a wife greeting her husband returning from work. Behind them, in another room at the dining room sits a man with glasses and a dark beard, in a three-piece suit, bent over some papers. The caption above the wife’s head says, “I don’t know, he said he was a visiting scholar and sat down at the table and just started working.”

Cartoons about research almost always show men, generally older, and often frumpy. Cartoons about natural science research always seem to have men in white coats, with lots of devices on the laboratory bench. Another favorite picture is a man at a blackboard, filled with incomprehensible equations. Then, there are astronomers, always peering into a telescope. Even there, the researcher sometimes wears a white coat. There are a lot of white coats.

The social science cartoons often portray a research interviewer on a doorstep. These too are men, often holding a clipboard. The householder greeting the interviewer is most often a woman. The joke is usually generated by a stupid question from the interviewer or a sarcastic answer from the householder. I’ve seen a few anthropology cartoons, generally a picture of a westerner asking a question of a villager outside a hut. The health sciences seem to be often represented by clinical scenes rather than research images. The computational sciences seem to be placed inside large, old-style mainframe settings or data farms.

One interesting feature that the cartoons often get right is that they show researchers at work, clearly self-motivated and passionate about their labors. In fact, hyper-passion of the researcher is sometimes the brunt of the humor.

One wonders how these stereotypes emerged. The obvious gender bias is grating. The formal dress belies the pervasive academic ethic that not wearing a suit is a badge of honor and, we all know, only administrators wear suits. The “absentmindedness” theme in many of the cartoons breeds a notion of one removed from the real world. The common theme of irrelevance in the actions of the researcher doesn’t fit with how fields are organized.

Perhaps the most telling omission is that the cartoon scenes rarely portray the link between the act of research and the beneficial outcomes of research. They are great at shining a funny spotlight on the doing of research but not the impact of research.

We’re living in a time when the value of investments in science are questioned. The value of many other spheres of higher education are even more threatened. But, higher education is fundamental to expanding understanding of the basic questions of humanity.

In thinking about our students, I am convinced that we need to show them as frequently as possible our research lives as well as our instructional lives. We educate our students for a life of self-teaching, not just their first job. The content of our teaching has a shorter shelf life than our methods of inquiry and research. It is these that will arm our students with the ability to transform themselves when their field of work is fully disrupted by innovation we cannot now anticipate. We dearly need enhanced awareness of the link between higher education’s research activities and beneficial innovation research produces.

I wish I had cartoon-drawing talent.

A Call to Dialogue at Georgetown

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On Monday, Executive Vice President Ed Healton and I announced via email that we reached agreement with a group of graduate students, GAGE, and their partner union, the American Federation of Teachers, to hold an election determining whether those eligible want to be represented by the union.

This is a union election unlike any that has occurred at Georgetown, in that it is taking place outside the purview of the National Labor Relations Board. It is not an election that has been directed by the NLRB, but one that the University and GAGE/AFT have mutually agreed will occur.

As a Jesuit university, we excel at intergroup dialogue. We engage in dialogue across religions, races, ethnicities, political ideologies, and groups differing on countless other issues. Hence, the email we sent asks that all members of the community learn about the issues relating to graduate student unionization.

We have provided FAQ’s, with answers to common questions. We will update these over time, in order to stay current with issues as they arise. We have also provided guidance to faculty and staff on how best to engage in respectful dialogue on the issues.

We want all community members to discuss the consequences of graduate student unionization. We are not just permitting such talk, we are encouraging it. Over the many years of Georgetown’s existence, we have learned that we collectively become better when we understand each other’s viewpoint better. When we engage in dialogue, our community grows stronger.

Hence, we urge faculty to express their views consistent with the guidelines referenced above and listen to the views of their faculty colleagues and those of students. We encourage graduate students to express their views and listen to the views of fellow students and those of faculty. Dialogue involves both listening and talking.

We can imagine many different ways to foster real dialogue:

  • The unit chair/director can take advantage of existing informal settings, to permit faculty and students to interact and discuss the issues
  • Individual students can seek out discussions with faculty
  • Students can meet with faculty over lunches
  • Labs with several research assistants could use their routine group meetings to discuss the issues
  • Deans could use their open office hours to meet with graduate students and faculty about the issues

In short, we think there are many different ways that Georgetown could take this moment as an opportunity to understand different perspectives more fully. When we do that, everyone involved will make better judgments, and we can build a better institution.

As a Jesuit institution, we excel at inter-group dialogue. It would be a shame to miss the opportunity to foster that at this moment. So, to my colleagues, both graduate students and faculty, I urge you to review the FAQ’s and guidelines and talk to each other.

Metaphors Matter

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Some decades ago, there was an influential book that labeled academic disciplines as “tribes.” The metaphor generated offense because of its implication about savagery and unsophisticated cultures. But the authors were promoting the idea that the disciplines had unusually strong control mechanisms defining what were legitimate research questions and research methods, powers to rate publication outlets, and general influences over reward systems. Another metaphor that became popular was one of “silos,” which connoted narrow, impermeable structures of thought.

Much has happened in the decades since the book was authored. There are more academic units, programs, and fields now than before. Many of these are the result of disaggregation of disciplines. There are PhD programs that have defined new combinations of traditional disciplines. There are more research institutes on university campuses that are problem-oriented (e.g., environmental research).

Further, many disciplines permit and reward combining their traditional knowledge with other fields. As disciplines have evolved, there appears to be more acceptance of fluidity of methods and questions. Disciplines change over time in what questions are legitimized. There seems to be evidence of several disciplines taking on similar problems (e.g., decision making under uncertainty of interest to political scientists, economists, and psychologists).

In short, the metaphor of “tribes,” or of “silos,” may not be fit to the modern academic work.

I recently read a nice piece1 that suggests a different metaphor – one of an ocean. Water merges together naturally. But inside an ocean there’s variation – in temperature and salinity. Combining water differing on those attributes creates new temperatures and salinity. Some academic fields, close to one another in topic areas and methods, blend together rather fluidly. Scholars in the two fields sometimes publish in each other’s outlets.

Oceans have currents; portions move at different rates. The currents pull along adjacent portions of water. Speeds blend together. When academic fields are combined, it’s often the case that both fields are changed because of the combination.

Oceans have tides that raise and lower their levels in different areas because of external forces. Over the decades, academic fields gain and lose prominence. They become viewed as more or less important to the problems of the day.

Oceans are fed by rivers coming from land. The fresh water from diverse rivers blend into the oceans, eventually to be indistinguishable from the rest of the ocean. As new observations arise from outside academia, they are gradually absorbed inside the academy. They are mixed together with the knowledge of existing disciplines. They become part of accepted knowledge.

Well, I’m not sure how far I can push the ocean metaphor, but it has some attraction. It implies that academia is not crippled by active resistance to combining knowledge from multiple disciplines; it’s more a problem of conceptual distances among fields (just as distances across oceans). Advances from combining knowledge from multiple disciplines require an environment that encourages interactions among them, reducing the conceptual distances. Bringing together diverse approaches, as a way to bridge those distances, ought to be our focus.


Manathunga, C., and A. Brew, “Beyond Tribes and Territories New Metaphors for New Times,” Chapter 4, pp. 44-56, in Trowler, P.; M. Saunders, and V. Bamber, Tribes and Territories in the 21st Century, Routledge, 2012.

In Defense of Disciplines

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I’ve written in the last post about the interdisciplinary movement in universities and what may have prompted it. This is a post about the necessity of the disciplines to fuel any interdisciplinary movement.

First, definitions matter in this discussion. Are disciplines limited to those departments/units/fields that existed 100 years ago in most universities? Most definitions include the notion that a discipline requires an academic curriculum, a professional organization, a journal or named set of publication outlets, as well as other features. US universities clearly have increased the number of organizing units that have such features. We are approaching 30,000 different scholarly journals, with more proliferating on the Internet each year. There are thousands of professional organizations. So, definitions are tricky in this discussion.

Indeed, over the years, interdisciplinarity has already altered the organization of academic units. Biology, for example, as a discipline, has transformed itself on many campuses into a larger set of departments with an adjectival modifier (e.g., environmental biology, microbiology). Economics is earlier in the same evolutionary process, with health economics and behavioral economics, among others, developing as distinct subfields, with growing split-offs into separate departments. In short, defining disciplines by what departments exist is probably unwise. The set is constantly changing.

Second, from afar, disciplines may appear homogeneous. From another perspective, the expansion of academic departments reflects the continuous dynamic nature of disciplines. All are constantly in a state of change. The pressing issues of the field change. What is novel and important evolves over time. New knowledge from other fields is brought to attention and forces a rethink of central assumptions. Subfields emerge, morph, and are combined.

The churning reflects a thirst to solve the unsolved. Some of the problems are remaining questions in one field whose answers can be unlocked by adding knowledge from another field (e.g., the detection of gravitational waves with LIGO). Therefore, some of the interdisciplinary actions can be categorized as new ways to do “basic” not “applied” research. Other problems are imported from society as needing a solution, and thus are more “applied” syntheses of different fields.

Third, when a new combination of disciplines can address a large set of issues, the combination tends to survive. Books and journals start to proliferate. New professional organizations support the interaction of those crafting the combination. Academic classes form, and the education arm arises. Later new departments bloom. Scholars begin to describe the new filed as a discipline.

In this regard, disciplines ironically are the engines of interdisciplinary activities. This belies Foucault’s famous quote: “The disciplines characterize, classify, specialize; they distribute along a scale, around a norm, hierarchize individuals in relation to one another and, if necessary, disqualify and invalidate.” We need to add that disciplines, in their search for truth, also motivate and empower interdisciplinary work.

So, yes, unsolved problems often need multiple knowledge domains for their solution. But without deep work in those domains, there’s nothing useful to combine.

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