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Differences Across Disciplines that Aren’t that Different

One of the joys of a provost is learning lessons about how the different disciplines are organized, how they define important questions to examine, and how they identify important work.

As each group drills deeper into their domains of knowledge, it is easy for them to risk learning little about other fields. As a side-effect of specialization, even our languages describing our work evolve separately – “research,” “scholarship,” “inquiry,” “study,” “investigation,” “innovation,” and a host of other words are used with different frequency and different meanings across fields.

Further, much is made of different prerequisites of research across fields. Some fields have strong paradigms or theories that are integrated constituent building blocks of current work. Others are more open to creation of new knowledge with fewer conceptual constraints. The former often require that students learn the basic building blocks before introducing them to the cutting-edge work in the field. The latter are more open to presenting the latest work earlier in the student’s orientation to the field.

A closer examination of the work of academics in their fields, however, reveal important consistencies.

First, advances in every field are more often based on deep understanding of prior work in the field. Across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, it seems common that a researcher, well-schooled in the field, observes that there is an unsolved puzzle in the field, a promising combination of work unseen previously, an anomaly across studies, or a controversy that evokes a new way of thinking. These form the catalysts for a new piece of work.

Second, the researcher must sketch out the idea for filling the gap. This is the step where a community of scholars often acts to validate or repudiate the proposed new work. In all fields, some researchers eliminate ideas with low odds of success by reaching out to close colleagues to “stress-test” the logic of proposed new work. In fields with external funding for research, proposals are formal steps of seeking feedback about the promise of filling a knowledge gap. When the research product is planned to be book-length, the scholar may write an essay or an article that reveals the sketch of the “big idea” to test its merits.

What many outside academia don’t realize is that the “hit rate” of ideas is really quite small. Most academics have files of research ideas that seemed wonderful initially but didn’t pass the stress test. (Sometimes those ideas are reborn and thrive with a little aging and new perspectives!)

So, the genesis of many ideas in all parts of academia is an opportunity for innovation in knowledge, a deeper understanding, a new solution. Academic research constantly seeks advancement.

Third, another commonality across fields is the role of the scholarly community after the research is completed. It is fair to say that the academia is seeking ever-more complete understandings of truth. Overturning “current accepted knowledge” is the goal of almost all research.

But who judges such overturning? Here again almost all fields depend on a community of peers judging new work. New findings, especially when they are vastly different from accepted knowledge, are scrutinized by peers. Book-length manuscripts are often reviewed by local colleagues and, certainly, by experts connected to a publisher. Article-length manuscripts are often anonymously reviewed through the journal of publication. In that sense, what is “truth” or what is a legitimate advance are community projects.

In short, these three steps – a search for gaps in the current state of a field, a check that the “filling of the gap” is meritorious of pursuit, and a community of peers judging whether the “fill” was successful — unite almost all fields.

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Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

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