There are few organizations that provide such freedom of activity as universities, permitting faculty great autonomy in choosing their focus of research and scholarship. While the teaching activities are specified by the curriculum and the service obligations by unit, school, and university structures, individual faculty members can pursue their interests solely constrained by the peer review processes of their field.
It is fascinating to be part of a community where curiosity and a passion to pursue unanswered questions are driving forces. All fields continually challenge themselves in endless attempts to expand and deepen their insights. At the individual faculty level, many times these attributes prompt one to explore area outside of their PhD training (indeed, this seems to be a growing theme in the Provost Podcast series, “Faculty in Research”). While sometimes venturing into a new domain can be accomplished by oneself, when exploring whole new knowledge terrains, the investment is daunting. In such circumstances, collaboration with those outside one’s field is the only efficient way to proceed.
Hence, it’s interesting to explore what attributes of an academic environment appear to be helpful in fostering collaboration. I’ve posted earlier about the galvanizing effect of collaboration that occurs when scholars from different fields find one another attempting to solve the same problem. In this case, the shared focus on the problem diminishes the differences between them.
In contrast, when one scholar is attempting only to use another’s knowledge, without the two sharing a passion to solve the same problem, true collaboration is impeded. In those cases, one potential collaborator can easily feel they are being used solely to advance the personal agenda of the other. This occurs often when one scholar merely wants to use knowledge of specific tools developed in the other’s field. So, mutual respect is key to collaboration. Academic environments that have both intellectual and physical spaces that support multiple fields working on the same problem helps overcome these issues.
Even when two collaborators find themselves on equal footing in terms of a focus on unanswered questions, problems abound in building collaborations across fields. Fields create technical languages to make within-field communication efficient. This within-field efficiency diminishes between-field understanding. Great patience and time are often required to create effective transmission of ideas between fields. The larger the sharing of language (either mathematical, graphical, or verbal) between the fields, the faster the collaboration can become effective. Unfortunately, many collaborations die before this point of maturation. Hence, academic environments supporting collaboration must simultaneously support long-term relationships. (In this regard, it is heartwarming to see more and more external research funding recognizing the need for collaboration in multi-year efforts.)
When research collaboration can be integrated within the educational activity, some of the burden of conceptual translation can be eased. This is most obvious when scholars from different fields co-teach a course. Co-teaching permits the two to converse at the level needed for student understanding. It forces clarification of differences between two approaches; it unites the two in serving student understanding and, as a consequence, enriches their own understanding of the other field.
Another environmental catalyst for faculty members to collaborate is the sharing of mentorship of a research assistant. Often the student becomes an intellectual hybrid of the two, blending and synthesizing the two fields. Their joint devotion to the student, and the student’s lessons to the faculty about the synthesis of fields, make the collaboration effective and pleasurable.
Finally, nothing prompts and secures collaboration than shared responsibilities to successfully complete a project. Externally funded time-delimited grants and contracts are catalysts to real interdisciplinary practice. Hence, building an academic environment that nurtures team-application to grant and contract opportunities is important.
As Georgetown faculty continually reach to increase their impact on solving important world problems, we need to build an environment that makes collaboration across fields easier.