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Institutional Support for Interdisciplinarity

We have just received preliminary findings from last year’s self-administered survey of faculty members at Georgetown, the COACHE survey. As was true in the two previous surveys, faculty tend to give low scores on assessments of Georgetown’s “support for interdisciplinary work.” We need to do better in this area and are actively planning to do so.

As we plan for the next fundraising campaign, one of its unifying themes demands thriving interdisciplinarity. It flows from a simple four-step argument:

                  1. Georgetown is a Jesuit-animated research university devoted to service to others, with                   special attention to the disadvantaged.

                  2. Therefore, it is proper that it create university structures that permit it to have larger                    impact on solving the world’s problems.

                  3. The existing problems plaguing the world cannot be solved by knowledge within a single                    discipline, school, or profession.

                  4. Hence, to increase its impact as a global research university, Georgetown needs to increase                    its support of the work of interdisciplinary teams devoted to those solutions.

We have already moved in this direction in various ways. The EVPs launched a set of initiatives to attract senior established scholars for joint appointments across schools and campuses. Interdisciplinarity is inherent in the goals of the Georgetown Environment Initiative, which is bridging the gulf between the science of environment and the public and political discourse in the area. It is inherent in the Massive Data Institute, where high-dimensional data will be blended with traditional sources to understand complex social phenomena. It also is consistent with the thrust of launching the Institute for Racial Justice, which is recruiting faculty who would have half-time appointments in the Institute and halftime appointments in a more traditional academic unit. A world-problem orientation motivated the reorganization of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the creation of new graduate programs focused on problem areas that have career lines attached to them. Faculty are themselves increasingly coalescing into interdisciplinary work groups. Finally, an interdisciplinary spirit is motivating many of the faculty searches ongoing in the university, initiated by individual units.

The demand for interdisciplinarity comes both from faculty and students whose interests lie on the interfaces of disciplines, where more work is always needed. Students have always thirsted to make their mark, to fix all of the ills of the world as they see them, and, especially at Georgetown, to help others live more fulfilling lives. Students are, in that sense, problem-oriented. A university like Georgetown should take advantage of those orientations. We imagine a university where every student has as a dual focus – studying a traditional disciplinary field, but also working with those outside their field on world problems of common interest.

What we are missing at Georgetown, however, is a set of homes for the faculty and students who want to work on these problems. Most of the current interdisciplinary groups that I observe are forced to use conference rooms to meet periodically, but then must return to their offices spread throughout the university. They do not enjoy the random bumping-into-one- another or the quick hallway conversations that the shared space of an institute or center provides. Without such space, students from diverse disciplines who share an interest in a world problem have no common space in which to meet, no place to hang out and speculate on alternative ways of solving world problems. They have a more difficult time finding each other.

Many of the ideas bubbling up from faculty and students about how to make Georgetown more impactful require such homes to achieve their aspirations. We have the human resources to do this; we need to invent the physical space to take advantage of those resources.

4 thoughts on “Institutional Support for Interdisciplinarity

  1. I agree with Erick – there is something to be said for drawing more attention to the tenure review process in both pedagogical innovation and research innovation.

    For research to be cooperative, problem-solving, and therefore interdisciplinary, rewarding co-publishing and collaborative research should happen through promotion and tenure as well as with short term prizes and recognition as those suggested here.

    There may also be something to be said for working not only across disciplines of academia but alongside authors and researchers who do not hold a terminal degree. For example, in the Center for Social Justice at Georgetown, students, faculty, staff, and community partners all bump elbows and new ideas and collaborative approaches to problems emerge.

    I wonder how we would have to innovate to make the academy more welcoming not solely to collaboration among members of the academy, but to collaboration in general. Questioning sole authorship / rewarding co-authorship may be a place to start.

  2. I think that funds to support co-taught courses between disciplines would create some interesting and productive work by faculty and students.

  3. Some great ideas. If you really want to make interdisciplinarity work, I think, is if we give more credit for multiple-authored publications. That is where we often put multidisciplinarity (and interdisciplinarity) into practice. Indeed, to do this often takes more work than single-authored publications. Right now I see that there is insufficient recognition of the extra work that this takes.

  4. Interdisciplinarity is both topical and the wave of the future, for all the excellent reasons delineated. Yet, we should also remember that the Humanities preceded,since there has long since been a natural cross-fertilization between literature, philosophy, theology, depth psychology and anthropology, not forgetting that theatre also adds inquiry into proxemics, symbology and ritual. Solving the problems of the world is admirable. However, matters of cognition, perception, reception and transactional expression play a constitutive role in improving human communication, a necessary preface to effective problem-solving across barriers to a more expansive humanity.

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