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Interdisciplinary, Collaborative

In a survey last year, the Georgetown faculty expressed the belief that they felt inadequate support for interdisciplinary work. We’re trying to do better on this score, and I’ve talked with several faculty about related issues over the past few months.

Interdisciplinary work is difficult at all universities because the traditional organization of a university follows disciplinary boundaries. Disciplines are powerful organizing devices because they validate which research questions are the most important, which research methods are most valued, and what constitutes a real contribution to knowledge.

Disciplines vary on these features, and, hence, working across disciplines requires inventing ways to navigate multiple approaches to scholarship.

At the same time, there has been a sea of change among those institutions that fund scholarly research activities. Most foundations and government research agencies increasingly underscore the value of interdisciplinary work. The unsolved problems and gaps in knowledge are disproportionately on the edges of disciplines. The solutions do not appear to lie within a single field. For example, while the chemistry and biology of environmental harm to land and water is now better understood, the solutions to such problems cannot be found without deep understanding of the social, economic, and cultural influences on human behavior. Countless other examples exist.

We’re trying to facilitate more interdisciplinary research and education, in search for more robust approaches to the major problems facing the world. We have created a stronger framework for joint appointments between two disciplines and between schools. We have empowered the Graduate School to identify coalitions of faculty who want to work together in new interdisciplinary graduate programs.

However, there are two interesting challenges in moving ahead in this domain. First, we need to have wise evaluation of interdisciplinary scholarship. Second, we need to value the role of faculty who are collaborative magnets across fields.

At time of promotion it is typical for evaluations to be sought from those in the field of the primary appointment of the faculty member. The reviewers are promised that their reviews will be seen only by those involved in the review process, in an attempt to elicit frank assessments. When the faculty being reviewed works across fields, it’s more difficult to identify competent reviewers. The typical problem is that a reviewer embedded in only one field tends not to value that fieldwork that partially lies in another field. In some fundamental sense, such interdisciplinary work is not central to the field in question. The best evaluators for such faculty are those working in the same interdisciplinary space. Often that is a smaller set of scholars. Extra care is needed to identify competent reviewers.

The second problem is related to interdisciplinary work, but not limited to it. New studies of scholarly productivity have identified some scholars who are collaborators to many other scholars. These scholars often possess a deep knowledge of a theory or a set of research tools that are valuable to many other disciplines. They become “collaboration magnets” in a scholarly community. I have known many such colleagues in my career. In my opinion, they are often not sufficiently valued. Their publications tend to have more co-authors; they tend not to be the primary author on larger sets of publications; they tend not to be rated as the most prominent scholars in a community. On the other hand, in a real sense their activities make their colleagues better. They are multipliers of research productivity; they are disproportionately valuable to a community.

As we increase support for interdisciplinary work, we need to tackle the issues of assessment of the quality of that work and the valuation of those whose contributions are heavily collaborative. This requires deliberate effort to adapt existing procedures to fit our interdisciplinary goals.

3 thoughts on “Interdisciplinary, Collaborative

  1. I haven’t done interdisciplinary research as such, but having an undergrad in Psychology and doing my BA Honours in Group Dynamics, it has been an interesting experience.

    At first I must say it was a big adjustment because the level of analytical inquiry was totally different to the more descriptive way of doing things from undergrad. Then trying to explain things from macro and micro sociology/perspectives and also trying to include some things from psychology has brought a refining to my even growing analytical capability. And i think that is something everyone needs to go through- to learn how to look, big or small and see the differences and understand them, and then try to take that to explain issues in society, if you so choose.

    In reading “Being Interdisciplinary Is So Very Hard to Do.” (quite an interesting read) I find that it all depends on the view and position you take on things. Also, it depends on what you set out to do and what consequences it carries for you, the people you surround yourself and the broader community.

    As individuals, and groups of individuals, and groups of groups we find value in different things, at different times, in different contexts and for different durations so the importance of things between people differ as well. It’s very frustrating for example when you try doing something good for someone and it has the opposite reaction from what was expected.

    And questioning everything and everything can make one become cynical or very confused about things, even the meaning of life, or the meaning of meaning. That’s why for something to have meaning continuously, it has to generally have some level of repetitiveness.

    Then again, some things only happen once and you take it with you for the rest of your life, experiencing it in different degrees and shades…

    So the reasons why things are important, is essential to understand the slow yet changing conditions of things and times. But, it depends on what you want to believe and how you want to live and how much control/power you have to decide what you want and what you don’t want and stick to it for as long as you want.

  2. Well, there is a famous article in my neck of the disciplinary woods, that’s titled “Being Interdisciplinary Is So Very Hard to Do.” I think that is one of the issues, we are confronting.

    One way that this issue was addressed in the past (though sadly discontinued) was to have faculty seminars lead by two or more faculty members and usually limited to fifteen or so faculty members. I remember one convened by a professor from Government (now departed — no, not to the great beyond but to another university) — on “Trust” and that was very interesting, indeed. There were people from all sorts of departments in that group and it had some very thorough conversations on this issue — some of them probably incomprehensible to certain disciplinary discourses (including mine). — Some such thing with a bit of funding would be great. You have the seminar and if there is enough substance, you do a conference on it with outside people and then have a substantive volume published or a special issue of a journal take up (some) of the (reworked) presentations of the conference. I have a few ideas about possible topics that cut across disciplines and current expertise and potential interest at Georgetown.

  3. This was a very thoughtful analysis of the benefits and risks is interdisciplinary work. As a STIA major when I was an undergrad, I very much value the role of interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching.

    I hope Georgetown continues to push the boundaries of traditional disciplines. The worlds problems are inherently interdisciplinary and we should be preparing our graduates to deal with these problems from that perspective. Hoya Saxa

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