I’ve written in the past about the suitability for network models in research and higher education. As Georgetown attempts to build such networks (e.g., the Humanities Initiative, the Technology and Society Initiative), two lessons seem to be prominent.
First, when the network is assembled from existing activities (e.g., operating programs or centers), a central question is why do the diverse activities belong together; why shouldn’t independent activities continue? Many of the networks pertinent to a modern university take on issues that are not themselves well-covered in the traditional disciplines or education programs. They address important world problems that need attention. Hence, such networks contain some diversity of skills, orientation, and diversity within them in order to offer new strengths to tackle the given problem. What keeps the different perspectives working together?
When the importance of a single problem is very, very large, attention to solving the problem itself seems sufficient to bond different scholars together. We see this now with work ongoing regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, with virologists, biochemists, social scientists, clinicians, and public health epidemiologists dropping their current work to focus entirely on how to invent vaccine interventions, behavioral change, and governmental actions to ameliorate the effects of the virus. Decades earlier, the Manhattan project combined physicists, engineers, and military logicians in a similar singular focus in an effort to end a world war.
These examples have some lessons for building networks on other world problems, but often the centrality of the problem doesn’t attain similar magnitudes. However, the basic idea of subordinating one’s disciplinary focus in order to concentrate on a given problem applies to most networks.
Much of the subordination seems to require the slow process of shared definition of the problem area. Each discipline brings different language and different ways of thinking to the issue. Words carry slightly different meaning across the groups. The groups need enough shared language to communicate. Each group needs to learn enough about another perspective to appreciate its potential contribution to solving the problem. Each group needs to perceive complementarities among the knowledge domains brought together in the network.
The university has one advantage in building networks. University settings profit from the existence of students who act as research assistants to the principals in a research network. Students are interesting components of a network because they are not yet fully shaped into a single field perspective. Indeed, they are learning multiple fields simultaneously by participating in an interdisciplinary network. They, therefore, often see the value of combining ideas from multiple disciplines faster than their mentors. (My mentoring of PhD students led me to believe that the student often taught me more than I was teaching them as the dissertation evolved to bring in new thoughts from other members of the committee.)
So, one key feature of problem-oriented networks within a university is an intentional use of students, both undergraduate and graduate, in forming the glue among the diverse nodes of the network. For example, the Technology and Society network was honored with a gift from the Fritz Family to create a set of postdoctoral, predoctoral, and undergraduate fellows who work with multiple nodes of the network on a shared project. To make such a design effective, the nodes collaborating need to share the mentoring of the student, so that the student can transmit knowledge from one node to another more effectively, and so the faculty in the nodes can learn how perspectives from another node might improve the insights of their own perspective on the given problem.
Networks that are sustainable create a culture that allows each network node to enjoy benefits that it could not obtained without such membership. One benefit automatically derived is the company of other scholars who share interest in solving the same problems. Another benefit is learning the value of other-than-one-own’s perspective on the problem. The latter takes time, but is often accelerated with the presence of students who are learning multiple perspectives simultaneously, and communicating those to their mentors.