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The Land Between Disciplines

Based on surveys, a common viewpoint among faculty is that scholarly inquiry that combines knowledge of two different disciplines is not rewarded in their university. Their complaints focus on the annual merit reviews of their work as a faculty member, the current tenure and promotion evaluations, and university recognition and appreciation.

These concerns are echoed in conversations I have with leaders in nonacademic organizations whose lifeblood is the use of new ideas. They commonly mention how they are forced to build cross-functional teams to get work done.

Disciplines are self-sufficient intellectual groups. They define a set of questions that is valued by their members. They establish a set of procedures and processes that becomes the standard method of attacking those questions. They govern the scholarly outlets that disseminate the new developments in the field; what is rejected for publication is labeled as unworthy by the field. The disciplines’ professional associations have prizes and awards that highlight the work of individual members; the winners become the role models for the next generation. Together, these are powerful forces of conservatism.

Every academic I know has mixed emotions about these issues. The strength of a discipline’s conceptual framework is powerful; they value the norms that develop around them. However, most also recognize that the legitimized questions of the field are a small subset of the unanswered questions facing the world.

It’s true that there’s really no end to the segmentation of thought within the academy; even within disciplines, there are subgroups that attack different issues or use different methods. They disagree. When they actively disagree and collaborate, fields often have spurts of advancement. When they disagree and fight, departments, disciplines, and fields can become internally disrupted. Academic conflicts can be the fiercest.

When one thinks of the role of the university as contributing to the progress of humankind, these issues appear as even greater impediments. Universities need depth of understanding in the traditional disciplines, but they also need to contribute their insight to solving important problems.

There are two mechanisms that are devices that universities use to incentivize interdisciplinary work. The first is educational — the creation of interdisciplinary programs that involve faculty from multiple fields to collaborate in teaching the next generation about the combined insights of multiple approaches. The second is research — the creation of research institutes where scholars from multiple fields share perspectives, collaborate, and create new insights from their joint work.

At Georgetown, we’ve signaled support for new interdisciplinary graduate programs; our new graduate school organization will focus on supporting such innovation. We’re also building new interdisciplinary research programs — the environment initiative, the health disparities initiative, and the McCourt School Massive Data Institute. There are groups working on language acquisition and cognition from multiple perspectives; there is an active group trying to conceptualize a Humanities Institute for Georgetown.

In my experience, both interdisciplinary education and research are benefited by space-of-their-own. When faculty and students who want to combine fields to approach issues can get together in shared space, they can have the time to develop their thoughts and plans more effectively.

In developing an academic space plan, we need creative design for space for multiple disciplines to combine forces.

4 thoughts on “The Land Between Disciplines

  1. This is all true. However, this is not how people get tenure — no matter how much they get supported afterwards for doing inter- or cross-disciplinary research. — Not to repeat myself too much but there was one of the convocations where a woman presented very eloquently on the need for interdisciplinary research (I think she termed it inter-tidal or littoral zone ecosystem, but I’m not sure) and behind her stood a batch of newly tenured faculty members who had received their status precisely by avoiding (more or less) the disciplinary littoral zone. — So one of the places the INSTITUTION (not the professions or disciplines which are, by definition, guided by their partial blindness) can start to change things is in the tenure proceedings and guidelines. This can be done at the local level — and to get it started has been brewing for a long time. So if there is a need for this change, let’s get on with it and make sure that we, as an institution, value it, reward it, and become a leader in HOW to make this transition.

  2. Great post. And very important topic I feel the most innovative and creative thinking and research occurs when different disciplines cooperate. Only then does the most out of the box research and thinking occur the basic research is very important but true breakthroughs occur mostly with cross fertilization. Just my thought

  3. As someone most comfortable in the land between disciplines, I enjoyed reading this post. We need to ensure that those lands become the frontiers and not the margins. I quoted Alasdair MacIntyre in my dissertation….

    “Yet, when we have learned what all these different
    types of discipline have to teach-and the catalogue is far from complete-we confront questions that have so far
    gone unasked, just because they are not questions answerable from within any one discipline.”

  4. Great post, and I’m glad to hear you’re doing this at GU. Even fields that once were interdisciplinary (e.g., education, public health, statistics) have developed their own disciplinary infrastructure and walls. We need new and continually re-generating interdisciplinary programs to perpetually shape the boundaries of academic work, and we need universities to find formal ways to support that evolution (i.e., promoting faculty who publish across fields). We shouldn’t forget that little over 100 years ago psychology (one of the most popular and established fields on campuses now) was a fledgling off-shoot of philosophy and medicine (depending on which history you trace). Keep up the great work!

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