Questions without borders

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I attended a forum at the UMN called “Questions without borders: why future research and teaching will be interdisciplinary.” As an interdisciplinary scholar myself, it's a topic that holds a lot of interest for me. The main remarks were by Myron Gutmann from the National Science Foundation. His unit recently released a report called Rebuilding the Mosaic which collects white papers on cross-cutting research and innovative directions for the future. His talk addressed the ways in which the types of problems we're facing in areas like the environment increasingly call for interdisciplinary solutions, while acknowledging the obstacles to interdisciplinary work. He used the field of Materials Science as an example of an interdisciplinary field of study that became established in academia. He shared that less that 2.5% of bachelor's degrees and less than 1% of master's degrees are interdisciplinary. With that as our reality, he posed these questions:

  • How do we effectively measure interdisciplinary research and teaching?
  • How can we create a safe space for adventuresome faculty?
  • What is the appropriate reward structure, for students and faculty?

Gutmann thinks that new data management capacities make interdisciplinary problems newly tractable. Fields of study are not static; new ones are formed, changed, and phased out as the science advances. Through his research, Gutmann believes these are the things that make interdisciplinary work happen:

  • Shared intellectual problem
  • Agency leadership and resources
  • Organizational change within science organizations

Three University of Minnesota faculty members gave 5-minute responses to Gutmann's remarks.

David Fox addressed interdisciplinarity in research. He asked: is the goal nurturing a) scholars, b) research programs, or c) departments? Are we nurturing individuals or developing new organizational units? He said that maybe new administrative structures aren't needed, but instead we can work flexibility into the current systems.

Dominique Tobbell discussed interdisciplinarity in graduate education. She stressed that productive interdisciplinary scholarship is founded on strong disciplines. Doing good interdisciplinary work required grounding in core disciplines. Not having this is dangerous and leads to sloppy or misguided research. She thought an interdisciplinary could make graduates more marketable in the job market, as long as they really are strong in the disciplinary cores. She mentioned that the University's requirement for grad students to take classes outside their major was recently eliminated. There are financial incentives for departments to keep students in their classes, since that's how they get money. Dr. Tobbell teaches in the History of Medicine program, where, depending on a student's background, it might be beneficial for her to take classes in a certain branch of science, or in philosophy. How can we balance the flexibility needed for students like this to gain deep understandings in several disciplines with a system that rewards programs that get graduate students through the program quickly? Efficiently moving students through grad programs results in higher rankings from third party evaluators. So the incentive is there to not encourage students to get solid grounding in all their chosen disciplines.

J.B. Shank discussed interdisciplinarity in undergraduate education. He reminded the audience that there was nothing natural about how we do undergraduate education now. Therefore, everything can be changed. He called the current system “Victorian” in that it prepares students to be academics, even though that's not what most will do. So it is set up to serve a minority and doesn't meet the needs of 21st century global citizenship. Shank proposes detaching undergraduate education from the graduate education structure. Instead, undergraduates would be in learning communities (Shank cited Evergreen College as leaders in this model). There would be a uniting theme like water and students would approach it from many different disciplines. This would be much more applicable to post-college life. Faculty would develop 3- or 6-week modules and there would be a lot of team-teaching. Shank feels that university administrations have not adapted to new realities and that interdisciplinary study is deterred by financial and administrative structures.

It was a great discussion, and one that I hope continues at the University of Minnesota. I hear interdisciplinary studies being given a lot of lip service lately at the University, and I hope there are concrete infrastructure changes in the future that will back it up. When 90% of appointments are made by single-discipline departments, and departments are what drives tenure, etc., how can we reward intellectual omnivores and the faculty and students pursuing solutions across department lines?

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