Designing for Interdisciplinarity

“Talking to colleagues across disciplines is not for the faint of heart.” [1]

Last weekend I picked up a copy of Interdisciplinary Conversations, published last month and authored by Myra Strober, a labor economist and Emerita Professor at the School of Education. I was curious what she had to say about collaboration in the particular context of academe and interdisciplinarity.

In short, Strober’s argument goes as follows:

Firstly, we are faced with an increasing complexity of knowledge. While its volume and intricacy requires high disciplinary specialization, problems often cannot be solved by a single discipline, but requires insights from multiple disciplines. Secondly, there is evidence that interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge, perspectives and methods fosters creativity.

Yet interdisciplinary conversations fail to a large extent. Strober thoroughly reviews and analyzes extensive interviews with participants of interdisciplinary faculty seminars at three different research universities. Four out of the six seminars she studied “blew up”.

By bringing in theorists such as Geertz and his notion of disciplinary cultures [2] Dewey’s and Margolis’ concept of habits of mind [3] and others, she outlines ways to understand the background of the failures in interdisciplinary conversations: “By analyzing the altercation in the science studies seminar between an economist and a young scholar from religious studies, as well as the discomfort that a mathematician, studio artist, and dramatist experienced in seminars run by humanists, we begin to understand the power of disciplinary habits of mind and disciplinary cultures in impeding conversation across disciplines.” (Strober 2010, pp.48-49).

Strober not only asks us to acknowledge the benefit of successful conversations and collaborations, but also starts to unravel some of the possibly less evident reasons for the failures. If we are able to understand why interdisciplinary conversations fail, we might be able to better teach our students how to become scholars in an increasingly interdisciplinary academic environment. Of course, Strober acknowledges, interdisciplinarity is not the silver bullet that will solve all the world’s problems. But “if we want interdisciplinarity”, Strober says, “we need to design for it.”

More than 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in an interview with former President Don Kennedy about a class he was teaching (at the time) in the Human Biology program. “Stanford students are incredibly bright”, he told us, “but they don’t know how to collaborate.” Our attempt then was to mesh technology with pedagogy and to design exercises that would facilitate collaborations between students around “policy challenge” questions.

Only a few weeks ago, during the Nov 4th Meeting of the Faculty Senate President John Hennessy spoke to the second part of his address on the Ten Challenges in Higher Education. Here is what he had to say about challenge number 7, ‘Information Technology in Teaching’: “Here, I think, quite frankly, we have a failure of the imagination, coupled with a rapidly growing generation gap. The failure of the imagination is that we have failed to think creatively about new ways to use technology in how we educate students. We use e-mail, FAQ’s, blogs, various things like that. And some of us make the mistake of using PowerPoint, which I don’t think necessarily contributes to the educational process, except on occasion. But we really have not thought outside the box about how to do this.”

Today students come in with a technology exposure significantly different from 10 years ago. Today’s incoming students will also be faced with significantly more complex problems once they enter the job market. So what are, then, the implications for education? Obviously, being versatile in navigating social networking environments does not necessarily go along with collaboration. But can we leverage such technologies in a creative way to pick up on Hennessy’s remarks and apply some of Strober’s lessons learned? It seems some have already begun.

[1] Strober, Myra H. 2010. Interdisciplinary Conversations – Challenging Habits of Thought. Stanford University Press 2010, p. 4

[2] Geertz, Clifford. 1983. “The way we think now: Toward an ethnography of modern thought.” In: Local Knowledge: Further essays in interpretive anthropology. New York Basic Books.

[3] Margolis, Howard. 1993. Paradigms and Barriers: How Habits of Mind Govern Scientific Beliefs. University of Chicago Press.

Making the iPhone talk to Coursework

I recently was asked about ‘scanning’ capabilities of the iPhone, which brought me to this – currently $0.99 – application, called JotNot Pro. I was very impressed with this one. It launches the camera to take pictures of documents, steps the user through some adjustments, then processes the picture and removes what it sees as clutter or gray areas, so the end result is pretty clean. It generates PDFs and can combine several pages into one document, if so desired. The PDF document can be forwarded per email, per fax (at a cost), or uploaded to Google Docs, Evernote, Dropbox or

The interesting part though, is that JotNot also has WebDAV connectivity, which brought me to the idea to directly upload into the Materials section of Coursework. (Disclaimer: Please do not violate any copyright and fair use regulations when trying this!)

Use the “i” button to open the Settings panel of JotNot:

Scroll down to Sharing and open Webdav/iDisk:

Enter Stanford Username and password, turn iDisk off and enter the Webdav URL for your course:

Go to the document to upload and hit the forward button:

Choose WebDAV/iDisk, which will open your Materials folders on coursework, then send:


Here is the view in Coursework:

JotNot lets you also access your camera roll directly, so any photos stored there can similarly be uploaded.

There are some little inconsistencies in the folder and file naming between the coursework website and how they show up in iPhone. Secondly, it is only possible to set up one WebDAV connection up at one time, which is annoying if you have several courses. Other than that it worked like a charm. I’d love to know if anyone else has tried something similar.

Learning the Grammar of Graphics with R

During summer I usually spend a lot of hours locked up at an altitude of 30000+ feet, and this year I took ggplot2: Elegant Graphics for Data Analysis as reading material. ggplot2 is a data visualization package for the R statistical analysis platform. It is loosely based on “The Grammar of Graphics” from Leland Wilkinson, thus taking a different approach from traditional graphics packages by very explicitly mapping the data to aesthetic attributes (eg. colors) and geometric objects (eg. points).

Here is my first attempt to use the ggplot2 package. I was interested in the change of the mean population center of the US between 1790 and 2000, similar to the map that is put out by the Census Bureau, but specifically looking at the initially African, then African-American population.

I downloaded census data and county outlines from the National Historical Geographic Information System website, merged the data for each census year on the county level, and calculated the weighted mean for each census year. (Data are 1 2 4