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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.

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