The University of Vermont

More Musing by the Dean:
Analyzing the Quest for Interdisciplinarity in the Academy

At an annual administrative retreat last year, I was asked the following question by a seemingly incredulous colleague: "Are you saying that you don't believe that interdisciplinary work is always superior to disciplinary work?" I screwed up my courage and said, "Well, my stand is a bit more complicated than your question allows, but that's exactly what I'm saying." Clearly this was regarded as a blasphemous statement, but I'm really tired of having people extol the unmitigated virtues of interdisciplinarity to me or rue the disciplinary "silos" that interfere with interdisciplinarity—all the while assuming that any thoughtful academic certainly agrees with them. The assumption is not only that we all agree but, more significantly, that we all share an understanding of the nature of "the good" assumed and that we also share an unspecified critique of disciplinary knowledge. In most cases, there is also a fateful elision of the clear meaning of the term "interdisciplinary" with a slightly different concept: what they usually have in mind is developing "multidisciplinary" approaches to knowledge creation with the assumption that those efforts will, necessarily and inevitably, give rise to those clearly superior "interdisciplinary" approaches.

Let me first begin by describing a not completely fictional scenario. There was once an attempt to build a research group in gerontology with the express goal of bringing research dollars to the university to support interdisciplinary scholarship and graduate training related to memory. There were some first-rate neuroscientists in the institution with specialties in brain imaging and memory who had Ph.D.'s in psychology and had been trained in medical school venues; there was a fine group of sociologists, some quantitative in orientation and some qualitative, whose work ranged from assessing the needs of an aging population for services via surveys, to analyzing the social statuses and burdens of those paid to provide elder care, to trying to parse the social contexts and interactions that might facilitate the ability of Alzheimer's patients to hang on to their identities. There was also an amazing set of clinical social workers whose focus was on connecting the elderly in need of services with the array of community services available to them. Finally, there were architects with interest and demonstrated ability in constructing stimulating spaces where those with Alzheimer's could wander without worry that they would ever "wander off" and several distinguished faculty in the humanities and fine arts who explored the meaning of aging and memory in their work. The goal was to get these people to think about how they could work on a grant together to capitalize on the "obvious" interdisciplinary richness that characterized this particular subset of faculty, all of whom had a specific interest in memory, the problems in memory that sometimes accompany aging and their correlated challenges to independent living, and the problems of memory that are particularly characteristic of Alzheimer's Disease.

Here's my perhaps cynical take on what happened when they got together. First, they had difficulty talking to one another at the level of their expertise because their framings of the memory problem were incompatible and their basic assumptions about the nature and etiology of the problem were not shared. More importantly, however, there was a not-very-subtle impatience among the adherents of disciplines mentioned at the beginning of the list above with those mentioned later. They had their own work to get done after all and it was well thought out and important for their success within their own disciplines. In short, the neuroscientists thought (or at least acted as if they thought) the work of the sociologists a wee bit squishy and the sociologists, although they loved the performative work of the fine arts folks, couldn't really see how one could incorporate their aesthetic into a grant to, say, NIH. Although each had an inkling of how their own research or new research could benefit from the knowledge of one or more of the others, the problems they defined as needing solution were quite specialized and it wasn't clear that the others had the knowledge required or if they did, how one would find out—and wasn't it possible that there were other representatives of these disciplines elsewhere who had better, more relevant, more cutting-edge knowledge? The usual disciplinary standards for judging the knowledge of these folks was absent. Why trust them? Everyone was polite, but nothing emerged. Why?

Disciplines are a series of ranked career ladders as well as a way of framing problems. Training in disciplines reinforces a prestige-laden ranking of knowledge domains and related methodologies. Thus the frequent observation that a problem "isn't rocket science" or "brain surgery" implies that rocket scientists and brain surgeons are superior in knowledge and personal intelligence to people with other specialties. In general, the more a discipline adheres to the scientific method, the longer and more expensive the training, and, historically, the more white, upper-class and male the practitioners, the more prestige. Thus it is almost impossible to envision an article on the life sciences or physics that parallels the article that appeared in The New York Times yesterday (February 24, 2009) where Patricia Cohen suggested that "In Tough Times the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth."

These sorts of rankings and the efforts, successes, and failures of those within a discipline to keep "inferior" interlopers out is, in fact, an area of study within sociology, the sociology of professions. Thus MD's have, for years, been successful in keeping others with valuable medical knowledge under their thumbs by controlling the selection of people who go to medical school, the credentialing of those folks, and the legal conditions under which "interlopers" like nurses and midwives must operate. This is an extreme example, but all established disciplines engage more or less successfully in doing this. It is a way of controlling the value of your own training by both limiting the number of "qualified" practitioners and by restricting credentialing opportunities as well as opportunities for becoming part of the influential social networks that control the gateways to the profession and the benefits of being a professional. In addition, these hierarchies are given ballast by the status hierarchies of both universities and departments within universities within which disciplines operate. My point is that there are all kinds of cultural and organizational barriers to multidisciplinarity, not to mention interdisciplinarity, that are huge challenges to the reorganization of academic work and that they are almost never discussed when academics talk about barriers to interdisciplinarity.

There is another issue that is often ignored; more and more, the disciplines themselves have become interdisciplinary. This has happened, not in a random way, but in a way that enlarges the scope and methods of the specific discipline in specific ways; over time, in fact, this sort of interdisciplinarity works incrementally to change the nature of disciplines. Thus faculty in English now use ethnographic techniques developed by anthropologists; historians use statistical techniques developed by social scientists; and sociologists have begun to explore the insights of geneticists. The fact that there are very few natural scientists trained today whose work doesn't span at least two specialties is particularly telling. Here you have disciplines that have mutated toward one another: thus some very productive outcomes. Interdisciplinary forays within disciplines are not always initially greeted with joy across the disciplinary landscape, but over time they probably do produce better, more nuanced (inter) disciplinary work in a setting where those producing the knowledge share some basic domain assumptions.

For disciplines are, as the name implies "disciplined" approaches to knowledge creation, that is, they tend to have methods refined over time and institutionalized understandings about how they are best implemented and in accord with what assumptions and what qualifiers. Members of disciplines also have a sense of vulnerability to methodological critique; they know what a scholar can do wrong and how errors undercut the legitimacy of findings. Interdisciplinary work sometimes involves the application of methods borrowed from other disciplines without the requisite contextual understandings; it can be, therefore, literally "without discipline" and thus shallow from the point of view of the disciplines. This doesn't mean that interdisciplinary work involving particular disciplines or focused on particular problems cannot evolve uniquely satisfactory methods, but it does mean that much interdisciplinary work at this point in time doesn't even confront the methodological issue I raise here as an issue.

So here's how I feel about multidisciplinarity/interdisciplinarity. First, let's not forget that the disciplines are the roots that anchor a liberal arts education. They have produced a wealth of valuable knowledge and are unlikely to stop doing so; and they themselves are becoming interdisciplinary in ways that seem fruitful. Second, I see no move among the very top research universities in the country to reorganize themselves interdisciplinarily; because those institutions are the very ones from which the University of Vermont is likely to continue to recruit its faculty, those faculty will come with strong disciplinary allegiances. Third, interdisciplinarity would certainly produce different knowledge than the disciplines produce and that couldn't be bad, but in order to overcome the organizational hurdles presented by the disciplinary basis of academic prestige hierarchies and the tendency of disciplines to be self-protecting systems of reward with monopolies on specific knowledge and its generation, interdisciplinary efforts must be carefully organized and rewarded and they must be problem-focused. Fourth, problems chosen for interdisciplinary focus must be perceived to be important enough to the common good to make practitioners in the disciplines feel that it is worth their while to make their disciplines permeable as knowledge domains and as career trajectories. In personal terms, researchers must be willing to make themselves professionally vulnerable and academic organizations must do everything possible to make them feel that what they accomplish will be valued in the same ways that accomplishments in the disciplines are valued (something I've argued above is near impossible.) Fifth, if interdisciplinary work is to happen at an institutional level, it requires that groups of faculty (and students) first have a carefully designed problem that they all believe passionately is best tackled together, but they must also humbly recognize that there are lacunae in their knowledge that can only be filled by others who have the knowledge they lack. In addition, they must be convinced that the problem is best approached not piecemeal and ad seriatum, but simultaneously or near simultaneously and collaboratively.

All this means that simply getting rid of disciplinary "silos" will not likely produce the desired result. Nothing of value is likely to happen by just putting the requisite academics in proximity; nothing of value will occur if interdisciplinarity is posed as superior to or in competition with the disciplines. At least for the foreseeable future, disciplines will be safe havens for those with the courage to work interdisciplinarily.

So does this mean that the University of Vermont's College of Arts and Sciences will effectively say, "a pox on all their (interdisciplinary) houses" and invest only in the traditional disciplines? Of course not. In fact, we already have a history of very successful interdisciplinary instructional programs in the College. At least one first-year experience, the residential "Integrated Humanities Program" has been winning accolades from students for more than thirty years. Over the years, parallel programs have been added in the social sciences, the earth and environmental sciences and, this fall, we will add a fourth in the fine arts. The Board of Trustees has recently approved a new interdisciplinary major in global studies and there is another in neuroscience currently being planned. The College is also a cross-college partner in offering a very successful interdisciplinary doctorate in neuroscience. Finally, there are myriad multidisciplinary research efforts currently going on across the university.

However, there are relatively few where we have institutionalized an effort that is both instructional and research focused, and there are none that have been self-consciously designed to respond to the critique I lay out here. I, therefore, would like to launch an initiative for the coming year that involves: 1) learning more about how and to what extent people in the College already do interdisciplinary work and are interested in doing more or fearful of the attempt, and 2) funding a handful of problem-based interdisciplinary research and instructional initiatives in UVM's hallmark areas of health, environment, and the liberal arts that would serve as models for how to institutionalize interdisciplinary work in College of Arts and Sciences in ways that recognize the strength of the disciplines, but also function within and across them to produce new, truly interdisciplinary knowledge. Look for more in this outlet on this initiative as it evolves.

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