Habits of the Mind: Challenges for Multidisciplinary Engagement

Habits of the Mind: Challenges for Multidisciplinary Engagement

Myra H. Strober (Stanford University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-057-0.ch042
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Abstract

The extraordinary complexity of knowledge in today’s world creates a paradox. On the one hand, its sheer volume and intricacy demand disciplinary specialization, even sub-specialization; innovative research or scholarship increasingly requires immersion in the details of one’s disciplinary dialogue. On the other hand, that very immersion can limit innovation. Disciplinary specialization inhibits faculty from broadening their intellectual horizons - considering questions of importance outside their discipline, learning other methods for answering these questions and pondering the possible significance of other disciplines’ findings for their own work. This article seeks to understand more fully the factors that enhance and impede cross-disciplinary conversations and the possible longer-term effects of those conversations. Based on 46 interviews with a sample of seminar participants, it examines the experiences of faculty members who ventured (voluntarily) into multidisciplinary waters and its implications for the organization of disciplines and universities.
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Introduction

The complexity of knowledge in the contemporary world creates a paradox. On the one hand its sheer volume and intricacy demand disciplinary specialization, even subspecialization, because innovative research or scholarship increasingly requires immersion in the details of disciplinary dialogue. On the other hand that very immersion can limit innovation. Disciplinary specialization inhibits faculty from broadening their intellectual horizons: for example, by considering questions of importance outside their discipline, learning other methods for answering these questions, and pondering the possible significance of other disciplines’ findings for their own work.

To push the frontiers of knowledge forward and create knowledge that helps to solve the problems of the world, we need not only discovery within disciplines, but also integration across them (Boyer 1990; Weingart 2000). Yet few faculties engage in research or teaching outside of their own field. The academic reward structure for hiring, promotion, salary, grants, and prizes provides powerful incentives to specialize narrowly and few opportunities to integrate knowledge from other fields of study (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine 2005). Also, the jargon and shorthand in which members of disciplines often speak and write, and the profound difference in cultures across disciplines, make cross-disciplinary forays arduous. While faculty say they see the value in multidisciplinary scholarship (Boyer 1990) organizational, economic, and cultural barriers keep most from pursuing cross- disciplinary work. Most faculty also discourage cross-disciplinarity in graduate education, ensuring that the next generation of scholars will also find it difficult to break out of disciplinary confines.

Foundations are particularly interested in fostering interdisciplinarity. For example, in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Vartan Gregorian (2004), the President of the Carnegie Foundation and former President of Brown University and the New York Public Library, wrote:

We must reform higher education to reconstruct the unity and value of knowledge... The complexity of the world requires us to have a better understanding of the relationships and connections between all fields that intersect and overlap—economics and sociology, law and psychology, business and history, physics and medicine, anthropology and political science. (Gregorian 2004 B12)

A recent report by the National Institute of Medicine on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) argues for more integration within the sciences and between the sciences and behavioral and social sciences: “[S]ome parts of the scientific frontier require... the mobilization of interdisciplinary research teams... Increasingly, investigators will need to integrate knowledge... And greater prominence must be given to research in the behavioral and social sciences” (National Institute of Medicine 2003: 51–52).

Similarly, the Keck Foundation, in creating the Futures Initiative in 2003, argued: “Training individuals who are conversant in ideas and languages of other fields is central to the continued march of scientific progress in the 21st century” (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine 2005: x).

One of the reasons why foundations, government agencies, and leaders of institutions of higher education would like to see faculty move in the direction of more multi- disciplinary work is that they believe there are more opportunities for creativity and breakthroughs at the intersections of disciplines.

In 2000, Atlantic Philanthropic Services (now Atlantic Philanthropies) provided two-year grants to three leading American research universities (to maintain their anonymity, I call them Washington, Adams, and Jefferson) to create broad (not problem-specific) seminars for the purpose of encouraging dialogue across disciplines. The decision to concentrate the grants in research universities was made because multi- disciplinary dialogue among faculty members is perhaps most difficult to achieve at research universities, where there is considerable pressure to publish in one’s own discipline, where cross-disciplinary teaching is seldom valued, and where the sheer size of the institution prevents faculty from easily meeting colleagues in other fields.

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