Finite Eyes / Blog / higher ed / The Good, The Bad, and the Interdisciplinary

The Good, The Bad, and the Interdisciplinary

Interdisciplinarity is one of those words, like openness and diversity, that many people in academia like to affirm as a positive value, but when it comes to building the structures and supports necessary for it to be a meaningful practice, things get complicated, challenging, frustrating. The idea of interdisciplinarity is appealing, but the implications may unsettle long-established norms. Worse, the generally positive connotations of the word can be weaponized, wittingly or unwittingly, for destructive purposes.

Since I am a Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at a regional state university (in a state consistently opposed to funding education adequately), I have a particular interest in how the word gets used. For my own view of what interdisciplinarity is, see this video. The definition of interdisciplinarity is not really the issue, however. Whether a particular practice is or isn’t (sufficiently) interdisciplinary is something of a side question, one of more interest to taxonomists and pedants than me. I am something of an outlier in the world of Interdisciplinary Studies because I don’t actually think the theory itself is hugely difficult or needs long attention. The difficulties and problems are in the application of the concept of interdisciplinarity.

This is clear in Matthew Dean Hindman’s recent essay for Academe, “Interdisciplinarity’s Shared Governance Problem”, which argues that the concept of interdisciplinarity is being used by administrations to impose a neoliberal agenda on the structures of higher education, moving power away from faculty and toward the university president’s cabinet. Hindman writes:

Cost-conscious administrators and board members—guided by management consultants, many of them with limited or no academic experience—are prone to embrace an interdisciplinary academic structure as a cost-efficient antidote to the perceived ills of the traditional university, with its allegedly plodding, territorial faculty. Promoting “interdisciplinarity” as a solution to the supposed proliferation of academic “silos”—and as a way of reducing faculty ranks amid a feared enrollment crisis—consultants such as EAB provide universities with the rhetorical framing and public-relations messaging to justify the consolidation or even elimination of discipline-based departments. Disciplines, according to this telling, impede efficient management by fostering competition for resources among self-interested departments; these departments, meanwhile, evaluate faculty members largely according to criteria and standards established by scholars and their disciplines rather than by university officials.

This strikes quite close to my own home, since our little, beleaguered school some years ago hired a president who has committed us to the idea of clusters, a concept which in its implementation has often been at best awkward, at worst an engine of chaos and frustration. We got rid of departments and replaced them with varieties of unwieldy administrative blobs. The concept of clusters is quite interesting and valuable, but a huge mistake was made when the university abolished the basic infrastructure of staffing and reporting that allowed that university, quite literally, to work.

The cluster initiative has led, though, to some good things, most prominently our grant-funded Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community professional development series, which is perhaps the only thing that has kept faculty and staff optimistic about the future of clusters.

And I am optimistic about that future. It’s why I wanted this job, why I wanted to work at this place. My own scholarship (and life!) has been tremendously interdisciplinary, and I believe to the core of my being that this is the only way forward, particularly for schools such as ours. One of the things that increases a sense of frustration, in fact, is the feeling that we are so close to creating something wonderful.

I don’t want to get bogged down here with the ups and downs of our cluster initiative, because that would lead in lots of tangential directions. Rather, I want to examine some of the assumptions that seem to put us in concrete boots of our own making — and also look for some assumptions and practices that might help us (whether my university or another in a similar situation) move forward. I do believe in the cluster idea, I do believe interdisciplinarity can help us in the current environment, and I want interdisciplinarity to empower faculty, inspire students, placate administrators, and satisfy the counters of beans.​

Interdisciplinary Action

Let’s start with some of Hindman’s critique, which I agree with broadly, though I disagree with some specifics (and overall I think Hindman demonstrates too much faith in the solidity of disciplines).

The problem, as Hindman shows, is that real interdisciplinarity is not a synonym for cost savings. You should be skeptical of anyone hawking interdisciplinarity as a way to reduce costs. They are not talking about interdisciplinarity, they are talking about austerity.

Universities are more than happy to eliminate actual interdisciplinary programs, including ones that don’t cost much money. Women’s & Gender Studies programs, for instance, are inherently interdisciplinary and often first to hit the chopping block. It can be challenging for interdisciplinary programs to make themselves seen in structures that remain fundamentally disciplinary in their assumptions. (A comment on Hindman’s essay goes into this in more depth than I have room for here. I don’t think Hindman’s perspective is as anti-interdisciplinary as the commenter does, but the concerns raised are good ones to keep in mind.)

Among interdisciplinarians, I am in the camp that believes strong interdisciplinarity does not work without strong disciplinarity. Disciplines may be fuzzy, with some disciplines having an inherent interdisciplinarity of their own, but we can get a somewhat clearer view if we see disciplines as like nouns and interdisciplinarity as a kind of verb: we have disciplines, but we do interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity does not have its own content, method, and epistemology. It uses the content, methods, and epistemologies of the disciplines, putting them into action together.

Hindman states that the evidence for disciplinary silos is overblown and that “if relevant, problem-driven research is the goal, we do not need to tear down and reassemble academia’s basic organizational building blocks.” While I agree that people within the disciplines are often, in fact, quite good at doing interdisciplinarity, and I agree that more and more of what we call disciplines are inherently interdisciplinary, there are still some real obstacles to interdisciplinarity embedded in our academic structures. We have constructed some of the walls we’re pounding our own heads against, and a fear of paternalistic, austerity-besotted administrators gone wild should not harden us against useful reforms — reforms that might empower us to do better teaching and research while also showing administrations a different path forward.

Let’s consider the cluster initiative at my own school, since that’s what I know best. From my perspective, one problem we keep bumping up against is that institutional leaders (for good reason) want clusters to be nouns: things to sell to potential students, legislators, donors, etc. They want to be able to point to things they call “cluster majors” as evidence of innovation, even when those “cluster majors” are things that other, bigger schools already have and which we’re basically just rebranding within the confines of a small school. This isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a matter of empty marketing. We have some severe enrollment challenges now and over the next ten years; if we don’t distinguish ourselves from other schools, we will face further losses of programs, further losses of employees, further cuts to budgets. The cluster idea has proved attractive both to new students and to new employees. The problem isn’t interdisciplinarity; the problem is we haven’t figured out how to make our structures support it better.

What if the excitement of clusters is not that they allow, say, forensic criminology as a major (biology + chemistry + criminal justice), but instead that they allow students and faculty different ways of working together. We say that cluster learning requires interdisciplinarity, a commitment to diverse ways of knowing, and a determination to help students take control of their own educations. That’s a good vision, but take a look at it. To achieve this vision, we must create structures that support communication, collaboration, and integration; we must not turn disciplines into primordial goo (diversity of knowledge means recognizing and analyzing multiple epistemologies; without multiple epistemologies, there isn’t any diversity); we must empower students and faculty together. The clustery part resides far less in any one thing than it does in a set of actions.

A “cluster major”, then, ought to be any major that demonstrates flexible paths toward completion and requires multiple epistemologies, multiple ways of talking about knowledge. And it should be empowering. This requires flexibility not only of the students but also of the curriculum and the teachers. That need for flexibility is where we run into some problems, yes, but also opportunities — most importantly, opportunities that I think administrators, teachers, and students can all get excited about.​

The Interdisciplinary Challenge

A useful book for anyone looking at interdisciplinary work in higher education is Lisa R. Lattuca’s Creating Interdisciplinarity: Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching among College and University Faculty, which rather than proposing a new theory or taxonomy instead surveys actual teachers and researchers about how they work and think, then places this lived experience in conversation with various theories of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity.

Lattuca shows that real interdisciplinarity is not cheap, especially in the short run. “Developing interdisciplinary and team-taught courses required more preparation time than a disciplinary course and informants benefited from provisions of summer salary, course releases, and funds for teaching or research assistants to compile and organize course materials. Informants’ experiences suggest these incentives are good investments in faculty productivity.”

Repeatedly, Lattuca found that faculty were empowered toward interdisciplinarity by two things: financial support and structural changes: financial support for course development, faculty development, research costs, team teaching, building up new tenure lines; structural changes that bring faculty of different disciplines together formally and informally, promotion and tenure guidance that encourage interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching, policy changes that facilitate experimental courses and programs.

This is the interdisciplinary challenge to austerity. Austerity measures require workers to do more work with less time and less money. Meaningful interdisciplinarity requires (especially at the outset) more time and more money. We don’t simply declare interdisciplinarity; we invest in it.

One of the participants in Lattuca’s study was a teacher and administrator who said:​

What I am interested in for myself and for other people — as an administrator and also as a faculty member — is making sure that as much as possible we are supportive of and encouraging of people who are interested in connecting with other knowledge seekers and that we help each other as much as possible to learn more. That seems to me what interdisciplinarity is. And to the extent that we keep people from connecting, that we keep students from making connections, that we keep university structures from allowing groups of people to connect, then I think we are probably not fostering knowledge in the fullest way that we can.

If we are committed to interdisciplinarity, we must ask what within our institutional structures and policies facilitates connection, collaboration, and integration. We must show how we support this, not simply assert that we do. We must also seek out the structures and policies that impede connection, collaboration, and integration. That is not only about fostering interdisciplinarity — it is about supporting the construction and sharing of knowledge, which is the whole point of a university in the first place.

The challenge is not for administrators alone — far from it. Interdisciplinarity is an area where faculty can lead, if they choose to do so, via their work as department or program chairs, as committee members (both at our institutions and for our professional organizations and publications), as scholars, and as teachers. If administrators say that interdisciplinarity is important to them, then that offers us an opportunity to show how it can work and what sorts of policies and resources we need to make it more than a buzzword but an actual and valuable practice.

The possibilities are many, but in the interest of modeling some ways of thinking about interdisciplinarity, let’s think about one common structure of higher education: the major.

(We’re about to get into some weeds here. Skip the next 2 sections if you don’t want to think about lots of details.)​

What Is a Major?

The current environment for higher ed requires that schools without huge financial resources be flexible and fleet, able to adjust to changes in demography and culture that will make or break enrollments. Majors are one area where we ought to be flexible, but we often tie ourselves in our own knots.

One assumption I think gets in our way is the idea that majors are something other than ways to organize teachers and students to work together. Majors are a bureaucratic tool — often a very good one — and not immutable truths.

Here, I don’t put the blame on faculty, although faculty can sometimes be the front-line obstacle. The reasons that faculty are obstacles to flexibility in majors, though, are quite rational, and could be addressed by thoughtful administrative leadership.

We cling to majors because we ache for stability. However, majors are not where we should seek stability except for individual students. Majors are a wonderful way to bring stability to the vast and ever-shifting sea of opportunities a university offers students. That’s their best use, and we need not lose that usefulness. Majors are a type of valuable disciplinarity (even when they are interdisciplinary), a way for students to delineate the content, methods, and epistemology that they want to study most deeply.

If faculty see their own security and stability as tied to the existence of one or another major, though, change will be impossible. This is not the faculty’s fault; it is the fault of administrations that account for faculty via majors.

At my school, for instance, there is a desire for “cluster majors”, though little sense of what those might be or how they differ from non-cluster majors. In one sense, I help create cluster majors every day in my job as Director of Interdisciplinary Studies, since our program exists to allow students to create their own majors by melding two or more other majors together into one. It’s a good system, and one that has existed in one form or another for nearly 50 years at our school. But institutionally, we’ve struggled to create cluster majors because we have failed to get the administration to understand majors as a kind of strategic illusion. (“Strategic” in the sense of strategic essentialism.) We have had in the past year a bruising conflict over low-enrolled majors, and this has had a terrible effect on faculty members’ willingness to experiment with majors, even as the administration says a big point of eliminating low-enrolled majors is to make room for and encourage faculty to create new cluster majors. In practice, it felt like people were having their majors ended by the administration to force them to create new cluster majors or else lose their job. (I’m not sure that’s what the administators themselves thought they were doing; it doesn’t matter, because that was the effect.) Again and again, we were told that despite the faculty in them wanting these majors to stay, they had to go because they didn’t have enough enrollments — even when the faculty in those majors had perfectly respectable course enrollment numbers. In using majors as a way to account for faculty, the administration has made their own priority of cluster majors more difficult than it needs to be.

Unfortunately, our administration has never been able to explain their vendetta against majors in a coherent, convincing way. The majors were eliminated despite strong votes against elimination by the faculty in those programs and then by the faculty as a whole, setting up a terrible us vs. them fight between faculty and administration. Bitterness now poisons both sides, with faculty unwilling to work with administration and administrators declaring that faculty are afraid of change — a toxic statement, really, because our faculty are not afraid of change so much as they are afraid of chaos, disempowerment, and unemployment.

One problem is that we’re stuck thinking that majors are a real thing, when we need to move toward seeing majors as flexible. We actually have some examples on campus, and not just my own program of Interdisciplinary Studies. To me, a major like BS in Elementary Education & Youth Development is a nice example of a clustery major because the field of education is inherently interdisciplinary and the major as designed has considerable flexibility for students. Indeed, my program has fewer students since Youth Development was created because students who previously would have had to be Interdisciplinary Studies students now have a more structured option, but one with a lot of the flexibility they desire from IDS. This is a loss for my program but a win for the university and our students, so I support it enthusiastically. Similarly, BS in Allied Health Sciences, which is a somewhat less flexible program than Youth Development but one that holds a variety of different options under its single umbrella (cluster!). When it was created, it, too, led to many students no longer needing Interdisciplinary Studies, and this is a good thing because it shows that the curriculum has the necessary flexibility within its structure for this major to serve a variety of types of students. Heretical as it may seem, I think my own program shrinking is a good sign for the university as a whole. Unless the university itself is based on the idea of individualized majors, individualized majors are not an efficient way to proceed. We will always need such a program for our most curious and quirky students (we love them!), but for the institution overall, the goal should be well-designed, flexible major programs that meet the needs of the students we serve and want to serve.

I can support the ebb and flow of majors to my program because I feel relatively secure in my job — the program is successful and inexpensive overall, and there will probably always be a need for it. (It’s older than I am, after all.) Other faculty, even tenured ones, have no such sense of security.​

Faculty Are Not Majors

As I said above, one of the things our administration has never, to my knowledge, been able to explain is how low-enrolled majors cost money. Certainly, low-enrolled classes cost money and we need to have as few of them as possible, because the road to bankruptcy is paved with full-time faculty teaching courses of 5 or 6 students. Rich schools may be able to afford this; we absolutely cannot. (We could do it with adjuncts, since we don’t pay them a living wage or benefits, but maybe we should try to limit exploitation rather than expand it…) It’s certainly possible that a low-enrolled major has some advanced courses that have low enrollments, but it doesn’t have to be a certainty if the advanced courses are, for instance, open to other majors. If a major has low-enrolled courses, one path forward would be not to end the major but to adjust the curriculum through cross-listed courses, fewer prerequisites, etc, as makes sense and is possible. Additionally, a strong curriculum ought to have some wiggle room to allow for low-enrolled, advanced courses — these can be thrilling for students, and are one important component of higher education. Indeed, a small, advanced course ought to be something that could feature in PR. While any school with a tight budget will need to limit them, we are only hurting the integrity of our curriculum if we ban all low-enrolled advanced-level courses outright; instead, we should seek ways to predict, accommodate, and budget for them.

Having lots of major programs is not in and of itself a problem. Low-enrolled classes may not even be quite as big a problem as generally assumed, if we take a teacher’s entire student load into account. Let’s say Prof. X teaches Advanced Advancement of Advances and only gets 5 students in the course. If Prof. X has been around for 30 years and now makes $100,000, that would mean those 5 students would each need to pay $20,000 to cover Prof. X’s salary (benefits excluded) — which is actually less than out-of-state students pay in tuition and fees. Of course, this is not all that those students’ tuition covers. The money also has to pay for many other costs of running an institution where at least 60% of our expenses are paid for via tuition. So Prof. X teaching a course of only 5 students is hugely expensive and wasteful. But if Prof. X also teaches three large lecture classes of 50 students each, then Prof. X’s total student load is 155 students … which is a pretty good deal for the university.

Now, it’s entirely possible that a teacher in a low-enrolled major is teaching only low-enrolled courses and thus has a small student load. Such a situation is not financially sustainable. But it is not inevitable. If a big expense for an institution is salaries, and the biggest source of income is tuition and fees, then you can’t have the expense and the income working against each other. That’s just brute fact — but the brute fact is teacher/student ratio, not number of majors. Majors are pathways; they are ways of organizing students, teachers, curriculum, and (perhaps) disciplines together.

What a school that depends on tuition to sustain itself needs to figure out is the financially-desireable student load for any one teacher if the school is not going to lose money. It’s a complicated equation because of the various ways students pay for tuition and fees (and the difference between, for instance, in-state and out-of-state tuition at public schools). Also, some disciplines are much more expensive than others — classroom-based programs are less expensive to the institution than lab-based programs and programs with large equipment costs — so it may require more students to pay for the costs of an Engineering course and its teacher than an English course and its teacher. But there ought to be a way to figure a median and work from that. The number should be high enough to allow fuzziness, because for this model to work it needs to allow experiment and failure, and that means some terms individual teachers will fall notably below the desired student load (and some terms they’ll rise above it).

Once we know the financially-desireable student load for any one teacher, we can then work to create more innovative classes, find ways to let majors be more flexible, and maybe even reduce the number of times faculty get tormented by threats from administration, which I expect administrators would appreciate at least as much as faculty.

Rather than focus on the total number of majors or the number of students in any one class, this metric allows the flexibility that true interdisciplinarity needs. If a teacher has two courses with high enrollments, then they should be able (all other things being equal) to teach a course with a lower enrollment. The university is getting its money’s worth from them, and by allowing more flexibility of enrollment (whether in numbers of students in a course or in a major), the university is also getting the innovation it says faculty are afraid of.​

[Update 10/5/21: A friend raises a very good example of an invisible cost of small majors: the time and potential expense of such things as self-studies to look at the viability of a major continuing, ways to increase its enrollment, etc. If lots of faculty/administration time (and perhaps money for consultants) is being spent on growing a major for which there is consistently little interest, then certainly it is more expensive to keep than to let it go.]

Interdisciplinarity As (Good) Opportunity

Matthew Dean Hindman describes the experience of the University of Tulsa’s faculty in revoking the administration’s plan to promote a shallow type of interdisciplinarity through the dissolution of academic departments:​

Without pushback from the faculty, TU risked succumbing to an adisciplinary, and perhaps antidisciplinary, management-centered ethos that would have rendered faculty members ill-equipped to evaluate one another for promotion and tenure, powerless to maintain curricular standards as their capacity to enforce these standards wanes, and unable to preserve connections to the national and international disciplinary communities and professional associations that help academia thrive. While this ethos may have been driven out from the University of Tulsa, it may be coming to your university next.

The warning here is a true and useful one, and I’m glad Hindman does not call this interdisciplinarity but rather adsciplinarity or antidisciplinarity. As described in the article (and familiar from some of my own experiences), this is an anti-democratic, authoritarian scheme wearing democratic, egalitarian sheep’s clothing. Its goal is to make fewer people do more work for less money and to move to the level of upper administration all decisions that actually matter, leaving decisions that the administration cares far less about to the faculty and staff below. Its effect is to create chaos and resentment. This is not a vision, it is a management style.

However, I am wary of simply dismissing this approach and returning to business as usual. Maybe if you’re at a big school with a healthy endowment, the traditional structure of higher education will work for you. (Lucky you!) For those of us at smaller schools, regional schools, less prestigious schools, less wealthy schools … we cannot continue as we have. We need to find ways to make our structures more flexible without making them less meaningful.

Adisciplinarity is the enemy, not disciplinarity or interdisciplinarity, both of which we need. There is no interdisciplinarity without disciplinarity first (you can’t inter- from nothing). Tempting as it might be to combat adisciplinarity by saying, “Return to the disciplines!” — this is not as helpful as it may seem. Disciplines are highly historicized, even material, entities. They exist in a context. They are made real by our actions as teachers, scholars, students, and guardians of bureaucracy.

We need both strong disciplinarity and strong interdisciplinarity. This is not just an intellectual exercise. A lack of interdisciplinarity has real-world consequences. A vivid recent example comes from an extraordinary article in Wired recently: “The 60-Year-Old Scientific Screwup That Helped Covid Kill”. That article shows that understanding how the current pandemic spreads requires aerosol scientists and public health scientists to learn from each other. They needed to think about the limits of their own theories of knowledge, as well as the assumptions embedded within their disciplines, assumptions which, being highly disciplinary, they had not questioned. (Epistemology is not only about evidence, but also, at least as importantly, about assumptions.) As the article shows, different disciplines held different assumptions about how the molecules and droplets of infectious diseases work. Until they could work through their differing assumptions, the scientists couldn’t properly weigh the evidence in front of them.

I go back frequently to something Cathy Davidson wrote in her essential book The New Education. Davidson was for some time the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke, so she knows her way around both interdisciplinarity and administration. She wrote:​

You free faculty not by insisting they give up the standards of their traditional discipline in order to accept the standards of someone else’s. Rather, you reward them and their students for constantly rethinking options, trying new programs, acting inventively and boldly, collaboratively and synthetically.

These two sentences are important because they show one lens through which we can see the difference between administrators with a real vision for interdisciplinarity and administrators seeking primarily to cut costs and assert authority.​

Toward Empowerment

Thinking forward, then, we must ask: What are the structures that reward faculty and students for rethinking their work, for experimenting with new programs, for being bold, inventive, collaborative? If an institution does not have such reward structures, it is not going to be interdisciplinary.

Reward is a key word here because it is the opposite of punish, and it is easy as an administrator (or a teacher) to fall into the habit of punishment more than reward. The work is difficult, demanding, often overwhelming, and so the understandable instinct is to punish obstacles. But even if this has some desired short-term effects, the long-term results are likely to be counterproductive.

Perhaps better than reward or punishment is the idea of empowerment. How are teachers and students empowered to work interdisciplinarily? One sign of good administration is that it works to remove the obstacles to the work that the institutional leaders desire. If faculty are not creating the interdisciplinary programs the administration wants, then the useful question is not, “What is wrong with these recalcitrant, change-hating faculty?” but rather, “What are the obstacles? How might we remove them, how might we reward the behavior we seek, how might we empower people toward bold new thinking?”

Consider these questions, just for a start:

  • What in your organizational structure promotes collaboration?
  • Where is the push toward new types of interdisciplinary work coming from? (Administrators may truly believe interdisciplinary approaches are best for the future of the institution, but if the initiative is only coming from above, it won’t be successful for any number of reasons, including that administrators may not be best positioned to understand the frustrations and obstacles facing the people doing the actual work.)
  • How is workload allocated, assessed, and compensated? (If interdisciplinarity is a goal, that goal will be reflected not only in a vision of how work is to be shared, but in support for the actual work itself.)
  • Whose students are counted toward what programs? (To increase interdisciplinarity, pay less attention to major enrollment and more attention to course enrollments. The courses in a major may be quite interdisciplinary even if the major itself is not. This is really not a problem and may even be a good thing.)
  • How do workload requirements encourage experiment? (What support is available for faculty working to build up their course enrollments? If a new course is under-enrolled, what support is available to the faculty member — or is their course just cancelled?)
  • How are time and resources allocated for disciplines to learn about each others’ content, methods, epistemologies, and practices?
  • How is team teaching accounted for? (One of the best incubators of interdisciplinary work is team teaching. It can be a resource challenge, especially for underfunded schools, but a creative institution committed to interdisciplinarity will find ways to support and even encourage team teaching.)
  • How much of the institution’s push toward interdisciplinarity relies on volunteer work, overload work, etc.? Healthy interdisciplinarity is part of the regular workload. How will the institution make that happen without burning people out?
  • Are there steps in the process of creating new courses that could be clarified, refined, or eliminated?
  • Are there steps in the process of creating new programs that could be clarified, refined, or eliminated?
  • What systems and tools help disciplines communicate with each other to do interdisciplinary work?
  • What supports are in place to help students explore and discover majors, minors, and personal interests?
  • How does the institution support people facing the hurdles of interdisciplinary funding and research?
  • How does grants management work for interdisciplinary projects?
  • What seed funding is available for experimental curricula?
  • Could student roles be re-imagined? (Students teaching students, for instance, can be a powerful tool for community and interdisciplinarity.)
  • What faculty development around interdisciplinarity is available? How is participation in faculty development rewarded?
  • How does interdisciplinary work affect tenure?
  • Do campus leaders who advocate interdisciplinarity have any understanding of the research on interdisciplinarity?
  • Does the institution have ways to stay abreast of new developments in interdisciplinary scholarship and practice?
  • How are problems and complaints collected, assessed, addressed?
  • How is reward emphasized over punishment? How are people empowered?
  • How is interdisciplinary work accounted for beyond teaching and into scholarship and service?
  • How are disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity celebrated together?

I’m sure there are many other questions that can be asked, but those are some that come to mind for me when thinking about whether an institution actually values interdisciplinarity. (This list was partly inspired by Creating Interdisciplinary Campus Cultures by Julie Thompson Klein, a book that can help with some of these conversations.) Not every institution will be able to answer such questions fully, but if the majority of them can’t be answered, then you know you’re dealing with more spin than substance.

These questions are not meant to be defeatist or challenging, but rather something of an inspiration. Interdisciplinarity — good, true, strong interdisciplinarity — is an opportunity to build from strengths and strengthen areas of weakness.

Good interdisciplinarity will come not from erasing disciplines; it will come from building pathways between structures that already exist, attending to the labor involved in such work, providing people the time and opportunity to think creatively, encouraging experimentation (while recognizing that lots of experiments fail, and failure is something to learn from), removing obstacles, seeking ways to strengthen disciplinarity while also building bridges between disciplines, seeking ways to analyze what our disciplines are and how they got to be that way — I could go on, but the idea is a fairly simple one and could take a thousand different forms: promote exploration and experiment, empower people to try new things, reward boldness, eliminate obstacles.

This does not need to be an effort that pits faculty, staff, and administrators against each other. Something is terribly wrong if it does. Real interdisciplinary work can strengthen an institution while creating new, exciting opportunities for everyone within that institution. That has got to be our shared goal. The alternative is terrifying.

Image: Based on a photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash