Key ingredients to interdisciplinary success

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Key ingredients to interdisciplinary success

Skilled leaders, open-minded participants, and an on-going emphasis on seeking synergies

by Admin on Friday, October 29, 2010 - 3:31am

Professor Myra StroberBack in the 1970s, Stanford professor Myra Strober wanted to understand how elementary school teaching became an occupation dominated by women. Trouble was, the young economists in her interdisciplinary research group focused on statistical data from the 19th century, while the historians favored anecdotal evidence from teacher diaries. Neither faction thought much of the other’s approach to the topic – and said so.

Since that time, Strober notes, American universities have worked hard to encourage more interdisciplinary endeavors, ranging from simple brown bag seminars to multi-million dollar research centers. Stanford alone has launched three major cross-disciplinary initiatives, on human health, the environment and international relations, in the past decade. Yet getting scholars from very different academic traditions to work together productively – or even civilly – remains a challenge.

As she writes in her new book, Interdisciplinary Conversations: Challenging Habits of Thought (Stanford University Press, 2010), “Most discussions about barriers to interdisciplinarity are about funding, the academic reward system, and the difficulties of evaluating research from multiple disciplines. This book is about different barriers that are rarely recognized let alone discussed: disciplinary habits of mind, disciplin­ary cultures, and interpersonal dynamics.”



Strober explains that when experts have been trained in a discipline over a long period of time, they become acculturated to that discipline and have difficulty accepting and understanding different approaches to knowledge. “All faculty everywhere are captives of their disciplinary cultures and habits,” she adds. While these walls “permit focus and access to deep knowledge, (they) con­strain interactions with colleagues from other fields.”

Strober does not stop with defining barriers. “My book lays out a clear vision of how to realize the creative potential of interdisciplinary conversations to solve complex problems that do not respect disciplinary boundaries,” she explained in a recent interview. Like others in the field, she believes that interdisciplinary work can increase the pace at which knowledge is created. “Designing humane rules for containing health care costs requires input not only from physicians and economists but also from ethicists,” she writes. “Creating peaceful relationships with countries across the world requires insight not only from historians and political scientists but also from agronomists and anthropologists.”

Still, she writes, “Talking to colleagues across disciplines is not for the faint of heart . . . Unless participants are open-minded and dialogues well structured, the conversations can be boring, confusing, unpleasant or downright hurtful.”

An expert on women’s labor issues, Strober says her own interdisciplinary experiences have been mostly positive. As the founding director of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Women (now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research) in the mid 1970s, she promoted fruitful lunchtime exchanges and joint research projects among a variety of scholars with a common interest: the nascent field of women’s studies.

The idea for her new book dates back to the late 1990s, when she took a leave of absence from her job as a Stanford professor of education, and professor by courtesy in the Graduate School of Business, to serve as higher education program officer for The Atlantic Philanthropies.

“We made some grants to see if we could foster interdisciplinary conversations at several universities,” she recalls in an interview at her campus home, “and when I came back to Stanford, people still were emailing and telling me about the seminars we had funded. The more that developed, the more I realized that this was a really interesting natural experiment because all the seminars went in different directions.”

block1Aided by the Ford Foundation, Strober interviewed faculty who had participated in six year-long interdisciplinary colloquia at three major research universities. Organizers had hoped that the programs would inspire new team-taught courses and joint research proposals. But in fact, Strober writes, “Without a strong expectation on the part of seminar leaders that new courses and research were to come out of the conversations, and without a seminar structure that worked toward achieving these goals, faculty behaved like magpies. They collected numerous shiny bits for their own nests, but never put them into larger structures.”

Several of the seminars were hampered by weak leadership. Another common stumbling block was the way the interdisciplinary groups were composed. In one seminar organized by humanists, for example, “Barry” the mathematician was a loner who never made comments or asked questions. When he did give a presentation, it was a highly specialized talk that completely lost the others in the group, including a dramatist and a studio artist.

More successful was a seminar put together jointly by a literary scholar and a chemist. Its clearly stated purpose: to examine the connections between sciences and the humanities. “They chose scientists who really wanted to help non-scientists understand science, and they chose humanities people who wanted to understand science,” Strober recalls. “It’s important how you compose the group, and it’s important to have a strong leader who builds trust and believes that interpersonal interactions are important.”

On an institutional level, Strober suggests that universities make more of an effort to reward scholars who are willing to step out of their disciplinary comfort zones – particularly young faculty on the road to tenure. She’d also like to see more follow-up funding, to encourage team-teaching and ensure that joint research proposals continue to grow after the initial meetings have ended. As she writes, “It’s is unrealistic to think that new interdisciplinary courses and research projects can be launched after only 20 or so conversations.” block2Despite the challenges, Strober is optimistic about the potential of interdisciplinary studies in American higher education. The way she sees it, universities ought to diversify their teaching and research portfolios, just as individuals should invest in both stocks and bonds. “Investing in research within a single field may be thought of as comparable to investing in bonds,” she explains. “It is a relatively safe investment, but with possibly less potential for solving the major problems of society.” Investing in interdisciplinary research is riskier, requiring a large initial investment that may not bear fruit. But on the other hand, she says, “The payoff might be spectacular.”

Myra Strober will be discussing her new book, Interdisciplinary Conversations: Challenging Habits of Thought, at 4:15 pm on Thursday, November 11 in the Conference Room at Bechtel International. For more event details, go to the Clayman Institute's  website.