• September 4, 2015

Communicating Across the Academic Divide

Communicating Across the Academic Divide 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

Economists have been much maligned recently for our failure to agree on how to get the economy moving again. Yes, we may disagree on short-term prescriptions, but we speak in a clear, unified voice about at least one issue: Innovation is essential to long-term prosperity. We also agree that research universities are key players in inventing and developing the creative ideas that fuel the economy's long-term health.

Yet universities neglect an important source of potential innovation: the cross-fertilization of ideas that comes from productive conversations across disciplines. Although people outside of universities seem to think that faculty members talk to one another across their fields of study (after all, they work in the same place, don't they?), in fact, substantive conversations are infrequent. Particularly at large research universities, scholars and researchers in different disciplines don't often interact, and when they do—for example, on university committees—they rarely say much about their work.

Many university administrators would like to remedy this situation. Over the past 10 years, numerous research universities' strategic plans have called for increased interdisciplinary work. Nonetheless, there is little evidence that it is happening.

The three common explanations for a lack of faculty interest in interdisciplinary work are that the academic reward system militates against it (hiring, promotion, salary increases, and most prizes are controlled by single disciplines, not by multiple disciplines), that there is insufficient funding for it, and that evaluating it is fraught with conflict. These are significant barriers.

However, while doing research for my new book, Interdisciplinary Conversations: Challenging Habits of Thought, I found an even more fundamental barrier to interdisciplinary work: Talking across disciplines is as difficult as talking to someone from another culture. Differences in language are the least of the problems; translations may be tedious and not entirely accurate, but they are relatively easy to accomplish. What is much more difficult is coming to understand and accept the way colleagues from different disciplines think—their assumptions and their methods of discerning, evaluating, and reporting "truth"—their disciplinary cultures and habits of mind.

The book is based on interviews with a sample of faculty members who participated in six seminars at three private research universities in the United States. The purpose of the seminars was to encourage dialogue across disciplines, with the hope that participants would eventually create new interdisciplinary courses and research proposals. Although many people I interviewed reported positive personal outcomes (new intellectual insights and new relationships with scholars in other fields), several of the conversations between colleagues were stormy, and none resulted in interdisciplinary collaboration. Several participants' observations provide a sobering prospect for those interested in doing, encouraging, and paying for interdisciplinary work.

In one of the seminars, an economist was blunt and forthright, in typical economist style, while criticizing a mathematician's presentation on game theory. But a participant from religious studies chastised him, saying she found his comments disparaging and offensive. The economist responded by leaving the room, and he never rejoined the group. Whatever intellectual insights might have been gained from an interdisciplinary discussion were lost.

In another seminar, several participants said its humanities-oriented approach, with an emphasis on critique of texts, was uncomfortable. A drama professor found the critical approach in grave conflict with her own training, which taught her to "try on" ideas, believe them, empathize with them.

In a similar vein, a professor of studio art said that when it was her turn to present, she was shoehorned into a humanities format. She was asked to provide readings in advance and then show slides of her work. "I hate showing slides," she said. "Things go by—people don't even notice what's in the paintings. They can't even see them."

She requested that seminar participants come to her studio and "read" her paintings with her. But her colleagues said there wouldn't be time to walk all the way across campus to her studio. To them, showing slides seemed more efficient, and it was certainly more familiar. After all, don't art historians regularly show slides?

Finally, a mathematician in one seminar said he never spoke when the group met because its pace was too fast for him. He was trained to think deeply about an idea, but in the interdisciplinary seminar, once he had finished thinking deeply, the group was on to some other idea. It never slowed down enough to benefit from his thoughts.

Two lessons stand out. First, engaging in productive interdisciplinary dialogue is neither easy nor intuitive. When scholars from different disciplines come together to learn from one another, they need help recognizing their own habits of mind and disciplinary cultures, and they need assistance in learning to listen with an open mind to their colleagues' ideas. Academics have ample training in doubting new ideas; indeed, often the hallmark of a scholar is insistent doubting, questioning, and criticizing. But to be successful at interdisciplinary dialogue, we need to learn new skills. We must become adept at postponing doubt, concentrating instead on patiently seeking to understand and "try on" others' ideas and methodologies and experience their cultures.

Second, successful interdisciplinary conversation requires strong leadership. Facilitating conversation among faculty from multiple disciplines is a tough job, requiring not only awareness of one's own disciplinary bias, but also the ability to manage power dynamics among highly successful and often egotistic participants. Expert leaders expect power conflicts and know how to work through them to create trust. They excel at finding the right balance between productive and destructive conflict. They also structure conversations tightly, and they specifically encourage participants to explore syntheses of divergent views, for it is precisely through such exploration that creative initiatives arise.

No doubt, the debate about barriers to interdisciplinarity is highly polarized these days. Mark C. Taylor, a Columbia University religion professor, has written that disciplinary departments fatally impede interdisciplinary communication. His solution? Abolish departments. Sharply countering that view, the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Jerry Jacobs argues that making sure ideas flow across disciplinary lines requires little more encouragement than that which already exists.

My work suggests that neither of these views is correct. We should not abolish departments and the disciplinary training they provide. Innovative research and scholarship require immersion in the details of a disciplinary dialogue and, despite the fact that they are often fragmented into subdisciplines, departments help scholars remain current in their fields. But universities need to provide many more opportunities, incentives, and rewards for faculty members to talk with one another productively across disciplines, providing training for leaders of such conversations and creating a culture where participants interact with respect and seek mutual understanding.

The problems that beset us in the 21st century do not abide by disciplinary boundaries. Creating more sustainable sources of energy, building peaceful relationships with other nations in a badly fractured global economic system, designing humane rules for containing health-care costs—all require innovation by experts who collaborate across disciplines. Academics, as well as those outside academe, should invest in the process of fostering interdisciplinary conversations. Our long-term national well-being is at stake.

Myra H. Strober is emerita professor of education and of economics at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. Her new book, Interdisciplinary Conversations: Challenging Habits of Thought, was published in the fall by Stanford University Press.


1. gplm2000 - January 06, 2011 at 11:53 am

Malarkey! Double-think speech that offers little. Hopefully no students will be charged $100 to buy this book.

2. 22289966 - January 07, 2011 at 06:44 am

"Malarky" is just the kind of reflex dismissal that has kept "academic disciplines" intact well beyond their useful life. To encourage imaginative thinking in young people, teachers must model openness, must challenge themselves to the innovation identified as so necessary for the years ahead. Smug security within antiquated "disciplines" will most only engender more of the same.

3. cecileandrews - January 07, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Myra Strober's conclusion that "We must become adept at postponing doubt, concentrating instead on patiently seeking to understand and "try on" others' ideas and methodologies and experience their cultures" is essential to all progressive social change. How can the rest of us learn this if academics don't model it? We learn how to think and communicate from our college educations and the state of the world suggests we need to learn new models of thinking and communicating.

4. drj50 - January 07, 2011 at 12:33 pm

If faculty members cannot communicate with one another, how is it that we expect them to communicate with their students (who, after all, are also not trained in the faculty member's discipline)? I find these conclusions deeply troubling, especially in a time when many question the value of what we do?

5. crazyfrog - January 07, 2011 at 03:55 pm

The conclusions are worthy of pondering but I suggest that much more work needs to be done before they are accepted unquestioningly. For instance, the author seems to use the artist and mathematician to represent all artists and mathematicians; yet the sample size for each may very well be n=1. Who says those two are representative?
Also, the focus was on 3 research universities. The sample size problem exists there and it may not be that research universities are representative of all academics. At the smaller liberal arts university where I work, we are making great progress on several interdisciplinary fronts and are in the process of finalizing a transdisciplinary general education program that integrates but transcends disciplinary thinking.
Thus, while the issue of talking to colleagues from other disciplines is a big one, I'm not so sure that this book will be the final--or even authoritative--word.

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7. alexanderstingl - January 10, 2011 at 01:15 pm

Forging interdisciplinary dialogue, albeit constructive exchanges that are supposed to influence outcomes and provide new ideas and even technologies, is nearly impossible to achieve. but possible it is and it is being done. In the US more so than in Germany, the country where I was born and educated. Respectively, scholars in the US should understand that this kind of edge they have in dialogue is part of their success. Thus, it needs to be increased and promoted rather than belittled.... In my work as a sociologist and historian of science and medicine, the role of knowledge production has been and remains to be in the foreground. I have come to understand a good deal about how knowledge is created and what kinds of forces prevent the creation and application of new knowledge. Interestingly, I have experienced the full blow of the restraining forces of scholars who seem to wish that interdisciplinary scholarship does rather not occur. I have found that the reasons for this "anti-" stance are manifold and, often, the result not of bad intentions, but stem from unreflected prejudices, procedural habits and intellectual incompetence.
About some of the reasons I have previously blogged: http://alexstingl.wordpress.com/2010/01/25/categorizing-research-proposals/
(see also supplements 1 and 2: http://alexstingl.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/research-prososals-supplement/
for further thoughts)
I am currently developing ideas for organized programs in medicine studies, that are supposed to promote better training for secondary care and health providers (such as nurses, acupuncturists, etc.) based on the idea of helping them become community leaders through understanding the civic networks and the organization of knowledge production.
Sifting through a wealth of literature and studies, I can only say that when people are willing to communicate, promising results do follow almost always. Sometimes this willingness needs, however, motivation or motivators. And this is what we need to create systematically: Incentives in our research and education organizations and people (coordinators) who are trained and able to facilitate this.
I know that this seems like very much of a bit of big talk for a comment, and that it would, also, requiring some fleshing out. But this fleshing it out is what established people like Myra Strober and junior scholars like myself are trying to do. It is for our peers amongst the audience to give us the chance of doing so. For this is the gist of my little pep talk: What we need most is perhaps this: a little time and patience.

8. jerebin - January 13, 2011 at 02:58 am

As dean of a faculty at an Australian university, I have personal experience of trying and failing to establish interdisciplinary conversation. This was particularly disheartening in one instance where the kind of dialogue I asked for from two schools was only what would be required of their students once they entered industry! But what really amazes me is the stunning lack of curiosity many academics display about the work of their colleagues. For me, one of the joys of working in a university is the endlessly interesting variety of work going on around me. It's sad to think that many of my colleagues are missing out on this experience by their own choice.

9. 12080243 - January 13, 2011 at 01:15 pm

Strober's discussion is real to me. And I thank her for bringing to the surface fond but troubling memories. I lived interdisciplinary study in my doctoral program. Over twenty years ago, my major area (a professional business area of study) faculty were initially very encouraging as were the faculty in the minor area of study (liberal arts which was also my major in undergrad studies). I thoroughly enjoyed the differences and insights gained by studying disparate disciplines but be clear, walking across campus to partake in each was like interplanetary travel. The major area faculty came to regret encouraging my liberal arts minor. If I were to describe the major area faculty, intolerant is the word that comes to mind. As an "outsider", I see that the major area discipline in general breeds intolerance, and, in my view, is a source of problems in the profession. For example, the corruption our students participate in their daily professional activities is all too often reported in the popular business press. Your retirement accounts, for example, will probably be adversely effected by their behavior. Unless you understand why they do what they do, you'll never know what hit your retirement account.

Be that as it may, interdisciplinary study gave me a competitive advantage in research but tended to isolate me from faculty in both disciplines. Would I encourage doctoral students to partake in disparate disciplines? Yes, but be forewarned. A strong mentor would be helpful.

10. willard_mccarty - January 14, 2011 at 06:49 am

Nearly 20 years in the digital humanities has put me into close contact with research and researchers across the disciplines. I have had many experiences of the sort Professor Strober describes and have reached much the same conclusion. Helping to build the digital humanities as an interdisciplinary practice forced me to consider how I might think my way into disciplines other than my native one, so as to to borrow responsibly from them, and then to start doing it. A couple of years ago I realised that such interdisciplinary exploring could be taught. Last Spring, with the support of the Graduate School, King's College London, I launched my course, Exploring Disciplines, for PhD-level students at King's. Its success moved the Graduate School to adopt it as an ongoing course. See www.kcl.ac.uk/graduate/school/training/exploringdisciplines.html for a brief description and syllabus.

11. kathrine9 - January 16, 2011 at 08:29 am

who belongs to one discipline these days? When I studied (later in life) I completed a conjoint degree, and so did many other students in my year. There were also many students I met who returned to further study in a discipline different from their initial degree. Also, I was so 'thirsty' for knowledge that I took papers from several disciplines. I believe that if students can be encouraged to take a broad approach to their subject choices, it could also be a useful step in the construction of inter-disciplinary connections/conversations/appreciation.

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