Academic Researchers Need to Learn to Talk Across Disciplines


Academic Researchers Need to Learn to Talk Across Disciplines

A professor argues explores why it is difficult for researchers to learn to talk to peers from other areas of academia.

Back in the 1970s, Stanford professor Myra Strober wanted to understand how elementary school teaching became an occupation dominated by women. The 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 says, American universities have worked hard to encourage more interdisciplinary endeavors, ranging from simple brown bag seminars to multimillion dollar research centers. In the past decade, Stanford alone has launched three major cross-disciplinary initiatives on human health, the environment, and international relations. 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 says her book describes "how to realize the creative potential of interdisciplinary conversations to solve complex problems that do not respect disciplinary boundaries." She agrees that interdisciplinary work can increase the pace at which knowledge is created.

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. Today, Strober is Professor of Education, Emerita, in the Stanford School of Education and Professor of Economics (by courtesy) at Stanford GSB.

The idea for her new book dates back to the late 1990s, when she took a leave of absence from her Stanford teaching duties 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. Supported 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," she recalls.

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 is unrealistic to think that new interdisciplinary courses and research projects can be launched after only 20 or so conversations."

Despite 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."

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