March/April 2009
Issue 20


this issue...





Interdisciplinary Teaching and Research


This issue's topic is interdisciplinary teaching and research. George highlights the physical implications but stresses the need to create an academic environment that supports the initiative. Arthur's sidebar looks at the policies that might hinder this objective.




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Interdisciplinary Conditioning


In the past twenty years, one of the most frequently-stated academic and facility goals I have heard is the need to create or renovate buildings to encourage interdisciplinary work.

Partly a reflection of evolving funding mandates where government and foundation support is contingent on a collaborative approach to research or instruction, interdisciplinarity has taken on the near-mantric formulation that cutting edge work will, by definition, involve more than one of the "traditional" academic focus areas.

As a planner involved with campus design and facility development, I don't feel qualified to judge the validity of this assertion, but I can observe that there are few facility and campus plans created in the last two decades that have not held this notion as a key plan driver.

  • creating generic, flexible lab and other research spaces that can accommodate, with reasonably straight-forward adaptation, a wide range of discipline-specific requirements

The facility responses have included innovations such as:

  • providing more small and large group meeting spaces
  • ensuring a mix of departments in buildings, wings, floors and "pods"
  • creating "commons" spaces with amenities to encourage informal, spontaneous faculty and student interaction
  • developing dramatic atriums where occupants and visitors can "see and be seen" coming and going on their daily rounds spurring chance encounters

While such building features can no doubt enhance collaboration, institutions should ensure it by:

  1. providing leadership and incentives to make clear that work across disciplines will advance rather than deter a faculty member's career trajectory, and
  2. reducing organizational barriers (or "lowering the walls" to borrow a phrase in common use at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill),
  3. hiring and nurturing faculty that have shown an aptitude for productive collaboration

Alan Grossman, a senior faculty member at the Harvard Business School, suggested the importance of individual interest and capabilities in overcoming institutional barriers. If the work achievable through collaboration with others is worth doing, creative, committed, organized people will make it happen. As an illustration, he related an instance of collaborating with colleagues in the Graduate School of Education on a research study and the development of a book detailing the study. A road-block arose early on in the process when it became apparent that sharing files on School servers using University networks would be impossible — faculty from one school couldn't access servers maintained at the collaborating faculty members' Schools. Their solution was simple, if somewhat unorthodox — like many a church group, dog lovers club, or youth soccer league, they created a Yahoo user group and got on with their research and writing.

While thoughtfully-designed facilities can no doubt support and enhance collaboration, institutions should first ensure the optimization of such facilities by creating an academic environment supportive of interdisciplinary work and the development of a faculty that knows how to play well with others.




George Mathey




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Policies and Interdisciplinary Goals

If a goal of your college or university is to encourage interdisciplinary teaching and research, are your institutional policies hindering this objective?
Tenure and promotion requirements are a major impediment to interdisciplinary programs as they encourage silos, narrow interaction, and discourage initiatives between departments.

When your institution is interviewing candidates for a faculty position, do other departments participate in the selection? Do they have a vote? A number of institutions now require that any new hire help another department.
If several faculty desire to teach a course concurrently, does the way in which faculty credit is given support or hinder that activity? At some institutions, faculty will get full credit despite the shared initiative.

Faculty load also plays a part in that the higher the load, the more likely that teaching will be a priority. Finding the time to explore and create interdisciplinary courses and creating opportunities for interdisciplinary research will not be a priority.

How does the institution deal with cost recovery when several departments are working together on a research project? Is it assigned to the PI's department, shared, or allocated based on some other factor, such as the number of graduate students involved or a percentage of the research expenditure?

Geography plays an important constraint as well. On many campuses, large departments have their own buildings, almost guaranteeing isolation. In the future, there will be fewer stand-alone buildings and more interconnected spaces.

So while space provides the opportunity for interdisciplinary initiatives, without a careful review of the policies that might impede its implementation, the opportunity might be lost.

Arthur Lidsky



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