by Dr. Sarah Ruth Jacobs
College administrators who want their institutions to be renowned for innovation and groundbreaking research should prioritize cross-disciplinary collaboration and training. Stanford, one of the most highly regarded institutions when it comes to innovation, has multidisciplinary work emblazoned on its main admissions page: the college seeks “Engineers who paint. Dancers who study biology.” Similar guidelines are espoused for Stanford medical students: “True to the entrepreneurial ethos of the valley, our culture encourages agile collaboration across disciplines for creative solutions and original thinking.” Institutional investment in cross-disciplinary collaboration and training has numerous benefits:
- Humanities and social sciences disciplines can shed new light on disciplinary questions by utilizing hard scientific methods. An excellent example is this article produced in collaboration between political science and data science faculty that looks at the demographics of Americans who are most likely to share false political stories on social media.
- The sciences, in turn, could benefit from humanistic values and more comprehensive ethical considerations. For example, in a time when AI seems poised to replicate humanity’s flaws, those who write code or design algorithms should be able to make output that can comment on limitations or injustices in the data.
- Numerous grants and fellowships reward cross-disciplinary work. An analysis by Ye Sun et al. of 44,419 awarded grants in the UK found that interdisciplinary researchers “eventually outperform their specialized counterparts in funding performance, both in terms of volume and value.” In the private sector, truly cutting-edge technologies, from the Google Ngram Viewer to ChatGPT, span multiple disciplines.
- The greatest problems humanity faces, from abandoning fossil fuels to effectively communicating scientific policy to the public, require the expertise of multiple disciplines. Colleges that do not support cross-collaboration are not only less attractive to students, but they are less reflective of real-world needs.
Of course, cross-disciplinary collaboration and training faces numerous hurdles. As Rick Rylance, the chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Council, writes in Nature, “Academic institutions’ budgets, governance and promotion arrangements are usually organized around single disciplines, as are processes at many granting bodies and journals. Interdisciplinary research struggles for prestige — as measured by quantitative metrics that favour single disciplines — and it is trickier to peer review. Thus early-stage researchers are often advised that starting on an interdisciplinary trajectory is not a smart move.” Cross-disciplinary researchers must agree on their methodology, sort through and unify their terminology, and conform to the standards of journals that often have discipline-specific requirements and expectations. Instead of mounting obstacles for faculty who wish to conduct cross-disciplinary research, colleges can take some of the following steps to encourage and support such work:
- Adjust workload, tenure, and promotion requirements to support cross-disciplinary work. Specifically, Melinda Harm Benson et al. recommend that colleges “[create] metrics that reward interdisciplinary scholarship, [allow] faculty to ‘count’ teaching and advising loads in interdisciplinary programs, [create] a ‘safe fail’ for interdisciplinary research proposals and projects, [create] appropriate academic homes for interdisciplinary programs, and [rethink] ‘advancement of the discipline’ as a basis for promotion and tenure.”
- Create institutional support for cross-disciplinary research through labs, grants, or project-based initiatives. For example, Stanford’s Neurosciences Institute “catalyzes interdisciplinary collaborations at the boundaries of neuroscience and a range of disciplines, including statistics, engineering, genetics, law and ethics, to conduct basic and clinical research into the nervous system and its disorders.” The University of Minnesota’s Grand Challenges Research Initiative has invested over $6 million in funding toward interdisciplinary research that aims to solve pressing problems.
- Promote grant opportunities and encourage faculty and staff to apply for government or nonprofit grants. Sharing grant and funding resources, providing faculty training in grant writing, and circulating “calls for collaboration” on items like large institutional grants can all help create a pipeline of collaborative work.
Often, cross-disciplinarity starts with students and the curricula. Colleges can initiate the following types of pedagogical models to encourage collaboration across departments:
- First-year learning communities: The same cohort of students takes two or more courses in different disciplines. Faculty members from the courses can create interdisciplinary projects that count for credit across the courses. These courses could also focus on a shared theme.
- Team-taught interdisciplinary courses: Cross-listed courses in different disciplines could be developed and even co-taught by faculty from each discipline. Some departments or programs, including graduate programs, could also consider dual-degree initiatives.
- Student grants for interdisciplinary research: Students could be invited to apply for funding for individual interdisciplinary research, or faculty members could invite students to earn a stipend while working on faculty-led research.
- Pedagogical training sessions: There are many pedagogical approaches that can be applied across disciplines. Inviting full and part-time faculty from across departments to participate in pedagogical training is a great way to get faculty to think about other disciplinary approaches. For example, the New York City College of Technology at the City University of New York has conducted a seminar for faculty across disciplines on high-impact teaching practices and place-based learning.
Creating a college-wide culture of collaboration demands a large and coordinated effort. Nicoletta Pireddu, the director of the interdisciplinary Georgetown Humanities Initiative, works to build a collaborative community by organizing programming such as Voices on the Environment, “a yearly event series…at the intersection of the humanities, the sciences, and the arts, linking literary and journalist writing, activist performance, and critical approaches to the environment, climate change, and climate justice. Recent plenary speakers include Amitav Ghosh and Robert Bullard, but we also feature emerging voices. Numerous academic units are involved in the conceptualization of the topics and the choice of speakers (Georgetown Humanities, the Earth Commons, The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, the Lannan Center, among others).” As with any large endeavor, institutional support for cross-disciplinary work begins with a single conversation, a conversation that ultimately expands to encompass multiple stakeholders and one or more initiatives.