Communicating Across the Academic Divide

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

January 02, 2011

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.