Interdisciplinary Research and Critical Friends

A couple of years ago, Lila McDowell wrote a piece for The Chronicle that described “critical friends” as an essential part of managing the division inherent in interdisciplinary research. Critical friends, she wrote, are the people who challenge us to reconceptualize the obvious—the colleagues and mentors we rely on most, the ones who pay us the courtesy of letting us know when our writing is fuzzy or our arguments are weak.

I’ve remembered this phrase during recent discussions in Professor Davidson’s MOOC on the history and future of higher education. This MOOC constitutes an invitation from Professor Davidson to join her in serving as a critical friend by considering what MOOCs and online learning could or should mean for higher-education systems around the world—and, more broadly, how and why current institutions should evolve. With her encouragement, the students, several of whom are professors themselves, are critiquing the course itself in the context of this conversation.

Collectively, we’ve discussed such issues as the design of Coursera’s platform (constructive suggestions have included presenting the lectures as podcasts, and providing separate forums where shy students or novices could find their online feet), intellectual property and privacy rights, and the types of learning we value and why.

Last week I started a forum on interdisciplinary learning, out of both professional and personal interest. I see merit in arguments that academe has grown overly specialized to its own detriment, and that dealing with real-world problems requires multidisciplinary expertise. At the same time, as part of an interdisciplinary team of graduate students studying the social and cultural implications of genetic engineering, I’m deeply familiar with the difficulties associated with pushing disciplinary boundaries.

As Sarah Byrne recently noted in The Guardian, for senior professors, interdisciplinary collaboration may mean co-authoring with an out-of-field colleague. But graduate students and early-career researchers are increasingly expected to immediately carve out a research niche that spans multiple disciplines—a prospect that is both appealing on an intellectual level and fairly threatening on a professional one, given that hybrid work fits uneasily into current mentoring and hiring structures.

Stories from MOOC participants featured similar themes. Much like disciplines, different professions have divergent norms, expectations, and vocabularies. Teams that involve multiple perspectives may receive conflicting instructions from various supervisors. In the absence of well-defined precedents or procedures, team members may struggle to negotiate significantly different visions of what a successful outcome might look like.

These cultural and institutional constraints are, of course, layered on top of social dynamics that influence any group’s cohesion. Some members will be more comfortable speaking up or challenging others’ views; others will shy away from conflict, need more time to think before sharing their opinions, or self-edit if they believe others possess a greater degree of authority.

I’m interested in the strategies that groups and teams use to overcome these barriers, and the types of leadership and institutional structures that can support them in this process. Students in the course offered a wealth of practical recommendations based on their experiences as teachers and facilitators, such as: providing multiple avenues for team members to share feedback, including writing and drawing in addition to speaking; organizing meetings in ways that encourage all participants to share information, rather than allowing one or two voices to dominate discussions; and eliciting ideas on an individual basis well before group interactions take place.

Professor Davidson’s pedagogy offers more lessons in collaboration by difference. For example, she begins both online and face-to-face classes by asking students to work together to draft a set of guidelines for how the class will operate. She notes that the goals of the assignment are 1) to make unstated norms explicit and 2) to help students articulate what collective goals they want to achieve, and what they need to do to achieve those goals. I would add that the process of writing their own rules helps students develop a greater sense of agency, and a greater degree of investment in helping the course or collaboration to succeed.

Many of these insights are echoed in the scholarly literature on interdisciplinary groups and teams. For instance, Elizabeth Cooley suggests a process of “mapping, mirroring, mining, and refining:” in other words, focusing groups on envisioning and tracking their own progress, instilling a joint responsibility for all group members to “see and be seen, hear and be heard.” Bradley Kirkman and Benson Rosen argue that to lead such collaborations in the workplace, supervisors must reconceptualize their own roles, letting go of a certain degree of control in order to act as coaches rather than bosses. In addition to emphasizing individual characteristics such as openness and respect for different approaches, tolerance for uncertainty, persistence, and the willingness to speak up and seek clarification when needed, Justin Nash lists a number of institutional factors that can support collaboration across the disciplines: funding; focused training that helps students develop specific methods of focusing on a single research problem; mentoring that teaches not only content but also how to negotiate disciplinary boundaries; and an influential training director who is focused on “protecting the most vulnerable training resource, the trainee.”

These recommendations challenge some aspects of academic life as I’ve experienced it, but in a constructive and supportive way. If Chronicle readers have more advice on facilitating critical friendships and productive collaborations, I’d love to know.

Elizabeth Pitts is a doctoral student in communication, rhetoric, and digital media at North Carolina State University.

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