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November-December 2012

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Interdisciplinary Collaboration on Campus: Five Questions

In its 10th anniversary issue, The Chronicle Review asked a number of scholars to identify the “Defining Idea of the Next Decade.” One nominee: the movement to abandon the disciplines in order “to meet the scholarly and public challenges we face” (Ecklund, 2010). In Elaine Ecklund's perspective, it is only through interdisciplinary research that we will find answers to pressing questions such as how to battle cancer, combat environmental devastation, and understand religion.

Ecklund is not alone in this call for more interdisciplinary thinking. In recent decades, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes for Health (NIH), and the National Academies (2004) have all called for more interdisciplinary scholarship to respond to compelling global problems (Klein, 2010; Rhoten & Pfirman, 2007). Moreover, many campus administrators see interdisciplinary collaboration, particularly in teaching and research, as a strategy for capitalizing on scarce resources and procuring more in the future.

So the siren's song of interdisciplinarity is difficult for many colleges and universities to resist. At the same time, the literature on interdisciplinary collaboration warns of the many challenges that interdisciplinary researchers face (Amey & Brown, 2004; Klein, 1990, 2010; Lattuca, 2001).

Maine's Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI) is a broad-ranging portfolio of research projects aimed at creating “a world-class sustainability science research program focused on the dynamics of social-ecological systems (SES), with an explicit goal of understanding and strengthening connections between knowledge and action.” We conducted a study of this five-year, $20 million interdisciplinary research collaboration, which incorporated more than 25 disciplines across the natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, humanities, and professional fields.

In the process, we learned that there are five key questions that administrators, faculty, and students should ask before embarking on such collaborations: Do you have the time, the people, the resources, the structures, and the supportive departments that are needed to enable interdisciplinary work? These are the essential conditions for such work to succeed.

Do You Have Enough Time?

For many people, interdisciplinary collaboration simply implies teamwork (Borrego & Cutler, 2010). But true interdisciplinarity involves a synthesis of at least two different disciplines or fields (Lattuca, 2001). Creating such a synthesis takes a lot of time—time to understand other modes of research, time to learn the language and jargon used in the other field(s), and the time it takes simply to collaborate with another individual or individuals.

An economist working on the interdisciplinary project we studied said, “When I first started working with the other social scientists, it took us about six months to get on the same page—and I'm a social scientist!” An engineer made a similar point: “We have to learn each others' languages. … When you move into a slightly different field, you have to learn all the background that it includes. It does gobble up time.”

The Catch-22 of interdisciplinarity is that it holds the most promise for institutions that are most resource strapped, but those institutions may also be ones that demand a lot of time from faculty for teaching, administrative work, and service. Can they do any more than they are doing now? Without the resources to facilitate a serious time commitment (e.g., teaching-load reductions, course-release funds, an available pool of adjuncts), any truly interdisciplinary work may be destined for failure.

Do You Have the Right People?

Not everyone is well suited for interdisciplinary work. And some disciplines may be better for making the intellectual and cognitive leaps that are required in doing it. Along with Lattuca (2001), we found that faculty in the social sciences and the more applied natural sciences were most likely to be satisfied with their interdisciplinary experiences, whereas faculty in the basic sciences were more expressive about the difficulties they faced and their dissatisfaction with the projects they were engaged in.

A higher level of comfort with interdisciplinarity may be found in fields that are already open to considering multiple perspectives, have less paradigmatic consensus (Biglan, 1973), or have less prestige in the academic hierarchy (Lattuca, 2001). One faculty member in communications told us, “I'm so motivated. I'm so eager to learn. For god's sake, I'm taking multiple regression! If you have any idea how far outside of my worldview that is! I want to learn that language. I want to really get it. It's empowering. It's amazing for me.” This enthusiasm was in stark contrast to the attitude of an earth scientist, who said that he had “some difficulty seeing some of the value of some of the social sciences on the team. I've sat through a number of lectures that some of the social science people have given and walked away wondering what the point was.”

Our research has shown that certain experiences, dispositions, and characteristics also predict greater success at and satisfaction with interdisciplinary collaboration. For example, we found that faculty and doctoral students with undergraduate degrees from liberal arts colleges tended to be most comfortable with interdisciplinarity and expressed the least amount of concern about working with scholars from different disciplines.

We also found that faculty with a higher tolerance for ambiguity—which is inherent in interdisciplinary work (Dewulf, Francois, Pahl-Wostl, & Taillieu, 2007)—were more likely to feel satisfied with interdisciplinary collaboration. In our study, faculty with a lower tolerance (e.g., those who said, “I don't like situations that are uncertain”) reported significantly less satisfaction with their role in the interdisciplinary research project and significantly higher levels of perceived stress.

We found that one of the greatest predictors of successful collaborations is the ability to exercise social power. Examination of the social networks within the interdisciplinary research group we studied revealed that the ability to influence the group (e.g., by being asked for advice or having one's opinions and ideas acknowledged) was a significant predictor of the researchers' pride in and satisfaction with their role in their project.

There is an inherent tension between this finding and the fact that research has shown that women, faculty of color, and younger faculty members are more apt to contribute to interdisciplinary collaborations (Hurtado & Sharkness, 2008; Lattuca, 2001). As one social psychologist in our study commented, “One of the biggest challenges in universities is that some of the most inventive, creative people are the people with the least power.”

Nevertheless, echoing Eckland's (2010) point above, many pressing challenges facing our world today can only be tackled by a team of interdisciplinary researchers and scholars. Even though not everyone will be well suited for true interdisciplinarity, administrators and faculty leaders should provide opportunities for involvement when it is possible and comfortable.

From our research, we have learned the right incentives can motivate those who are not intrinsically drawn to interdisciplinary work. For some faculty members, that incentive is the ability to work with talented graduate students; for others, it is summer salary or travel funds.

We also know that providing structure, clarity, and guidance in the interdisciplinary work for these individuals is crucial to their continued participation. Leaders who organize these projects should consider how to best do this to ensure a motivated faculty.

As a wildlife ecologist explained,

You know how the university has a president and provost? We probably need that structure here from someone who is a wonderful cheerleader and external voice for what we have but then someone who can also just physically pull together the day-to-day stuff too.

Do You Have the Right Departments?

Given the amount of time needed to conduct and publish this kind of research, it is not surprising that it is often considered hazardous for untenured faculty (Lattuca, 2001). Indeed, one national study found that almost 80 percent of the untenured faculty involved in interdisciplinary work expressed stress over the promotion and tenure process, as compared to only 70 percent of their peers who were not similarly engaged (Hurtado & Sharkness, 2008).

So departmental support of interdisciplinary work is key to successful collaborations. That support can be expressed in promotion and tenure criteria through explicit mentions of interdisciplinary scholarship and explanations of how it is treated, counted, and understood.

In our own study, we found that only two of the 25 departments involved in the collaboration explicitly mentioned interdisciplinary work; interestingly, however, both categorized it as service rather than research. The ambiguous status of this work worried a mathematician in our study: “I'm trying to make good with the department. When I came here I was a little nervous because our promotion-tenure document actually said that I couldn't get tenure because the kinds of things that I do was not part of the evaluation process.” A policy studies faculty member shared a similar concern:

I see two types of people come out of graduate school: People who are so imbued with their disciplinary perspective that they're purists in a way that they'll give up as they go along, but also some people who are more open to looking at things in multiple ways. Those people have to worry about job security and they don't have very much clout in the system. So the very people who might be able to create change are disadvantaged in being able to produce that change.

Do You Have the Right Policies?

A key question to ask is whether an institution's existing policies and procedures facilitate interdisciplinarity. For example, how are faculty compensated for team teaching? How is percentage of effort determined among faculty who engage in team teaching, co-advising of students, or interdisciplinary grants with large teams? If faculty members co-teach an interdisciplinary course, is it counted as part of their normal teaching load or as an overload? In promotion and tenure policies, how is authorship considered? Does the institution have sufficient resources for faculty to get course release or reduced teaching loads to engage in these projects?

An ecologist in our study described how such complexities look on the ground:

There were eight faculty involved in teaching an interdisciplinary class, and one of the concerns was how much credit you get for teaching that. Is it going to be one three-credit course? Is it divided into eight parts? Are we going to teach it like we would teach a three-credit course? It's not as much work as teaching a course by yourself, but it's a heck of a lot more than teaching one eighth of course. … Everyone encourages interdisciplinary collaborations but they don't always understand the work behind them.

Do You Have Sufficient Resources?

Given all of these points, it should go without saying that an institution must have sufficient resources to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration by providing incentives to conduct this work, as well as the resources and time to do it. In our conversations with faculty engaged in the interdisciplinary project, a recurring theme was that the institution expected this work to occur in addition to everything else they had to do. An economics policy faculty member put it this way:

We've got so many other things going on that it's been difficult to get enough time and energy going in terms of all the things we need to do. You have to look at the amount of compensation that's going on relative to the time that's needed to understand that there's a big mismatch between resources available and the time that's needed to do this stuff.

Further, physical space is something that faculty and students alike mentioned. Having not just offices but places in which to meet and communicate is an important enabler of interdisciplinarity. The interdisciplinary teams deemed most successful in our study were those where the researchers had offices close to one another. This arrangement allowed them to “check in daily” and “to run ideas by one another.”

However, a member of one of these successful teams, a biologist, pointed out that this proximity does not guarantee genuine interdisciplinarity: “I get to work down the hall from my social science collaborator, but we're still in silos.”

Graduate students engaged in the project were also adamant about the need for physical space to facilitate collaboration. One student remarked, “Having a space for all of us would help us in the cross-pollination of ideas, particularly since we don't all have classes together.”

It is not our intent to dissuade anyone from interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship; the reverse is true. Since we ourselves are an interdisciplinary team from the fields of social psychology and higher education, we have experienced the rewards that come from such collaboration and how such interdisciplinarity can enrich research.

At the same time, the emerging findings from our five-year study demonstrate the challenges inherent in such work. Examining the individuals, departments, policies, and resources in an institution before embarking on the interdisciplinary journey is an important step in clearing a pathway to success.

Resources

1. Amey, M. J. and Brown, D. F. (2004) Breaking out of the box: Interdisciplinary collaboration and faculty work, Information Age, Greenwich, CT.

2. Biglan, A. (1973) Relationships between subject matter characteristics and the structure and output of university departments. Journal of Applied Psychology 57, pp. 204-213.

3. Borrego, M. and Cutler, S. (2010) Constructive alignment of interdisciplinary graduate curriculum in engineering and science: An analysis of successful IGERT proposals. Journal of Engineering Education 99, pp. 355-369.

4. Dewulf, A., Francois, G., Pahl-Wostl, C. and Taillieu, T. (2007) A framing approach to cross-disciplinary research collaboration: Experiences from a large-scale research project on adaptive water management. Ecology and Society 12:2, pp. 14. Retrieved from http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol12/iss2/art14/

5. Ecklund, E. H. (September 3 2010) What's the big idea?. The Chronicle Review pp. B8-B9. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Whats-the-Big-Idea-/124277

6. Hurtado, S. and Sharkness, J. (September-October 2008) Scholarship is changing, and so must tenure review, Academe Online. Retrieved from http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2008/SO/Feat/hurt.htm

7. Klein, J. T. (1990) Interdisciplinarity: History, theory, and practice, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI.

8. Klein, J. T. (2010) Creating interdisciplinary campus cultures, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

9. Lattuca, L. R. (2001) Creating interdisciplinarity: Interdisciplinary research and teaching among college and university faculty, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, TN.

10. Rhoten, D. and Pfirman, S. (2007) Women in interdisciplinary science: Exploring preferences and consequences. Research Policy 36, pp. 56-75.

11. The National Academies (2004) Facilitating interdisciplinary research, The National Academies Press, Washington, DC.

Website

Maine's Sustainability Solutions Initiative: http://www.umaine.edu/sustainabilitysolutions/

Shannon K. McCoy (shannon.mccoy@umit.maine.edu)is an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Maine. Her research focuses on personal and situational determinants of stress and well-being.

Susan K. Gardner (susan.k.gardner@maine.edu) is an associate professor of higher education at the University of Maine. Her work focuses on the individual within the organizational environments of colleges and universities, including socialization to interdisciplinary research. The research for this article was funded by NSF award number EPS-0904155.

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