Reflections on Going Interdisciplinary

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by Robin DeRosa, Professor of English & Interdisciplinary Studies
& Danielle Marie Carkin, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice

Today at our annual start-of-school meeting for faculty and staff, our new president announced plans to transform our small, regional university into an interdisciplinary institution centered around the ideas of clusters and open labs.  We represent two very different positions inside the university.  Danielle is a brand new hire in the Criminal Justice Department, recently out of graduate school. Robin has been at the university for fifteen years, teaching in the English Department and chairing the Interdisciplinary Studies program.  Despite coming from very different fields and being at very different places in our careers, we found ourselves asking some common questions as we embark on this journey.

We are both avid fans of interdisciplinarity.  Here’s a bit about the investments that each of us had walking into our conversations today:

Robin: I’ve been teaching at Plymouth State since I finished my Ph.D. in English.  As an early Americanist, I have always had a sense of myself as an interdisciplinarian, working as I do mainly with historical texts and, back in my dissertation, with methodologies drawn mainly from anthropology and tourism studies.  My undergrad work was in Women’s Studies, which is an interdisciplinary field. So in my years at PSU, I’ve advocated for students who want to work across departments, and I helped to develop the curriculum for our current Interdisciplinary Studies major. When our new President announced the move to an interdisciplinary model, I was excited…but nervous.  When I began teaching interdisciplinary theory, I realized that my own cross-disciplinary work had really not prepared me to understand the complexities of bringing competing methodologies and epistemologies to bear on a problem or concept.  So my concern in moving to the new framework is simply that we need to take the time and make the space to do the work to understand the challenges that present themselves when we try to collaborate across the academy. Additionally, I really want to see us use this as an opportunity to develop a strong sense of ourselves as a public university, and identify ways to talk about our public mission so as to strengthen our “brand” and ultimately rebuild the funding that we so desperately need in order to serve the public need. I want to see us build our clusters from a position that is informed by the field of Interdisciplinary Studies, in critical dialogue with the trends in higher education today, and rooted in a sense of public mission that is true to our strength as a teaching institution. I feel grateful to have had a chance to begin these conversation with my colleagues today; I hope faculty will be central to the planning and conceptualization of our clusters, and I welcome strong leadership from our new President!

Danielle:  First, let me say that I am very excited to have found my place so quickly upon completing my doctorate degree. Plymouth State University has embraced me in and in return I am ready to offer all that I have back to the PSU community and the surrounding communities. With that being said, I have seen the benefit of interdisciplinary work firsthand and have used that to get myself where I am today. I have a Bachelor’s in Social Science, a Master’s in Community Social Psychology, and a Doctorate in Criminal Justice. The combination of these degrees have allowed me to see the world (and my particular research interests) in varying lights. With that in mind, I am so excited to be a part of a community that is looking toward collaboration amongst departments/programs because it will truly benefit not just our faculty, but our students. It will provide them with the opportunity to be fully rounded students with more than just “one track” minds. The concept of clusters is intriguing and certainly exciting, but to be able to develop them after a brief introduction (for those of us who did not attend the retreat) was a bit too difficult. Our leadership is definitely heading in the right direction and I am proud to be a part of the change and innovation. I graduated from UMass Lowell with many ideas about how I can reach out to the local community and how I can collaborate with colleagues and students alike. The possibility of doing exactly that is what made my choice to come here so easy. Today, I was very lucky to be apart of the group discussion that I was because it allowed me to ask questions and gain a better understanding of clusters, interdisciplinary collaboration, and PSU. Ultimately, I welcome and look forward to working with my brilliant colleagues here at Plymouth State! And I second the sentiment Robin mentioned: I look forward to working under the guidance of our new President and cannot wait to see where the collaboration and clusters take PSU in the realm of Higher Ed.

Despite our excitement about the possibilities, and our belief that interdisciplinarity opens some exciting pathways for both teaching and research, we found ourselves wanting to explore some more foundational questions before we launch into a reorganization of our departments and curricula.  Here are some of the questions and ideas we are thinking about, which we offer here to our colleagues and to a broader audience in case folks want to jump in and share their thoughts about how to develop interdisciplinary initiatives at an institutional level.

  1. Some common terms emerged throughout our day, and these are terms that we think have diverse meanings to our faculty, staff, and students.  We propose that we develop a common language around these concepts, and work on defining these terms by understanding how they are used in the field of Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS), in the landscape of higher education right now, and in our institution.
    CCBY Frank Hebert

    CCBY Frank Hebert

    • interdisciplinary
    • multidisciplinary
    • transdisciplinary
    • cluster (research cluster, cluster hire, etc)
    • open laboratory (makerlab, etc)
    • frameworks for integrating knowledge (problem-solving, contextualization, conceptualization, etc)
    • impact
  2. What is the role of problem-solving in our university’s interdisciplinary model? And how are we articulating our partnerships with entrepreneurialism and with business partners? What can we do to nurture emerging business partnerships, applied entrepreneurial experiences for students, and the productive symbiotic relationship between the economy and the university without necessarily making this the only model for interdisciplinary work? As we develop entrepreneurial clusters and pathways, what interdisciplinary work does not fit this model? How do we measure “value” and “impact?” Will these metrics always be tied (only) to the economy? How is this entrepreneurial approach to “innovation” and “discovery” and “product” development similar to or different from other related initiatives in the state, such as competency-based programs that are rooted in partnerships with local business?
  3. Does it matter to our transformation that we are a public university?  If so, how? Do we serve a particular public, and if so, who do we imagine that to be? How can our transformation into an interdisciplinary institution work to strengthen our public mission, and how can we use our marketing energies to explain how our new model works for the public good? Relatedly, how can we build a case for rebuilding public education in our state, or are we choosing instead to develop private partnerships and tap donors to solidify our reality as basically a private institution?
  4. What is the connection between interdisciplinarity and pedagogy? When many universities institute clusters, they are understood as research entities that often don’t actively involve courses or students. How can we develop clusters in such a way that they draw on our strengths as a teaching institution and on the engaged pedagogies that Interdisciplinary Studies has developed? How can our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning help us develop a model that retains our teaching focus and capitalizes on the learner-driven pedagogies at the root of the field?
  5. What is the relationship between interdisciplinarity and networked learning? How do we understand technology’s relationship to a university that aspires to be globalized, collaborative, and transdisciplinary? Across many campuses, faculty are unaware of what each individual is working on. What tools do we need to build both personal learning networks as faculty, staff, and students, and to build cluster networks? And what digital literacies will we need to learn to conceive of our university’s relationship to the digital world, to use tools wisely and productively, and to harness the power of technology to advance our public mission? Will we position ourselves in relation to popular digital trends like open badges, since they are often linked to programs that disaggregate learning from traditional majors? Or will we want to distinguish ourselves from skills-based competency-based programs that use badges by rejecting badges or rethinking them from a new angle?
  6. What is the role of collaboration and sharing in an interdisciplinary university? What does this mean for our relationship to the other state colleges in our system? Should we develop a rhetoric of cooperation to accompany a collaborative working structure? How does the rhetoric of global or regional competition conflict with the ethos of interdisciplinarity, if it does?
  7. What are the expected outcomes of clusters? Is the purpose of a cluster to:
    • build a better relationship with community partners?
    • provide students with the opportunity to gain real-life experience in the world realm?
    • collaborate on research with colleagues across the campus?
    • A combination of two or three, or all of the above?
  8. Could we potentially develop larger clusters that have smaller factions within the clusters? These larger clusters could be goal oriented, i.e. service learning cluster, career development cluster, research cluster, advocacy of public policy/needs cluster. Then within these clusters develop a means of communicating with other faculty interested and/or already doing work within these goals so that collaboration amongst departments can occur. Should each cluster have its own vision, or should clusters follow one vision?
  9. How do we collaborate with community partners, i.e. non-profit organizations, businesses, entrepreneurs, etc. without putting our students in a dead end situation, where we set them up to obtain an entry-level position where there is no opportunity for growth? What do we need to inform our community partners of and ask of in return so that our students have the ability to achieve their full potential within their organization? How do we facilitate the discussion to ensure that the organization(s) are not just obtaining cheap (or no cost) labor from our students during the learning component of the cluster? With student success/value as an outcome, we need to ensure that our community partners want the same success/value as a result of our collaboration. Are there successful measures in place for this? Can we, as academics, do a better job explaining this aspect to our esteemed partners? How do we prepare our students for the new knowledge economy, where simple job training is likely to leave them unable to excel as the content in their fields rapidly changes?  How should our career services model shift to accompany this new interdisciplinary structure?

We invite you to use the comments below to chime in.  What are the challenges that professors and universities face as we increase our interdisciplinary collaborations? What are the potential benefits and rewards that you see to working in inter- and trans-disciplinary ways? What should the first steps be for universities if we want to scale up interdisciplinary work and transform our most basic structures to support interdisciplinary collaboration? We invite you to ask more questions, answer some of these, or take things in a whole new direction!

6 thoughts on “Reflections on Going Interdisciplinary”

  1. I particularly like #4 …I need to see some models to show me the mechanics of combining foundational pedagogy with the cluster concept. I love interdisciplinary the…my UG degree is interdisciplinary.

    Another thought…I’ve heard the phrase “transforming the No. country.” Can we do that and still maintain the culture that residents care about, or would this be a kind of gentrification that would drive out the long-time residents. We’ve worked hard not to subsume Plymouth, but to share it with everyone.

    great essay. thanks for posting these questions broadly.

  2. I got my BA in English, MA in Mental Health Counseling Psychology and a PhD in Cultural Studies with an emphasis on Media and Films. My dissertation examined how Hitler was depicted in two biographical films of him, how the two production teams (one American, the other German) marketed these two controversial films, how numerous layers of political struggle determined the positions of the two films, and in turn how a group of young Germans, with their socialization processes (i.e. schooling, upbringing) as one of the key variables, in turn reacted to the production teams’ marketing strategies and interpreted the two films. The research involved typical textual analysis (verbal, visual and audio), archives (past news articles) and ethnographic fieldwork (in-depth interviews) and was informed by theories from literary studies, psychology, media studies among many others. The dissertation won two awards, among them The Kotzmetsky Trans-disciplinary Dissertation Scholarship.

    While I clearly see some senior professors’ passion for interdisciplinary studies, as a young scholar, I got forewarned even after I was awarded the dissertation scholarship that the academia still hadn’t been ready for true trans-disciplinary studies. Faculty hires up to now are still primarily based in traditional departments; even if some programs market themselves as “interdisciplinary,” what they are looking for are someone who come from some traditional disciplines but just happen to borrow some constructs from another field.

    I got my PhD in 2012. Now I am still an adjunct, managing to feed myself at the mercy of someone else’s generosity or even pity. Luckily, my film classes are extremely popular, the lecture hall often packed with students sitting on the ground or standing in the back. (Bilingual, I lecture in two languages.) I guess it is because of my trans-disciplinary training. My film classes are rather holistic; even business and biological science majors feel quite at home. But the other reason may be that I mix theories with practice. Yes, I write screenplays and make films. And I incorporate my real-life experiences into my lectures.

    I find this alternative outlet as a creative academic a good refuge. Last year, I served as the screenwriter and one of the executive producers for a short film. My interdisciplinary training came in handy– knowledge in literary studies and audience studies allowed me to write a quality screenplay, theories in film aesthetics helped me make key decisions on what shots to keep, what color might be appropriate, and my training as a psychotherapist provided me adequate tools to use when some of the key members on the production team underwent some stress or some teammates experienced some interpersonal issues that might blemish the project. The film eventually got featured at Cannes this year.

    No, I am not shifting from the academia to the showbiz. Unless one works on one of those tent-pole films, h/she can’t earn a living making films. But I doubt the academia might have a place for me. I really appreciate the trend of some senior professors pushing towards trans-disciplinary approaches to problematic, but I suppose this effort will truly pay off only when more junior scholars trained in trans-disciplinary studies are allowed to join the force.

    Are you ready?

  3. Continuing where Nick jumped off, has admin announced how Interdisciplinarity will “count” towards tenure and promotion? It is absolutely essential that policies for evaluating IDS work be written and approved by those who grant tenure, ie, The Provost and President. Furthermore, Deans who write tenure letters must also abide by department /cluster IDS guidelines. The case studies in the Politics of Interdisciplinary Studies were written before the full extent of the 2008 Great Recession was realized. Since then there have been many instances of “bait and switch” policy changes that impacted those who went up for tenure. Without getting too specific, these cases involves folks getting hired to do IDS work only to find out a few years later (with admin changes) that IDS work doesn’t “count” for tenure. In at least one instance the Dean went rogue, claiming that s/he did not approve the RTP guidelines (that had been approved by a previous Provost). In the end the new Provost and President granted tenure —because of the written and previously approved documents.

    1. None of this has been figured out yet– We probably have about six months before we start laying out too many specific structures and protocols (I am guessing on that), but all of your comments are so very helpful to me as I catalog a list of concerns that we need to address before we get too far into any planning… Thank you all! I look forward to as many comments and ideas as people are willing to share!

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