March 18, 2019

On Multidisciplinarity

One of the things that I started doing as soon as I came to Mason was to highlight the value of multidisciplinary collaboration in research and learning. I’m not the only one: since the 1960s, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity have been a frequent topic in academic discourse. Globally, the past two decades have seen significant university investment in large-scale multidisciplinary research centers and academic programs.

Multidisciplinary and disciplinary work come from slightly different intellectual motivations and origins. Disciplinary work is rooted in intellectual inquiry about a particular topic, stemming from a need to both professionalize that subject matter and specialize by going as deep as possible, think alchemy or linguistics. This is the Western tradition of how disciplines are built. Yet if you trace back to the archetype of the Renaissance man or woman, the pursuit of knowledge was more fluid, even boundless. And even further back in history, the ancient Greek and Eastern philosophers sought a synthesis of all knowledge. However, even then scholars drew upon other spheres of knowledge to advance their own.

In the context of this larger timespan, much disciplinary work evolved not that long ago. Some disciplinary boundaries developed as recently as the last 50 to 100 years. At an extreme, holding those boundaries sacrosanct can be detrimental, precluding scholars from challenging well-accepted doctrines, implicit assumptions, and prevailing paradigms of thinking.

To me, multidisciplinarity is not just a buzzword or an academic bandwagon that Mason should jump on. There is intrinsic value in creating cross-fertilization throughout the disciplines of a university to sustain its intellectual vitality. Without the counterbalance, academic institutions tend to converge on a reward structure that encourages faculty to focus on research and teaching within the limited scope of their discipline. I will address that reward structure later in this blog.

Intellectual vitality aside, multidisciplinary work helps scholars to recognize the relations between, and influences of, multifaceted phenomena, especially when facing complex, real-world challenges. Take climate change as an example: if unsolved, it is increasingly likely that our geopolitical future on the planet will be shaped by resource scarcity, social and political discord, population displacement, and climate disruptions. Global change augurs broad impacts in almost every facet of our lives.  It should not be hard to recognize that traditional disciplines are unable to address these changes in isolation.

Neither are there technological fixes commensurate to the magnitude of the problem. Among other dimensions, sustainability and resilience are human issues. An adequate response requires integrating analysis and applications across the natural sciences, social sciences, computational and data sciences, engineering, and humanities to bridge disciplinary gaps and discover innovations in the interstices.

Last month, Mason launched the Institute for a Sustainable Earth (ISE), which offers the university community a way to come together in facing perhaps the greatest challenge of our time to think pragmatically and collectively about the role of knowledge in service to society.

The Institute is also serving as a hub for Mason research, scholarship, and creative work to engage with external partners, social, economic, political and communities already experiencing impacts. In addition, research and scholarship will translate into the development of educational and mentorship strategies to prepare the next generation of sustainability and resilience leaders.

Like the Institute for Biohealth Innovation (IBI) and the impending Institute for Digital InnoVation (IDIA), ISE seeks to foster a culture that transcends research and education silos, supporting multidisciplinary re­search to produce transformative results. As I suggested in my October blog about conceiving of the STEM fields and the humanities as integral parts of a whole, these multidisciplinary institutes seek to harness the power of collaboration to create new knowledge for the multifaceted world we live in.

Rather than supplanting disciplinary work, these institutes will build upon and elevate the scholarship of Mason’s world-class specialists.

Making tangible Mason’s impact to society at large requires us to think about the knowledge creation process itself. Working across disciplines involves epistemological, methodological, and communication challenges, not to mention institutional obstacles such as the reward structure, which we are trying to address. For over a year now, my office has been working with a cross-university faculty committee and the deans’ council to develop Mason’s multidisciplinary reappointment, tenure, and promotion policy. The draft policy will soon be ready and we will be seeking broader faculty comments.

In a sense, this takes us full circle: the multidisciplinary concept harkens back to the ancient unity-of-knowledge ideal. Perhaps a better conceptualization is a spiral of research inquiry in which disciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches complement and leverage each other to advance human understanding.

So how do we proceed as a community of learners and scholars? Consider looking for people you can work with to make contributions that go beyond disciplinary boundaries to develop innovative and valuable trajectories in the production of knowledge. My office has established a number of mechanisms such as multidisciplinary research seed grants and curriculum impact grants. The multidisciplinary institutes will provide additional means for you to find collaborators. For instance, ISE will be convening idea sharing and team formation sessions on March 29 and April 2 for faculty to discuss inventive ways to collaborate with peers and students.

I hope to see you at these events, and I will enjoy hearing your ideas. But please don’t wait until then. As always, I sincerely appreciate your thoughts and feedback on this blog.

6 thoughts on “On Multidisciplinarity

  • I love the multidisciplinary focus, being a recent hire at Mason from the Professional Services world, this mirrors what is happening in business, realizing we are stronger together. It would be nice to ensure this multidisciplinary view also includes the business world. There is so much impact to be made collaborating outside the universities walls. I have a feeling it is inherent in your message, and therefore would strongly encourage the broader focus to be more explicit in your messaging both inside and outside the University. Exciting times lie ahead!

  • Encouraging multidisciplinarity at the research level and in some courses seems at odds with the new budget model, which has the unfortunate effect of encouraging competition internally rather than cooperation. The budget model rewards growth, but can’t distinguish between new students from outside Mason (a good thing) versus moving students from your program or course to my program or course. How will the administration deal with the resources issues? And are only multidisciplinary efforts to be rewarded and funded, as opposed to excellent work within a discipline? Curriculum development money seems to be restricted to multidisciplinary efforts. Surely multidisciplinarity requires healthy disciplines to support it.

  • Thank you for your feedback on the blog. Your point on the incentive created by the budget model is an excellent one. Since the initial roll out of the new budget model more than two years ago, my office has worked with the budget office to launched the “budget model 2.0” in fall 2018, which includes a “multidisciplinary program budget model.” The model is designed to create proper incentive for cross-unit collaboration. At least two university programs have since taken advantage of it. My office will work to make this model more widely known to the faculty and department chairs. On a separate note, the new budget model moves significant discretionary resources from central administration to college/schools so that disciplinary work can be better supported. While we provide seed funding for multidisciplinary collaboration, vast majority of university resources are still devoted toward disciplinary work in academic programs.

  • Thanks for the question about whether the provost initiatives are for “only multidisciplinary efforts to be rewarded and funded.” The Provost’s office supports many programs that support disciplinary work, too. The Curriculum Impact Grants (see https://provost.gmu.edu/academics-and-research/undergraduate-education) encourage multidisciplinary curriculum development, but we have funded and supported many projects that are disciplinary for undergraduate and graduate programs, as long as they are building in experiential “Mason Impact” opportunities. Summer Team Impact Projects (https://uge.gmu.edu/summer-impact-grants/) support a range of faculty-student collaborative projects. And OSCAR’s URSP and Research Assistants (https://oscar.gmu.edu/) programs explicit encourage individual projects in any disciplines. Come learn more at the Curriculum Impact Grant workshop on April 5th!
    -Bethany Usher, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education

  • Your focus on disciplines is timely. In a recent critical review of American research universities in press for a leadership conference at James Madison U. I concluded that competition for promotion and tenure through peer-reviewed publications in discrete disciplines is the primary cause of the semi-isolation of American universities from society. It began in the 60’s. Given the competitive demands one can understand that faculty will have difficulty taking broader views of their role and the needs of students not destined for academic careers. The problem is most extreme in the social sciences but a recent article in EOS, the professional newsmagazine for the American Geophysical Union, said that space for reforms needs to be created at the administrative and departmental level.

  • An applied opportunity that exists for cross college collaboration and operational research to demonstrate the impact of multidisciplinary endeavors is with the Mason Hydroponic Greenhouse. I have assigned students, mostly SIS and conservation majors, to do student service learning hours, and through observation and inquiry identify a problem and come up with a human centered design solution as part of their final project. Several students reported that the greenhouse represents an ideal multidisciplinary opportunity: for engineering students to design solar panels and assess irrigation and indoor lighting needs, for social and behavior scientists to assess and/or create demand for locally grown produce at Mason Dining outlets; for nutrition majors to learn about the nutrients in green, leafy, fruits and vegetables: for biology majors to learn about cross breeding tomatoes; for business and marketing majors to identify suppliers and distributors of the produces; for law students to create agreements for the produce to be supplied to retailers. Yet the majority of students that work or volunteer at the greenhouse are environmental science students. We talk theoretically about multisector collaboration, but a practical opportunity exists here and now.

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