Talking to each other: the challenge of interdisciplinary work

Today I’m giving a lecture about learning environments that promote interdisciplinary dialogue in Internet Science. After 10+ years working in an interdisciplinary space, I take for granted how much easier it has become, I forget the many times I sat through lectures that were like a foreign language where every third word made sense. I also forget how difficult it was to start talking to people in other disciplines, because graduate students already had their cohort, faculty their students, so showing up and not speaking their language meant it took time to be part of their conversations.

During the summer, I convened, along with Cristobal Cobo, Tim Davies, and Ian Brown, a summer school as part of the Network of Excellence in Internet Science. It was a week-long program for early career researchers to engage in interdisciplinary discussions. The topic was privacy, trust, & reputation and each morning, two invited lecturers would discuss these topics from their disciplinary perspectives. We invited faculty from computer science to discuss the technical dimensions of privacy, law professors to explain what is and is not feasible to regulate, and an educational researcher who asks students to draw pictures of who they think connects to them on the Internet. This approach did not seem to ruffle any feathers. However, the afternoon sessions were a more challenging sell.

We blocked out the afternoons for interdisciplinary discussion. I modeled the discussions after seminars offered by UCSB’s CITS PhD emphasis, in which we select a topic, for example “reading,” “trust,” “mobile phones” and graduate students each present research questions and methods their discipline would use to approach the topic. For the summer school, we had to convince colleagues at each stage that it was definitely a good idea to give the participants three hours per day for interdisciplinary discussion. After the first day, we had to convince the participants it was a good idea. By the third day, they were busy talking to each other.

Why interdisciplinary?
There are some questions that cannot be answered by a single discipline. This challenge existed before the Internet (a recent example provided by Radiolab: why isn’t blue mentioned in The Odyssey and The Iliad?), but like information, communication, even love, the Internet magnifies and accelerates it. Disciplinary silos do not serve Internet research well and really, how could they? How can we approach any experience on the Internet without considering the technical backbone behind it? How can technologies be developed without considering user needs and behaviors? How can we understand the Internet from a purely scientific view without considering the art that makes it work, that people continue to find new ways of using it, that these uses continue to surprise and challenge, that technologies tend to serve other purposes than they were initially intended and that why this happens is worth studying.

Much Internet research has spanned disciplinary boundaries and enabled us to better understand
–why and how people organize online and off,
–which groups are excluded from fully participating in the Internet and why,
–the challenges of protecting personal information, why it might matter and why it might not,
–how knowledge is developed and shared, individually and institutionally

I was motivated to continue attending seminars and lectures outside my field because I had a question I couldn’t answer…I wanted a way to measure students’ online research practices, to understand why they selected certain sources and how they used them. Despite how initially uncomfortable it was for an Education student with no programming background to attend courses in Computer Science, or with a limited quantitative research background to attend Cognitive Psychology courses, I was motivated to keep trying.

Why not interdisciplinary?
As part of the summer school, we asked students what barriers prevented them from pursuing interdisciplinary work. Some said they didn’t really have an interest in working with other disciplines, or didn’t know anyone to collaborate with in their area of interest. Others said that funding was more of a challenge when working across disciplines, or they had experienced difficulty in being accepted to conferences or having articles accepted for publication because their interdisciplinary work did not fit. Others said there was no professional incentive to collaborate because the journals and conferences they would submit to were not viewed as prestigious within their departments. The responses were similar to those I heard in informal conversations as a graduate student. These are fair points. Interdisciplinary work is still in its infancy and despite efforts by AoIR and the increasing number of interdisciplinary journals, publications and professional recognition still seem to be exceptional. However, as demonstrated by initiatives in the digital humanities, in the small, but growing number of interdisciplinary departments, institutions can slowly change the paradigm of recognition.

Where to start?
NSF Interactive Digital Multimedia IGERT
During my graduate years at UCSB, several interdisciplinary opportunities were emerging. The National ScienceĀ  Foundation funded students through their IGERT program to work in interdisciplinary groups to develop projects. IGERT students were drawn from across campus, including computer science, cognitive science, art, and geography. All students were awarded tuition plus a stipend and travel funds and were given a collaborative workspace. The program required that students work in small groups with other IGERT students and attend a Friday seminar on interdisciplinary topics related to their research.

In my experience, while funding was abundant, faculty support never materialized. The Friday lectures always seemed to be on very specialized topics, without an organizing theme. Student projects were generally based on the PIs interest, rather than generated by the students and those not in engineering did not receive as much mentorship. Yet the projects afforded an opportunity to discuss disciplinary approaches and discover complementary questions and methods. Unfortunately, many students encountered difficulties in publishing their interdisciplinary work or being accepted to conferences, so prioritized their disciplinary work.

Cognitive Science PhD emphasis
Based on interest from engineers studying artificial intelligence and geographers trying to get a better sense of how people approach maps, the Department of Psychology started offering a seminar series that combined a few quarterly lectures on interdisciplinary topics with a weekly student seminar. The seminar was particularly targeted toward students and faculty outside of Psychology, so provided relevant background information and an overview of methods at the start of each quarter. Faculty were invited from across campus and usually brought interested graduate students.

The Cognitive Science emphasis allowed graduate students from outside Psychology to take coursework and receive an emphasis on their diploma in Cognitive Science. In addition to the coursework, participants were required to have two members of the interdisciplinary emphasis on their dissertation committee, to complete a research paper or proposal in Cognitive Science, and for cognitive science to be a central focus in their dissertation.

Also on Friday afternoons, the course discussion was lively, often resulting in long disagreements over disciplinary assumptions. Normally, students continued the discussion over drinks or dinner, so the emphasis also succeeded in creating an interdisciplinary community.

Center for Information Technology & Society PhD emphasis
Core faculty from Political Science, Computer Science, Film Studies, Sociology, and English started a lecture series around 1999 that grew into a graduate seminar about four years later. The strength of the seminar was that a core group of faculty was always present, sometimes outnumbering the students, to discuss their discipline’s approach to whatever was the topic of discussion. As mentioned above, early seminars were organized around a theme, for example, mobile phones, and each week two graduate students and sometimes faculty would suggest readings to the group and discuss research questions they would ask around the topic. The faculty modeled respectful dialogue, but pushed each other and the students to challenge their disciplinary assumptions.

The graduate seminar series also evolved into a PhD emphasis, allowing students to receive recognition for coursework completed in the area of Technology & Society. Similar to the Cognitive Science emphasis, the Technology & Society emphasis drew an interdisciplinary faculty steering committee from across campus. In addition to the seminar, coursework included courses in two areas: Culture & History and Society & Behavior. Courses were offered through several departments including Anthropology, Environmental Science and Management, History, Education, and Communication (in addition to the disciplines listed at the beginning of this section). Students were required to have a faculty member from the steering committee be part of their dissertation committee and to complete a dissertation that related to Technology & Society.

The program modeled interdisciplinary dialogue and provided opportunities for students to work on research projects with faculty and students from other departments. In fact a few faculty received grants specifically to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and created strong cohort relations through these research opportunities.

[stay tuned...more to come]

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