Substantive Interaction Across Disciplines
Exploring the impact of the Luce Seminars

By Paul Jean, Research Associate, Office of Institutional Planning & Research, and Doctoral Candidate in Sociology


Return to Contents


"Interdisciplinarity as an End in Itself"
James Gustafson
October / November 2000, Academic Exchange

Can cross-disciplinary interaction enhance intellectual community and deepen and broaden scholarship?

A recent study suggests the answer is "yes," but it can do so only under specific conditions. From 1989 to 1996, Emory hosted an interdisciplinary faculty seminar called the Luce Seminar each spring. Under the leadership of James Gustafson, Henry Luce Professor of the Humanities and Comparative Studies, nine to twelve faculty members representing schools across the university met twice weekly to discuss readings and present papers about broad topics such as "nature" and "responsibility." In 1997, the Office of Institutional Planning and Research began a study of the nature and influences of the series. We examined archival records and annual reports based on feedback from participants and conducted interviews with twenty-five participants and administrators.

Since 1999, Vice Provost Susan Frost and I have written our findings into several papers based on the study. The first, "Intellectual Community Across Disciplines: Structural Support for Faculty Culture," explores how the seminars supported intellectual exchange and community across disciplines. A second paper, "Distances between Disciplines: Influences of Interdisciplinary Discourse on Faculty Scholarship and Interaction at One University," focuses on the influences on participants' subsequent scholarship-how they think, work, and interact.

We found that a program imbued with intellectual purpose, goodwill, and symbolic power can bridge disparate knowledge fields. But how does one best foster a sense of intellectual purpose? Gustafson, in his
remarks in the October/November 2000 Academic Exchange, provides a key insight. As a tool for enhancing intellectual community and scholarship, interdisciplinarity works best when it flows from "rigorous and sustained interactions of disciplines at points where they address the same or similar phenomena, texts, or events." It fails when it sacrifices critical rigor based on disciplinary academic training.

By creating an intellectual space for substantive and intense interaction that retained disciplinary-based rigor, the Luce Seminars avoided the pitfalls sometimes associated with interdisciplinary programs. And although the seminars occasionally experienced challenges, they surpassed expectations by most accounts. The vast majority of participants across the program's eight years said their experience was highly positive, using phrases such as "my best experience at Emory" and a "wonderful" experience of intellectual exchange across disciplines.

Although creating a positive experience of interdisciplinary interaction was a rare accomplishment in itself, the program's designers hoped that participation in the program would expand possibilities for the scope of faculty work. Gustafson noted that he and others who designed the program had hoped that the "sheer intellectual joy . . . of engaging other minds which had been honed by different interests and different training" would carry over "into some modification of our activities."

And, indeed, almost all of the participants in our sample reported taking away influences from their seminar experiences on their teaching, service, research, and collegial interaction. For example, quite a few credited the seminar for their feeling "confident enough" to team-teach classes with colleagues from other disciplines or use materials from outside their disciplines in their courses. Some learned to draw upon other disciplines to enhance their research. One health scientist, for instance, "honed in the seminar" narrative techniques that enhanced scientific journal publications through a "kind of weaving across the disciplines."

Others reported enhanced respect and empathy for their colleagues from other disciplines. For some, this deepened understanding helped expand the supportive intellectual community. According to one natural scientist, "making connections--to some extent friendly, and to some extent professional--have paid off in my teaching and my research."

Our study identifies three keys to the seminar's success. First, by building a reservoir of goodwill, the program stimulated broad and deep intellectual interaction among faculty members across schools and disciplines. Diffused ego investment and heightened comfort for tackling disagreement and ambiguity set the stage for focused interdisciplinary conversation. For example, every session began with a presentation about a reading by a faculty member outside the discipline of the reading. This practice encouraged participants to dive freely into discussion about the unfamiliar.

Second, by providing top scholarly leadership and release-time from teaching for the participants, and by inviting serious participant input into course design and materials, the university created an atmosphere that encouraged intense and sustained involvement. Faculty members felt a shared, serious intellectual purpose and commitment to the readings, writings, and discussion.

Third, by providing the structure and "intellectual space" for exploring knowledge "for its own sake," the program tapped into some fundamental, symbolic aspects of academic culture. Many participants saw the seminar as a rare opportunity to explore ideas through discussion, unburdened by expectations of any immediate "pay off" for the university. As some said, the Luce Program offered participation in an overarching "community of scholars" harking back to an "older scholarly ideal of what it means to be a university.


This article is based upon papers Susan Frost and Paul Jean have written about their study of the Luce seminar series. One of the papers, "Making More of Faculty Culture: An Experi-ment in Building Intellectual Community," appears in Tertiary Education and Management (September 2000), an international institutional research journal. For more information about these and other studies related to faculty at Emory (both completed and in progress), please visit Provost/IPR/.