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as an End in Itself"
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
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
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 www.emory.edu/ Provost/IPR/.