Faculty consider strategies for strengthening interdisciplinary activity during town hall

How does a rapidly growing university with ever-increasing demands for expansion of its curriculum balance the need for new knowledge often generated at the interfaces of the disciplines with the need to maintain the integrity of the traditional disciplines themselves?

A number of suggestions for addressing this question were offered at a March 4 town hall meeting with President Bill Chace on "Interdisciplinary Activities and the Changing Role of Academic Departments." About 120 faculty members attended.

"I want us to exchange thoughts about what we really mean by interdisciplinary study," Chace said in his opening remarks. "We are in the midst of change and we need to be as far ahead of that change as we can be."

"Faculty interest in interdisciplinary collaborations is very much alive and well," said Provost Billy Frye. "I think there is a prevalent feeling that the cross-fertilization of interdisciplinary studies is a major source of new ideas. Progress often occurs at the edges, or interfaces, of the disciplines."

Primary issues surrounding interdisciplinary study raised by faculty attending the meeting include:

*Hiring new faculty with the interest and commitment required to pursue interdisciplinary activities. "There must be a real need and a conviction among the faculty that something useful can come from interdisciplinary programs," said Donald Humphrey, associate dean for research and a faculty member in the medical school, one of four faculty panelists participating in the town hall meeting. "You can't have these programs just to have them. The faculty must perceive it as a means of promoting things that couldn't otherwise be promoted."

*Ensuring that interdisciplinary courses have a departmental home to avoid funding snafus. "It's quite difficult for an interdisciplinary course to find a departmental home, or series of homes, and that has implications for funding," said Fran Wenger of the nursing school. "The structures we have in place demand that a course have a departmental home, and those homes tend to be monodisciplinary."

*Providing incentives for interdisciplinary activity. "Faculty need more incentives to participate in interdisciplinary work," said Mel Konner of the anthropology department. "Those incentives are not there now." Incentives Konner cited include giving Emory College faculty full credit for teaching interdisciplinary courses with faculty from other departments and initiating an administration-based fund to support speakers co-sponsored by more than one department.

*Creating spaces and opportunities for faculty from different disciplines to meet and discuss shared interests. Paul Courtright of the religion department cited a proposed Faculty Club as the kind of space where faculty could get to know each other and bring colleagues from other institutions as guests.

In summarizing the town hall meeting, Chace said he had heard nothing in the discussion that opposed the concept of interdisciplinary study as posed in "Choices and Responsibility" in 1994. Chace said he agreed with most of the points raised in the meeting, including the need to protect junior faculty who participate in interdisciplinary activities from the dangers of not having the solid support of senior departmental faculty.

While acknowledging the value of interdisciplinary study, panelist Randall Packard of the history department also offered a word of caution. "What do we mean by interdisciplinary study and how far do we go?" Packard asked. "Are we talking about tearing down the disciplinary walls and building new intellectual neighborhoods? I think of interdisciplinary study as more like playing jazz. Each individual is highly skilled at playing a particular instrument. The individuals function well together while retaining their individual quality. Interdisciplinary scholars must be well grounded in their disciplines. Disciplines do change over time, but we shouldn't give them up in a rush to achieve some kind of nirvana in interdisciplinary teaching. And we also must have a University that is willing to grant release time and space and opportunities for interdisciplinary studies. It just can't be done on the run."

--Dan Treadaway

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