Being interdisciplinary

What does it mean to be interdisciplinary?

It means a program of study situated in between — or among — academic disciplines, as opposed to being inside one. It also means not only being in between but also among disciplines. Being among disciplines requires specific skills and a different sort of awareness. It means knowing how to manage and negotiate differing and sometimes competing perspectives. Perspective allows us to know something. But differing perspectives allows us to know the same thing differently. So being interdisciplinary is more about not choosing the one answer or perspective but, rather, working with a number of perspectives.

Before we go any further, however, we need to look at disciplines. Without disciplines it wouldn’t be possible to be interdisciplinary. Disciplines are vital for intellectual achievement and understanding. Mostly, because these provide us with focus and a structure for developing knowledge. Disciplinary learning allows us to go deeper into a particular perspective or methodology and it can — and often does — give us spectacular answers. Disciplines also help us manage our distractions, to suspend these a while as we concentrate on a specific manner of seeing or knowing what is important or vital.

Within the College of Liberal Arts, we have three larger categories of disciplinary knowledge, each with their own identities, procedures, assumptions, and outcomes. These are 1) the Humanities, 2) the Social Sciences and 3) the Arts. And of course within each of these we have further divisions of focus, expertise and emphasis.

For example, within the arts we have the visual arts, the performance arts and art history. Within social sciences we have economics, sociology, anthropology and political science. Here the greater emphasis is on a particular manner of investigation, where observation, experimentation and quantitative research are key players. Whereas in the humanities, say literature, philosophy, history, or languages, the preeminent features of investigation depend more on interpretive or reflective study. And here qualitative research is more the norm.

There are a number of metaphors we might use so as to better visualize a program of study that we could codify as interdisciplinary. Allen F. Repko, in his textbook, Interdisciplinary Research, Process and Theory, introduces three metaphors as a way of summarizing in general terms the differences, as he sees it, between disciplinary and interdisciplinary practices. These metaphors quickly communicate what I believe is valuable—and different—about our major.

The first metaphor is “boundary crossing,” or what Repko describes as “the process of moving across knowledge formations for the purpose of achieving an enlarged understanding.” This somewhat helps to explain the general purpose of our study.

A second metaphor is ‘mapping.’ Maps are intriguing objects, aren’t they? They are usually the spatial but also abstraction/symbolization of space. Repko calls this the ‘carving up of knowledge space’ for the purpose of ‘display[ing] information that is gathered from a variety of sources.’ This helps us to visualize one of our key methodologies.

Our third, and final, metaphor is “bridge building,” which connotes an ability to span existing chasms or gulfs that exist between ‘locations of knowledge.’ Equally it connotes what I see as one of the key creative forces of interdisciplinary study—connectivity. When we build bridges we connect different spaces, thus allowing individuals within these spaces to move back and forth across what once was a formidable or perhaps even impassable barrier.

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