Timothy Burke has some interesting thoughts about the College of the Atlantic, which represents a real effort to build interdisciplinarity on an institutional level. “Interdisciplinary” is the buzzword of the moment in large swathes of academia, and the College of the Atlantic, which doesn’t have departments and works very hard to make connections between disciplines, is sort of the apotheosis of the interdisciplinary movement.
Toward the end of his post, Burke relates a story from earlier in his career:
When I was briefly at Emory at the start of my career, I was in a workshop on interdisciplinarity. After many of the junior people there duly celebrated interdisciplinary study, a very wise, interesting senior professor, a classicist, stirred himself. “You guys,” he said, “don’t have a beef with disciplines. You have a beef with departments. Everybody’s interdisciplinary in some respect in their scholarship. It’s departments that cause the problem by raising the barriers to interaction and discussion”.
To some degree, I agree with this– a lot of the problem with interdisciplinary work has to do with the structure of academia, not the content of the disciplines. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that there are very real differences in the ways that scholars in different disciplines go about their business. The most extreme example, and the one that causes the most angst when discussing merit evaluations, has to do with book publishing– scholars in the humanities and social sciences are expected to produce scholarly monographs, but that’s almost unheard of in the natural sciences and engineering. This makes it very difficult to construct a system that appropriately rewards both humanists and scientists for their scholarly production.
But there are significant differences even within the sciences:
The one that comes to mind immediately is Physical Review Letters. PRL is probably the top physcis-specific journal, and it has a very hard four-page limit for articles– all the figures, tables, text, and references must fit in four journal pages. This means that the very best work in physics is crammed into short four-page articles.
This isn’t the case in all disciplines– in many areas, the most prestigious journals don’t have such tight page limits, and the length of a paper can serve as a rough measure of the effort that went into the work. It’s a little difficult to get people to understand that a four-page PRL can represent a much greater effort than a fifteen-page Journal of Subfield Physics article.
And, of course, there’s the extreme example of computer science, where conference presentations are the prestigious and important measure of scholarly output, and journal articles mean relatively little. At least we have Science and Nature to help normalize differences between natural science fields– CS is just bizarre…
There are also significant differences in the way different disciplines do research. In chemistry, a lot of the equipment seems to be shared– there are a few lab-specific instruments, but for the most part, everybody uses the same NMR machine, the same UV/VIS spectrometer, and so forth. The effort goes into making the samples that are tested, while the big expensive equipment is owned by the department as a whole.
That doesn’t work so well in physics. Every bit of major equipment in my lab is a custom job– if one of my lasers dies, I can’t just borrow one from a colleague, I need to rebuild or replace that one. It means that the time scale for building a lab is different, and the way that we spend start-up money is radically different.
So, while a lot of the barriers to interdisciplinary work are structural and departmental, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are real, tangible differences that have to do with the nature of the subjects being studied. It’s not as simple as eliminating departments– which Burke says as well, but I think the problems run deeper than the sort of thing he talks about in his final paragraph.