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Writing Across the Curriculum

 

Holloway Hall

In a Flattening World,
Will Interdisciplinary Research Thrive?
Gina Bloodworth
Geography

In his recent book on globalization, Thomas Friedman argues that the digital age has leveled the playing field for many more actors in commerce across the globe, because we no longer need to consider the friction of distance, and topography. In essence, our planet is electronically interconnecting so rapidly that new innovations have arisen to cope with this new flatter world. If the world is getting flatter, can we say the same of our own academic institutions?

We can now connect via telecommunications with colleagues in from Texas to Thailand, but can we communicate across academic disciplines? What will the next generation of students, citizens and scholars need to adapt to an ever-more complex and interconnected world?

Traditional academic disciplines train students to think is specific ways; but just as globalization challenges the constraints of thinking from the perspective of just one nation, most of the world’s most pressing problems challenge the constraints of knowledge within any one single academic discipline. Changes in climate, water pollution, world population, and sustainability, all require multiple perspectives, and interdisciplinary solutions. Institutions of higher learning, however, can create their own barriers to interdisciplinary endeavors. Here are my suggestions that can encourage academic institutions to grease the pathways of change and facilitate interdisciplinary research, teaching and education for the coming generation of graduates who will be living, working and thinking in a flatter world.

First, and foremost, universities must find ways to reward teaching and research that crosses disciplines. This includes co-teaching, and ways to account for teaching credit; currently in many colleges and universities, institutional culture, bureaucracy and even the way contact hours are counted, dissuade practitioners from co-teaching, or taking part in collaboration beyond the confines of their discipline. In the tenure track world, universities need to encourage scholars to publish outside of their discipline, and even outside of academia; if we can’t bridge the communication gaps between scholars, or between academics and the public, then how will we ever make the leap to interdisciplinary thinking?

A second suggestion addresses the fragmentation of education to the point that people cannot easily communicate with experts in other fields of study. Minimizing discipline-specific jargon and esoteric vocabulary will encourage the flow of ideas outside of disciplinary boundaries. As it stands now, communication can become problematic even within a discipline--never mind across disciplines. Topologists do not converse with statisticians; organic chemists do not talk with physical chemists; social theorists talk almost exclusively to each other. One reason for this is the mountain of jargon and specialized vocabulary needed to understand and translate ideas. At times jargon is useful, but like anything else consumed in excess quantities, it can lead to stomach aches, and in severe cases…induce vomiting. Further, jargon can become so addictive to the few in the ‘inner circle’ who forget that the rest of the world doesn’t speak the same language. Jargon becomes particularly problematic when it is wielded as a tool of exclusion, or a right of inclusion, especially for graduate students who may come into grad school not knowing jargon, but must demonstrate their expertise by using ever-larger amounts of jargon in both oral and written venues. Academic institutions created this culture; they can also change it.

It is not enough to look only within our own institutions; we must examine the global as well as the local in terms of removing interdisciplinary obstacles. A bright spot to be noted is an increasing ability to find research money for multi-disciplinary research, especially from leading agencies such as the National
 

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