The Challenges of Doing Interdisciplinary Work

Janina Misiewicz

Version I Authors: Trysten Bewersdorf, Jillian Hester, Nicholas Scola, Ludvig Steenberg, Amanda Terranova

Introduction

10,000 hours.

That’s how long it takes to be a master in any field. Or, at least, that’s what Malcolm Gladwell—renowned journalist, author, and speaker—argues. If someone spends 10,000 hours of hands-on, in-depth, focused energy in a discipline, he will be a master of it. That’s eight hours every day for nearly three and a half years. If the practitioner is an undergraduate student, that’s about the time it will take her to finish her bachelor’s degree. If she goes to college and studies a single discipline—like biology—and doesn’t take any classes except ones that pertain to her major, she will graduate as a near-master in her field.

Why is it desirable to be a “master?”

Specialized scholars know the specifics of their fields. They write books with hypothetical titles like “The Horror Film and Beyond: The Possibilities of Horror,” “Ancient Warfare in the Near East: An Archaeological Perspective,” or “Mechanisms of Synaptic Transmission and Plasticity.” Without these scholars, deep, investigative discoveries would be impossible. Society needs people to be masters in specific areas because they contribute to the understanding of the world at large. Knowledge is like a mosaic: every tile represents a scholar who has spent an entire lifetime exploring a single idea.

There would be no place for interdisciplinarity if the disciplines didn’t come first, but collaboration is sometimes just as important, if not more important, than individualized focus. Every tile plays a role in the outcome of a mosaic, but the mosaic wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t an artist, or group of artists, to put the tiles together. As important as it is for there to be highly specialized scholars in every discipline, it’s just as important to have interdisciplinary students building bridges between ideas, creating cohesive, universal collaboration.

By Hakatai (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Five Barriers of InterdisciplinarityInterdisciplinary studies is a complicated, collaborative approach to education. As with any integrative system, there are bound to be challenges. The five major barriers blocking interdisciplinary students from success are: attitude, communication, academic structure, funding, and career development. In addition, there are some cross-disciplinary challenges that can arise, like organizational issues and differences in disciplinary procedures.

Attitude

The first barrier facing interdisciplinary students is attitude. An attitudinal barrier is any behavior or perception that prevents students or employees from effectively communicating. In the case of interdisciplinary studies, an attitudinal barrier would be a scholar or researcher who has no interest in collaborating with other disciplines or people.

An example of an attitudinal barrier is the political climate of the United States. Conservatives and liberals are divided by their points-of-view and they’re unwilling, or perhaps incapable, of exchanging perspectives. Each party represents a cultural identity and people choose a party based on their values.  To reinforce their values, people surround themselves with media that reflects their political views, creating a self-propagating “echo chamber.” The attitudinal barrier between democrats and republicans makes bipartisan compromise almost impossible.

Hopefully the attitudinal barriers in education are not as indestructible as the attitudinal barriers in politics, but, then again, everyone has an ego.

Communication

In every discipline, there is jargon. The special, “key words” that particular groups use to communicate. Jargon poses a threat to cross-disciplinary collaboration because people can’t communicate with each other if they can’t understand each other. The communication barrier poses a unique challenge to interdisciplinarity: is collaboration possible without a common language?

Academic Structure

Academic departments provide the resources and tools that students need to be successful in their fields. Every department has the programs, faculty, staff, and organization it needs to advance learning within its given field, but sometimes the structures across departments do not align with one another, making interdisciplinarity collaboration a challenge.

Funding

Within a college or university, funds are normally allocated by department, not to the college or university as a collaborative whole, meaning promotion and tenure policies are also departmentally granted. The prospect of a promotion is a major motivator for many scholars, but to qualify for a promotion, most scholars need to make a substantial departmental contribution. An interdisciplinary contribution might not qualify a professor for tenure in any department because his study is not a formal subject attached to a single discipline.

Career Development

An overarching fear of interdisciplinarity is the “10,000 hour rule,” meaning interdisciplinary students might graduate as masters of nothing. Instead of graduating with a comprehensive understanding of a single discipline like anthropology or economics, they graduate with a smattering of knowledge, spread across many fields.

Interdisciplinary Studies at the Undergraduate Level

Despite the barriers standing in the way of interdisciplinarity, most undergraduate students aren’t affected by them. For many students and future scholars, undergraduate studies is an introduction to the world of learning. It teaches students valuable collaborative skills and introduces them to the possibilities of education. A bachelor’s degree is a great way for students to learn about themselves, how their minds work, and what they want to do after they graduate. Even if a student enters college with a clear idea of what she wants to do, she will probably change her mind along the way. That’s the nature of growing up.

Interdisciplinary studies allows students to experiment and ask questions. It encourages them to follow their hearts and enjoy their undergraduate experiences. Learning should be exploratory and fun, exactly what interdisciplinary studies is trying to do.