Best outcomes for interdisciplinary goals: Double-down on silos?

I teach and research in Communication Studies, which has been described both as an academic discipline and an interdisciplinary field. Even those who insist on the “discipline” label as a matter of scholarly identity will admit that the discipline is internally quite “interdisciplinary”: there are not only numerous and diverse sub-fields (e.g., relational/interpersonal, organizational, rhetoric and public address, mass communication, cultural media studies, etc.), but numerous and diverse approaches to study (e.g., close textual analysis, qualitative ethnography, quantitative content and audience analyses, experimental design, etc.). One of the things I love about my discipline is the potential it has to put diverse scholars in conversation with one another in areas of common interest — for me, for example, political communication, media studies or visual communication. But like any discipline, it has its devotees of narrow research silos as well. And these folks are often accused of insularity and an unwillingness (perhaps an incapacity?) to speak to others outside their silo when cross-silo collaboration should be encouraged.

Moreover, some of my best friends are in interdisciplinary area studies! (How’s that for a backhanded compliment?) Fields such as gender studies, Africana studies, environmental studies and so on are rich with possibility not just for interdisciplinary research, but for teaching and public advocacy as well. And the growing economic and social pressures on colleges and universities have sometimes led to the encouragement of interdisciplinary collaboration for scholars in disciplines whose silos are having difficulty meeting market demand in areas such as student enrollment (he said with some distaste).

But while interdisciplinarity is enjoying a moment of seemingly uncontroversial approval in higher education, the champions of academic disciplines are pushing back… and with some compelling reasons. From my tomorrows-professor e-mail listserv (have you subscribed yet?), here’s a provocative piece originally in Inside Higher Ed (which you should also follow… details below).

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Folks:
The posting below offers a counter argument to the emphasis on interdisciplinary research in higher education. It is by Scott Jaschik and it appeared in the February 26, 2014 issue of Inside Higher Ed, an excellent – and free – online source for news, opinion and jobs for all of higher education. You can subscribe by going to: http://insidehighered.com/. Also for a free daily update from Inside Higher Ed, e-mail <scott.jaschik@insidehighered.com>. Copyright 2014 Inside Higher Ed. Reprinted with permission.

Regards,
Rick Reis  (reis@stanford.edu)

A Call to Embrace Silos

Everyone, it seems, wants to promote interdisciplinary work. College and university presidents love to announce new interdisciplinary centers. Funders want to support such work. Many professors and graduate students bemoan the way higher ed places them in silos from which they long to free themselves, if only they could get tenure for interdisciplinary work.

Jerry A. Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, wants to end the interdisciplinary love fest. His new book, In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (University of Chicago Press), challenges the conventional wisdom that academe needs to get out of disciplines to solve the most important problems and to encourage creative thinking. The most significant ideas (including those related to problems that cross disciplines) in fact come out of specialized, discipline-oriented work, Jacobs argues. Further, he says that the idea that disciplines don’t communicate right now is overstated — and that such communication can be encouraged without weakening disciplines.

[more after the jump]

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