Interdisciplinary thinking, Pi and adaptive innovators

Graduate education has long focused on depth in the disciplines.  Academic disciplines have provided a system for organizing scholarship through academically accepted set of methodologies, professional journals and professional societies.  Disciplines tend to have a critical mass of scholars and educate students in the cultural norms of the discipline.  They have served and will continue to serve higher education well but more is needed.

With strong disciplinary foundations, we must now move and actively embrace and engage more in interdisciplinary graduate education.  Due in part to the inherent complexity of nature and society, very interesting and challenging research questions can be found at the interface between and among disciplines – these will require an interdisciplinary perspective.  This  leads scholars and graduate students to explore problems and research questions that are not confined to a single discipline and require collaborative endeavors. National agencies (e.g. NSF, NIH) have called for more interdisciplinary efforts and provided funding opportunities such as the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) programs.

This brings me to the topic of depth or breadth and beyond.  Arguments are frequently put forward that graduate education should focus on depth of knowledge and thus, we must maintain a disciplinary focus and focus on the disciplines. Along with this argument, it is often acknowledged that although interdisciplinary graduate education does provide valued breadth, it lacks the depth.  I’ve worked with interdisciplinary graduate education for the past 20 years and would argue that interdisciplinary research not only requires but can achieve both depth and breadth as well as integration for success.

In my recent musings about interdisciplinary graduate education and research, I have come to visualize those with the depth of training and education in the discipline as I-educated individuals, those with the depth and breadth of training and education plus the ability to work across disciplinary lines at T-educated individuals, and those individuals with breadth and depth of education and training in more than one discipline and the ability to integrate knowledge across disciplines as Pi (π)-educated individuals. Through this lens, knowledge seems to be grounded in and emanate from the disciplines and then integrated across boundaries.  These are the scholars and scientists who will be able to serve as the adaptive innovators of and for the 21st century.


“Universities, therefore, will have to reconsider the priorities and practices of graduate education and training in order to prepare individuals……. We argue that graduate programs must not only educate future scientists to be experts in the methods, techniques, and knowledge of their chosen disciplines but to have the broader problem-solving skills that require learning, unlearning, and relearning across disciplines.”
Rhoten, D. 2004. Interdisciplinary Research: Trend Transition. Items and Issues 5, no. (1-2):6-11.





Sorbonne and Strasbourg

Two great universities – the Sorbonne (Paris – Sorbonne University) and the University of Strasbourg.  Each has a long history and rich traditions.   Visiting each of these recently only reinforced their place in history of higher education, especially French higher education. They have stood the test of time.  And yet over the years, they have changed and there is more change to come.  I learned during the recent visit that the universities in Paris including the University of Pierre and Marie Curie (UPMC) will be engaged in merger and transformation – quite a significant change I imagine.  We will watch with great interest.   

These two universities will play an important role in the visits of the Global Perspectives programs organized for this summer.  In May 2012, the Future Professoriate Global Perspectives program participants will visit the University of Strasbourg as part of our visit to universities of the Upper Rhine and partners of the University of Basel.  While in Strasbourg, we will visit the campus and learn first-hand about the the University, the Doctoral Schools, and the French system of higher education.

 In July 2012, the new global perspectives program designed for graduate deans from U.S. universities will visit the Sorbonne (the UPMC and other universities in Paris) as well as the University of Strasbourg.  It will be quite wonderful to experience the visit with two different groups (graduate deans, graduate students) and to watch as the streets of Paris reveal the universities hidden in plain sight and as the tram meanders the streets of Strasbourg and onto the central campus of the University of Strasbourg.