Interdisciplinary thinking

Klein bookThe higher education community has long discussed, debated and defined (and redefined) interdisciplinary education and research.  Published in 1990, Julie Thompson Klein wrote the first comprehensive overview of interdisciplinarity. Since then, many books have been written, articles published, and conferences held.  In the early 21st century, two prominent federal funding agencies (NSF, NIH) would articulate the importance of interdisciplinary research (and graduate education) through the publication of Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research (2004, National Academies Press) and NIH Roadmap Interdisciplinary Research initiatives (2005, National Institutes of Health).

With increased attention about interdisciplinary research including the notion of “grand challenges“, the development and implementation of interdisciplinary programs followed.  Leading the discussions at the graduate level was the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) that offered sessions during its annual meetings and summer workshops.  Having been a participant in these conversations, the focus was primarily on content knowledge and research methodologies cutting across disciplines and the development of graduate degree programs.  Examples of good practices exist (e.g., Penn State, University of California-Davis, University of Central Florida, University of Minnesota, University of Washington, Virginia Tech).  At Virginia Tech, we have also established a blog site as a means of sharing research across interdisciplinary degree programs as well.  And all the while, very little discussion has occurred around interdisciplinary thinking and its relationship to graduate education until CGS President Suzanne Ortega invited Vice Provost Frances Leslie (UC Irvine) and me to facilitate such a discussion.  A great discussion occurred; the results of which will be shared in a different forum.  What follows here are my reflections and musings about interdisciplinary thinking in preparation for and after that session.

I have previously blogged about interdisciplinary thinking and different metaphors for graduate education.  I proposed the symbol of “pi” as metaphor for interdisciplinary (transdisciplinary as well) imagesand preparing graduate students to become adaptive innovators.  My musings about interdisciplinary thinking continue and have been informed by Simeon Dreyfuss article entitled “Something essential about interdisciplinary thinking” published in 2011 in Issues in Integrative Studies (29, 67-83)

So how do I understand interdisciplinary thinking?  Interdisciplinary thinking (I-thinking) must extend beyond the sharing of content and methodology from different disciplinary perspectives.  I-thinking must reach beyond common courses, shared research projects, case studies and joint publications. I-thinking most likely involves team science especially collaboration and clear, direct communication.

I-thinking should involve problem solving as well as problem defining and problem posing.  Yes, it involves what is known as critical thinking skills however these are defined. It is about asking questions and “sitting with” the question before jumping to solutions or answers quickly.  I-thinking takes time and requires perseverance.

Interdisciplinary thinking is about different ways of knowing and knowing differently and knowing in relationship to other even dissimilar views. It is about differing modalities of thinking and learning which requires acceptance of and tolerance for ambiguity and dissonance and perhaps confusion at times.  Creativity and innovation are key components and outcomes of interdisciplinary thinking.

Interdisciplinary thinking is a non-linear process and doesn’t embrace dualities but seeks intersections and connections.  I-thinking is about acknowledging the notion of a “baggy idea of truth, understanding the multiplicity of truth and the ongoing search for evolving truth.  It involves looking for and seeing the “unobvious” – to see things in ways which might not be obvious.

Interdisciplinary thinking is not only integrative but much more.  Beyond analysis and synthesis across disciplines, interdisciplinary thinking must be iterative and emergent.

Dreyfuss (2011) wrote that the difference between disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking is “a manifestation of how deeply one is wed to particular historical institutionalizations of knowledge” (p. 80). In order to prepare the graduate students for the future, graduate deans must encourage programs and provide opportunities to push beyond the historical institutionalization of knowledge and disciplinary boundaries into interdisciplinary thinking.  The abilities and skills associated with interdisciplinary thinking will serve all graduate students well in discipline-based or interdisciplinary programs.

So, the question now is how.

One thought on “Interdisciplinary thinking

  1. Pingback: VT-shaped individual: graduate student focus | transforming graduate education

Leave a Reply