The Boundaries of Interdisciplinarity

Linda Holcombe’15

“We decided to build a tower. That way, the rangers would have the vantage point to see poachers from far off, minimizing the risk to them personally and preventing them from having to use force.” A simple, creative solution to the complex issue of park ranger safety when confronted with increasingly sophisticated (and armed) poachers. A solution proposed by high schoolers tasked with the protection of a hypothetical park and its rangers during a creative policy seminar in the Politics, Law, and Economics session of the Yale Young Global Scholars Program (YYGS), 2015. The students built towers and created a ranger service program to strengthen community ties and address one source of poaching.

This summer, I had the honor of working with hundreds of outstanding students from 92 countries and almost all 50 United States. I created 20 seminars related to the three themes of “Politics, Law, and Economics”, “International Affairs and Security”, and “Science, Policy, and Innovation.” But assigning readings and making lesson plans was only part of the experience. When students filled my classrooms this summer, I had to figure out not only how to engage them in the material, but how to communicate complex concepts to intelligent people from a wide range of backgrounds.

There is a lot of talk about interdisciplinarity in academics. Programs are created with the foundations of interdisciplinarity in their mission. Whereas a few decades ago an interdisciplinary graduate degree was a rarity, now many programs incorporate the tenants of a variety of disciplines into their core curriculum, including my current doctoral program in Global Governance and Human Securities. The entire IGERT program is founded on transdiciplinarity: the idea of not just integrating different professionals to solve a problem, but broadening your knowledge base enough to be able to transcend disciplinary thinking yourself when approaching complex problems.

While there is a very important place in scholarly work for discussions of interdisciplinarity, I want to point out how relevant a concept it is in the classroom itself. Not just in the material, but how the material is presented, and even more so who it is being presented to. Are yours classroom seats filled with professionals who speak your discipline’s language? Professionals from a variety of areas? Or, as I was able to experience this summer, intelligent students who are not limited by professions yet? Who are pre-disciplinary?

High school students have passions, strong interests, and astounding intellect and knowledge. But it is unlikely that they have already been indoctrinated with individual “disciplines”. They are still free of the mental boundaries that are supposedly transcended when professionals from different training schools collaborate. This enables them to come up with wild and often incredible solutions to problems that vex the professional world.

It’s horribly cliché to say the students teach the teacher. But there is a lot of truth in this, and I purposefully posed questions that stymie professional audiences to these students who had the luxury of not being labeled “professional” yet. I cherish the enthusiasm and creativity I was able to experience vicariously through their work in my seminars. I try to imagine what they would say about problems that arise in my new classrooms – where I am now the student, wondering if pre-disciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are differentiated by age more than concept.


Debra Butler participates in SESYNC

On Sep 28-30, 2015, Debra Butler participated in the Proposal Writing Workshop at SESYNC in Annapolis, MD. SESYNC, the Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) supports interdisciplinary, data-driven, team science collaborations that interface human and ecological systems.

The Center, funded by the National Science Foundation at the University of Maryland,  services  projects from inception through every stage of collaboration –team processes,  meeting planning and facilitation, travel and logistical support, cyber infrastructure resources and results dissemination.

This 2015 cohort included social and environmental scientists from the United States and Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, and Brazil. Three of the participants were in IGERT programs.

“Self-selected” teams of 5-7 researchers are encouraged to submit proposals in early January 2016, for funding in late spring. Debra’s team includes PhD researchers in management, anthropology, public health, forest restoration ecology, food security, and spatial geography.