Interdisciplinarity: Finding home (and then leaving)

by Lisa Mooney

22 Feb 2017

Interdisciplinarity is often about stepping into the unchartered, a critical journey off-piste, where one may need to leave markers behind to find a way home. No two journeys or destinations are the same, and few routes are easy and even fewer recognisable or rewarding. Then why are we preoccupied in wandering the complexities of the interdisciplinary landscape? Why do we seek to find our place in the home of others, and when we do, why might it be so challenging to the notion of disciplinary home, where our rewards and recognition have been built? We found that these issues played a central role when discussing Researcher Development and Careers at the joint HEFCE, RCUK British Academy Interdisciplinary Research, Policy and Practice conference.

Professor Collette Fagan opened with a story of the development of 'home' in the context of one's discipline, and the theme expanded to family, tribes and territories, the pathways between, as well as the porosity and promiscuous behaviours inherent in the academic nomad. Conceptual boundaries and methodological challenges present a diversity that is often hard to pin down across the diverse landscape of multiple disciplines. Classics, Geography or Development Studies for example, are fields that have grown up with an extricable tie to interdisciplinary research (IDR), but they have also ensured that interdisciplinary learning has fed back into the mono discipline. This two-way dialogue and exchange has perhaps brought some unified understanding to the practices and their impact on one’s disciplinary home.

Berger’s 'vast archipelago' describes the islands of the disciplines that require specific knowledge and tools to navigate effectively, often in collaboration with others. When it comes to building an academic career, what are those navigation skills, where might we find them, and when is the best time to set out on the journey? It is rare that our disciplines broach the competency conversation, and therefore it was felt that the understanding of interdisciplinary skills remained immature and somewhat disparate as a result. Janet Metcalf of Vitae allowed us to consider the interdisciplinary appetite, and witness the new characters entering academia. Our early career academics are bringing a whole new suite of competencies with them. They are starting to build new repertoires, pushing the boundaries of new landscapes, less fearful perhaps of leaving home, and as a result becoming more intellectually agile and mobile. The key questions around this focused on 'at what cost' and 'when was the right time'?

Career development
In spite of this new academic breed coming into the IDR space, it was evident that those living in the current environment were more often at odds with IDR in the context of career development, and the recognised rewards and recognition that travel with it. In order to establish one’s career we agreed that we are still in stasis regarding the fact that we still have to build the foundations and strength of a disciplinary home, in order to open the door and wander beyond it.

Might we begin to build resilience and set new terms of reference on IDR, and if so, how do we change the perceptions and values of those measuring and establishing the boundaries of a discipline, such as those on REF Panels and other discipline reviewers? Anne Ridley told us this was a long game. She explored the notion of the IDR chronology that could be established between early years' education and early career academia. Igniting an interdisciplinary culture and behaviour in the curriculum in Schools is a critical component to long term, sustainable change. In enriching and animating the learning experience of young people, might we stimulate the competencies for leaving home and building new alliances?

Mina Ryten of UCL is a prime example of an early career academic who sought to move beyond the disciplinary and career boundaries, but swiftly recognised that it can often be a lonely place where you sometimes end up feeling like a stranger at home and away. Mina took us through the chronology of her early career where she had bravely opened the door to a long, slow journey across the 'vast archipelago' between professional practice and academia. Her most noted challenge in embarking on an interdisciplinary career, was the way in which the ground continually shapes and shifts, and whilst you are looking and residing in one space, the other is moving on without you. One cannot possibly be in two places at once, and one certainly cannot earn the rewards and recognition when one is not seen to be present or contributing to family life that resides elsewhere. This analogy also resonates with one’s real family life and the added demands of career weighted alongside parenthood, gender and diversity.

Where does that leave us?
So, where does this leave us? We are essentially movers and shakers between and across the disciplinary boundaries, and although often a rich, fulfilling and exciting space, many feel isolated and alone when found furthest from their discipline. This is where we need to find a hardy resilience and perseverance, as well as intellectual agility, to survive the territory. Mina reminds us that, in spite of the challenges, the intellectual rewards are often great. One does become hardier as one traverses the landscape, as one picks up the requisite tools and skills to survive..

Interdisciplinary researchers may offer new approaches and insights, develop new ground, new languages and new ways of thinking. Those who are at the early career stage are beginning to enter academia with a different backdrop to academic life, that has not yet permeated deep rooted cultures and practices.

What next?
In summarising our short discussion on IDR, we come back to some intrinsic hurdles that require us to regroup and begin to reframe our thinking. Whether it is in defining these new qualities, skills and competencies, or addressing the optimum moment, the critical timing of IDR, we have to expose the challenge and bring it up and out into the ether. It is demanded of us to open the imagination to IDR, move into the IDR space, fill it with confidence and coherence, with mentors, brokers and change agents. We must stop imagining it and start doing it, shifting it purposefully into the grand challenges space, animating it whilst learning and uncovering its principles and practices.

Dr Lisa Mooney is Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Knowledge Exchange, University of East London.

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