The Case for Vibrant Interdisciplinary Mentoring

Samuel Gorovitz, Cathryn R. Newton and Joseph J. Fins applaud and advocate for mentors who connect ostensibly unrelated disciplines in odd, innovative and visionary ways.

May 7, 2019
 
 
Istock/Chanut Iamnoy

Biologists have shown that some life experiences can alter one's genome and that of one's progeny. Analogously, the effects of vibrant mentoring from different and even contrasting disciplines are passed on to generations of mentees. Effective interdisciplinary mentoring includes enabling students to see examples of highly accomplished people who have benefited from that process themselves and to appreciate that what we do derives from our own mentors and is multigenerational. With each generation the process repeats, as our students become colleagues from whom we learn. That was our experience.

Quirky, radically interdisciplinary mentors shaped us enduringly. We owe them lasting gratitude. They recalibrated our standards of quality and taught us the values of tenacious striving for excellence, of welcoming critical scrutiny, of the essential empowerment of unconventional perspectives that transcend the myopia of a single discipline or field.

Our paths differed: philosopher, scientist, physician. But we all see superb mentoring and creative interdisciplinarity as essential to a liberal education that builds an optimal foundation for success in any endeavor. Several themes unite our convictions about what to provide to students in our care. We will each briefly introduce our stories, then jointly explain our conclusions about interdisciplinary mentoring and research opportunities for students. We will delineate how advisers, faculty members, deans and provosts can create conditions to encourage and support these often unsung mentors.

Samuel Gorovitz (philosopher): My senior thesis adviser, Abner Shimony, was, to me, calm, gentle, terrifying. I’d revised my draft, addressing his many critical reactions. Now, saying this was better, he returned the latest pages covered with new criticisms. Seeing my fear and disappointment, he continued, “I know. It’s hard. But we want the best you can do. You can improve it. I’m going through the same struggles with my dissertation adviser.”

Shimony, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor with a philosophy Ph.D., was completing his doctorate in physics at Princeton University with the legendary John Wheeler, who insisted Shimony’s work be the best it could be. Learning this, I saw Shimony’s unrelenting scrutiny of my work as the most respectful gift he could give me. And I realized philosophy and physics blended in his mind in ways that enabled him to see more deeply into each.

The next year, I was a Ph.D. student. My Stanford University classmates agonized about the academic demands. As I breezed through, my view of Shimony evolved from deeply appreciative to reverential. Ever since, as student, professor and administrator, I have been guided and inspired by that paradigm of mentoring excellence.

My (co-taught) student planned to be a physician like his father and grandfather. His award-winning lab research prompted us to wonder whether a clinical path was best, rather than a research career. He began medical school and dropped out after two years. He turned to us, his mentors; we met several times and helped him reconsider options. Now a thriving editor at a leading national magazine, he’s among the country’s most respected writers in his field.

Cathryn R. Newton (scientist): In my teens, two contrasting interdisciplinary scholars became my mentors. Both were plainspoken and direct. MIT strobe pioneer Harold “Doc” Edgerton entered my life when I was 16, a Duke University sophomore. With crated electronics, he arrived in Beaufort, N.C., before our successful search for the long-lost shipwreck of USS Monitor off Cape Hatteras. Being assigned to his 4-8 watch (4-8 a.m. and 4-8 p.m.) was transforming. In the long predawn hours, Doc spoke of scientific research and high-speed photography, which he saw as entwined. With an Oscar for film and photographs in the Museum of Modern Art, he thought it obvious: one can be both scientist and world-class artist, and these interactive perspectives enhance each other.

Three years later, when I was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pioneering experimental petrologist Judith Moody became a second mentor. Strong and incisive, this acclaimed scientist demanded: In which active scientific organizations did I participate? We had a responsibility to diversify the sciences, she asserted. As a child of the civil rights era, I had direct experiences with white racism, but Judith made plain that social justice was also the obligation of scientists in their fields. (The Union of Concerned Scientists arose from similar convictions about scientists’ obligations to advance social justice.)

The students I now mentor, especially honors students, often feel torn, not advantaged, when they excel in multiple fields. A highly accomplished Native American senior voiced concerns about whether she should pursue earth sciences or photography. Hearing my mentors’ words, I strongly urged her to continue both, at least to some extent. Two years later, she ascended to the directorate of an outstanding museum of Native American culture, history and environmental conservation -- a role for which combining her fields prepared her.

Joseph J. Fins (physician/bioethicist): My interdisciplinary education began in high school. Each Saturday, as an emergency room volunteer, I worked with a physician broadly educated in the humanities. Dr. John L. Battenfeld embodied liberal education, revealing the synergy of the art and science of medicine. For me, then an aspiring student and now a physician and medical ethicist, it was formative. Patients’ stories became narratives that shaped diagnostics, therapy and reassurance. Science and metaphor were allied in the service of care. I recall first learning about both catgut (for sutures) and Dante as we sewed up a child who had fallen into his own circle of suffering. Dr. Battenfeld dispensed not only medicine but also literary wisdom, an additional balm.

To him, medicine was applied humanities. He inspired me to major in an interdisciplinary program in history, literature and philosophy, at Wesleyan University's College of Letters, as I completed premed studies. Later, in medical school at Cornell University, he sustained my questioning with a prophetic poem that anticipated my career as a bioethicist, which still hangs in my office with a picture of us together.

Though the image has faded, Dr. B's example remains vivid. His mentorship is now multigenerational. I point to his words when trainees wonder how the humanities and sciences can be in conversation.

A premed student who loved history worked with me on a bioethics project. Although she was headed toward medicine, history pulled at her heart and mind. She enjoyed the sciences, but broader questions of science in society redirected her aspirations. This became increasingly clear as we worked together on drafts. She is now completing a graduate degree in the history of medicine, liberated from her more conventional path, I like to think, in part by the interdisciplinarity of what we did together.

Three Themes

Our experiences yield three themes: 1) the contrast between the best interdisciplinary mentoring and field-specific mentoring, 2) what universities and academic leaders must set in place for such high-impact mentors to flourish, and 3) and the ways in which the stakes are high.

Many stellar scholars who mentor within specialized disciplines produce path-breaking intellectual descendants; nearly every field has exceptional examples. We have benefited from such mentors, too. Our present focus is different here, however. We applaud and advocate mentors who connect ostensibly unrelated disciplines in ways ranging from odd to innovative to visionary. Such pioneers can shape careers by pushing their students to experiment with contrasting disciplines they are then expected to recombine in novel ways. Consider Tamara Brooks, late of the New England Conservatory of Music, a rare woman among prominent conductors. Influenced by mentoring at the Juilliard School, she believed that musicians must learn broadly about writing, painting, playwriting and sculpture -- and even practice these other arts.

Field-combining mentors are often undervalued and vulnerable, working at the interfaces of their fields with contrasting ones -- deriving grants from nontraditional sources or without external support. Their department chairs and colleagues on salary or promotion committees often wish they had stayed strictly within the field for which they were hired, making promotions a challenge. Many cultivate iconoclastic personalities that antagonize their provosts, deans or chairs.

Iconoclasm may challenge academic administrators, but these same qualities can endear radical mentors to generations of students, especially highly creative ones. Brilliant students often struggle with professional and personal identity. Some of our best students have massive struggles with identity formation. Those students need mentors with unconventional professional identities to help facilitate the intellectual synthesis they seek.

Such a mentor must discern the mentee’s struggles and perceptions -- not so much providing advice as leading the mentee to discover what is needed to move forward. This is not prescriptively following any well-worn path. It is like going to sea without a nautical chart: not following a protocol but reacting in real time to evolving unpredictable conditions. Ideal mentors come to know their mentees as individuals and provide scaffolding to hold them up as they develop and sometimes falter. Such mentors can’t be assigned; the students must seek and discover them.

One may encounter some resistance to interdisciplinary appointments. And frequently, faculty mentors who straddle two fields are marginalized by both. But having multiple mentors with different approaches from different disciplines adds great value to scholars. Contrasting lenses are valuable in classes, too. Co-teaching LINKED LENSES: Science, Philosophy and the Pursuit of Knowledge, Gorovitz and Newton engage students in conversations conjoining many disciplines in ways that enrich and alter their understanding of their own disciplines and future prospects. Interdisciplinary mentors can illuminate both the arts and the sciences.

For example, the students handle scientific instruments; original letters from figures such as Einstein, Malcolm X and Tesla; rare original manuscripts by Copernicus and Galileo; and photographs and field notes by Margaret Bourke-White about her legendary images of Gandhi, who required her to learn to weave before agreeing to the photographic studies, and more.

Here the metaphor of linked lenses is more than optics. It reflects the magnification of perspective, a benefit in both the sciences and humanities. They also play portions of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in which he discusses the Lisbon earthquake, its connection with Leibniz and Voltaire, and issues of McCarthyism, patriotism, national boundaries and press freedom. This requires exploring the physics of earthquakes, tsunamis, fire control and global warming.

These undergraduate exposures have enduring impact. Wesleyan University’s interdisciplinary colloquia shaped Fins’s career at the interface of medicine, law and the humanities.

While it adds powerful pedagogical value, interdisciplinary mentoring costs more. It demands investment from institutions if they are to have faculty members whose work unconventionally connects disciplines. Moreover, professors who stray from the conventional path before earning tenure place themselves at jeopardy.

We understand these challenges. To create a community of such mentors on campus, cultivating and supporting them, administrators and other faculty members must recognize and reward their contributions, protecting them from forces that diminish their effectiveness or availability. One move might be simply creating an Interdisciplinary Mentors Society, underwriting inherently appealing periodic gatherings. Forming a peer group of these mentors, possibly within undergraduate research programs, enables them to support and learn from one another, and to help train those who aspire to such roles.

Also, just as universities proudly take credit for the success of their alumni, mentors should be recognized for the accomplishments of former students who were able to redraw interdisciplinary boundaries because their early academic role models showed them the path. This recognition remains relevant however long the time between the mentoring and the former student's accomplishments. The latency of interdisciplinary mentoring should not devalue its import. We must invest now, not only for next year, but for the decades ahead. This will take unremitting, patient effort over the long haul.

Academic leaders who support mentoring and honor excellent mentors make a wise investment. The stakes are too high to do otherwise. The ingenuity of our labor force, of its capacity for originality and invention in all areas, will depend on wasting no talent. Educating individuals, social structures and organizations to maximize talent requires the cultivation of interdisciplinary habits of mind. Training the next generation for these challenges is a fundamental responsibility of the university.

Great universities protect that long view, understanding the latency that superb intergenerational innovation often requires. Graduates from decades past are winning Nobel Prizes now. Large gifts flow from alumni grateful for what they learned years ago. Students blossom unpredictably, often long after we have helped empower them to create their own futures. More than likely, behind these achievements and memories is gratitude for a great, if quirky, mentor.

We can't repay our debt to our mentors, nor would they want that. Instead, they would prefer courageous investment by provosts and deans to strengthen and support this legacy of mentoring for future generations. Academic leaders should gather their institution's best interdisciplinary mentors and heed their advice. Much good can flow from such conversations.

Bio

Samuel Gorovitz, professor of philosophy at Syracuse University, was founding director of its Renée Schine Crown University Honors Program. Cathryn R. Newton, senior adviser to the chancellor and provost for faculty engagement at Syracuse University, is professor of earth and interdisciplinary sciences and also heads the univerity’s initiative for Undergraduate Research and Creative Work. Joseph J. Fins is the E. William Davis Jr. M.D. Professor of Medical Ethics and chief of the division of medical ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Solomon Center Distinguished Scholar in Medicine, Bioethics and the Law at Yale Law School.

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