A number of years ago, at a reception for chairs in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I struck up a conversation with a guy I'd seen around campus for a long time, but had never really met. Tongues loosened by drink, we had a nice chat. As it turned out, he was a highly distinguished scholar, who at the time was chairing the department of political science, housed in the same building as my own department, history, but a floor down. We found that we had a lot to talk about — including some common intellectual interests — and joked about the fact that though we had both been at UNC for a long time, working in close proximity, we had never really crossed paths.
Before leaving the get-together, we effected the hail-fellow-well-met routine, and promised to keep in touch. We even made noises about touching base with the chair of sociology, also housed in our building -- on the two floors beneath political science -- to see if he might be interested in co-hosting a building-wide party of some sort so that faculty from our three departments could get to know each other a bit better.
Unfortunately, that was the last time I had a sustained conversation with that political scientist. His term as chair ended the following spring, and he went on leave. Chairing a large department kept me busy, and neither of us ever got around to talking to the chair of sociology about a building-wide get -together.
Whenever I’ve thought about this -- admittedly only sporadically, since I’ve moved on to other administrative posts -- I've sensed lost opportunities. All three of the departments housed in our building are highly ranked in the social sciences, and a quick look at faculty CVs suggests that many members in the units share research interests. Alas, there is little contact between and among units, a kind of vertical segregation informing Hamilton Hall.
The lack of interaction among excellent scholars with similar interests raises some organizational questions with important implications: Why cluster faculty members into departmental ghettos any longer? Why not allow voluntary mixing and matching -- especially in cognate disciplines? Electronic communications via departmental listservs can provide the unit-specific information needed to keep the trains running on time, and the idea of promoting casual, often spontaneous interaction among scholars with similar research interests, but different methods is at once liberating and exhilarating.
Moreover, because scholars from different disciplines possess different strengths and different forms of proprietary knowledge, chances for the kind of intellectual arbitrage and cross-disciplinary collaborations that make for innovative breakthroughs would be enhanced. Few of the world’s major problems are best approached from a single disciplinary perspective, yet research universities generally sequester their best talent along departmental lines.
In this regard, it is telling that of all the academic conferences I regularly attend, the annual meeting of the Social Science History Association is the one that most gets my creative juices flowing. Why? Because that meeting -- at its best -- represents a true cross-disciplinary conversation, with panels comprising members from mixes of the social sciences approaching common problems via different research protocols and formal methodologies. One panel may feature a geographer, a criminologist, a sociologist, and an economist looking at crime in early modern Europe, while another may consist of a historian, an anthropologist, a demographer, and a political scientist dealing with changes in fertility levels in sub-Saharan African since World War II.
While panelists sometimes talk past one another, they more frequently open up everyone’s eyes and expand people’s brains. In either case, the panels are almost always better than listening to four overly specialized historians drone on about one or another obscure topic at a dreary panel at a meeting of a historical association. With this in mind, why not encourage cross-disciplinary commingling by situating faculty members from different disciplines in the same corridor?
To be sure, there are other ways to accomplish the same cross-disciplinary ends. GE has long tasked research teams in various parts of the world with the same engineering problems, periodically bringing together the disparate groups -- each from a different research culture and each with a different M.O. — to share ideas and learn from one another. Stanford’s highly acclaimed Bio-X complex, which brought together into one setting chemists, physicists, engineers, and medical doctors to work on complex interdisciplinary problems, famously sacrificed laboratories rather than a shared cafeteria during a funding shortfall in order to make sure that possibilities for intellectual trespassing and boundary crossing — the whole idea behind Bio-X — would be facilitated.
And, of course, one can take up the ideas of people such as Michael Crow and Mark Taylor and radically reconfigure departmental units, but I’m not willing to go that far. Traditional departments -- and disciplinary cultures -- still have their virtues. By mixing up the offices of smart people at large, complex research universities -- by changing institutional arrangements in other words — we can at the margin help nudge faculty members into creative realms they might otherwise not know to explore.
The faculty locker room at the university gym -- where lockers are assigned randomly -- shouldn’t be the only place at a research university to converse regularly with a colleague from another discipline.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.