Foxy Logic

Scott McLemee continues his review of Catherine Lyall's Being an Interdisciplinary Academic: How Institutions Shape University Careers.

August 2, 2019
 
 

“The fox knows many things,” reads a fragment by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The passage has been taken as an early and colorful expression of the difference between the generalist and the specialist. Catherine Lyall quotes Archilochus to frame the situation addressed by her book Being an Interdisciplinary Academic: How Institutions Shape University Careers (Palgrave Macmillan): “In order to build resilient research communities, do we need more ‘foxes’ -- researchers who range across many areas and traditions -- or should academia continue to specialize in monodisciplinary ‘hedgehogs’ who focus on one substantive and theoretical domain?”

From Lyall’s perspective (as suggested in last week’s column), academe is first and foremost a system of hedgehog burrows. A fox may find it difficult to thrive, or even to move. At the same time, the potential benefits of wide-ranging research are celebrated and even funded without much concern for the impact on the academic ecosystem. The effect has been dubbed the “paradox of interdisciplinarity,” in which, as Lyall explains it:

interdisciplinary research is often encouraged at policy levels but poorly rewarded by funding instruments and academic structures. In promulgating greater interdisciplinary capacity … do we then risk training future generations of scholars who will feel like strangers in their home departments, inhabiting uncomfortable liminal spaces within their institutions?

A rhetorical question, of course. Her response consists of thoughts on “the governance of interdisciplinarity” -- the tweaks in academic ethos and institutional structure that would be necessary for universities to accommodate and incorporate the interdisciplinary scholars that they are, in fact, generating.

Much of it comes down to accepting that interdisciplinarity is not just for “‘T-shaped’ individuals” -- a bit of business-consultant argot used occasionally here at Inside Higher Ed over the years, though not often enough to feel self-explanatory. The T-shaped scholar, writes Lyall in a helpful footnote, “demonstrates a strong disciplinary training (the vertical part of the ‘T’) and reaches out to form connections with other disciplines in order to develop joint solutions (the horizontal bar of the ‘T’) in contrast to I-shaped individuals who exhibit only deep but narrow disciplinary expertise.” In this context, I suppose we could also say that T is for team: interdisciplinarity understood as collaboration across departmental lines.

By contrast, Lyall advocates for scholars who are, in effect, born interdisciplinary. They start out working on interstitial problems that require them to borrow or improvise methods from more than one discipline -- and in doing so they develop the “tacit, integrative skills, sometimes called ‘meta-skills” characteristic to interdisciplinarians. In recognition of this, Lyall suggests developing “national networks of interdisciplinary mentors through funding bodies or professional organizations … Interdisciplinary scholars may also benefit from multiple mentors across different disciplines.”

It might seem incongruous to think of serendipity as part of the interdisciplinarian’s skill set, but Lyall cites Robert Merton’s classic work on the sociology of science to suggest otherwise. Taking seriously Pasteur’s epigram about chance favoring the prepared mind, “Merton concludes that serendipity can be nurtured by ‘institutional flexibility’ … [that fosters] an interactive and integrative environment.”

Here, environment includes architecture. Lyall quotes interviews with early-career scholars who suggest that “informality is really crucial to interdisciplinarity” and that research on innovation has established the value of “trying to create lots of weak ties across different networks, trying to maintain lots of different networks.” But that potential is undermined when blinkered notions of efficiency and utility prevail. Commenting on his campus, one of Lyall’s interview subjects says, “Now, there is a massive body of literature showing how all the creativity happens in corridors and around water coolers. And we’ve just built a building with neither. It’s bizarre.”

A certain restructuring of demeanor may also be necessary. One of the vice rectors at a British university whom the author interviewed gives a memorable account of how an interdisciplinary initiative took off: “First meeting, [everyone] pontificated, they just talked about what they knew. Second meeting, they did that again. Third meeting, we started to share ignorance and it was the beginning of a collegial sense of trust and [that] enabled them to reveal their weaknesses, which is quite unusual in alpha academics. And they then started to find the questions and it was then that the rubber hit the road.” (Lyall’s emphasis.)

Only on a second reading of Being an Interdisciplinary Academic did it register that the mention of “publicly accessible document” from the University of Edinburgh on “the characteristics and acknowledged difficulties of assessing individual contributions to research activity when individuals are working across traditional discipline boundaries” -- available here -- was a discreetly phrased self-citation. And, in fact, many of Lyall’s thoughts on “the governance of interdisciplinarity” may be found in more bullet-pointy form there and in other documents that turn up from searching “Edinburgh interdisciplinary guidance.” Her book is both more reflective and more heavily researched and documented than the short memoranda prepared with colleagues, and is rewarding just for the citations alone.

“If we are to nurture and indeed benefit from the expertise of true interdisciplinarians,” Lyall writes, “interdisciplinarity has to be entrenched and embedded rather than epiphenomenal.” Another way to put it might be to stress that a fox is not just a hedgehog minus spines and a taste for grubs. The challenge lies in creating an environment hospitable to both.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top