The University Record, November 19, 1997
By Jane R. Elgass
"The University has many strengths in interdisciplinary activities. If we don't take advantage of the opportunities in this area, then why are we here?" asks John Laird, a co-coordinator of one of two new interdisciplinary activities being launched by the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies.
Laird, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, will join June Howard, associate professor of English, of American culture and of women's studies, in guiding Rackham's Summer Interdisciplinary Institute, recently announced by Interim Dean Earl Lewis.
Lewis hopes that initiation of the institute and the Rackham Interdisciplinary Seminars "will underscore the value of interdisciplinarity to the University as it aids the University in sharpening its understanding of interdisciplinary training and teaching."
Essentially, Rackham is serving as "an incubator to help faculty retool and students to problematize the integration of interdisciplinary research and teaching," Lewis explains.
Lewis was prompted to initiate the programs by concerns that value-centered management may cause units and individuals to step back from interdisciplinary activities. "The only way to prevent this is to invest in efforts that show the importance of interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching on campus," Lewis states. He notes that the Graduate School, which touches almost every graduate program on campus in some way, "is uniquely situated to facilitate these kinds of activities."
The summer institute is an opportunity for faculty and student participants to see the opportunities inherent in interdisciplinary work and to see more clearly the relationship between pedagogy and research. "The participants will receive training on how to work as interdisciplinary scholars," Lewis explains, "rather than take the harder route of learning by doing." He hopes they then will take their experiences back to their units and integrate them in their own teaching activities.
Lewis notes that there are additional benefits for the graduate student participants. The institute will provide them with a good foundation in course development, and the experience with interdisciplinary work should serve them well in job searches.
"We expect that the Summer Interdisciplinary Institute will spark new and exciting partnerships among junior and senior faculty and graduate students, and that courses developed at the graduate level will also influence undergraduate teaching in many units," Lewis says.
Lewis anticipates participation in the five-week summer program (June 1-July 3) by 15-20 faculty members from the Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses and seven to 10 senior graduate students. Participants will be appointed as Institute Fellows for the academic year, and will be involved in symposia and other activities in the fall and winter terms.
Faculty fellows will receive a summer stipend, access to research assistance funds, access to bibliographic and other materials and help in designing new courses.
Graduate student fellows will receive summer financial support, skills in developing interdisciplinary courses, relevant bibliographic and other source materials, and possible assignments in specialized undergraduate interdisciplinary courses.
Laird has been involved in an interdisciplinary research project on developing computer models of the mind and building intelligent systems for the past 15 years.
He also takes an interdisciplinary approach to a course he teaches on the creation of computer games, inviting faculty from such disciplines as music, art, philosophy and psychology to be guest speakers. "Both the students and the visiting faculty find these opportunities exciting," he says. In turn, some of the students who help with his research work take courses in psychology and apply what they've learned to the research.
Laird says he always has had good departmental support for his work, but that is not the case for everyone. He feels that Rackham's summer institute is a good step toward developing clearer policies, as well as helping faculty and students learn how to take advantage of interdisciplinary opportunities and how to get support for them.
"This is an excellent program for Rackham to undertake," he says. "It will have a positive impact on the University as a whole."
Howard works with students in three very different kinds of programs, a Department of English program, and American culture independent doctoral program and a joint program of the English department and the Women's Studies Program.
In talking with colleagues at other institutions, Howard has discovered that comparatively "there is a tremendous amount of work going on here. The University supports interdisciplinary work as well as or better than other research universities," she says, adding that others "are even envious" of her opportunities to team-teach with faculty from other departments.
Howard notes that there are advantages and drawbacks to interdisciplinary work that she feels the Rackham program will help address.
"People participate in overlapping activities, which offers both reinforcement and interference, with energies devoted to one drawn from another. There also are a lot of structural barriers and intellectual problems that one never really has time to work on," she notes. "Earl has ideas about how to take us up to the next stage and institutionalize a strong interdisciplinarity on campus.
"We have problems of success, but they are still problems. There are so many opportunities that people develop aspirations, from which expectations emerge. These aspirations need institutional support."
Details on the application process and timetable will appear in the Nov. 26 issue of the Record.
Earl Lewis, interim dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, hopes that the acronym RIS will become a familiar one on campus in the coming years.
RIS-Rackham Interdisciplinary Seminars, the second initiative Lewis is launching this year, also is designed to challenge disincentives for cross-disciplinary work.
Starting with the 1998-99 academic year, Lewis hopes to offer up to six graduate-level credit courses per year, which will be team-taught by a select number of invited faculty, each one involving two or three faculty from different units. They will be offered on a one-time basis. Students will be able to elect them as cognate courses. Schools and colleges will be compensated for the time the faculty spend teaching the new courses.
Lewis notes that this is the first time the Graduate School has been able to offer a credit course in the Rackham Building. While there is nothing specific in the term of the Rackham bequest prohibiting such offerings, traditionally there have been no credit courses held in the building. Sensitive to that tradition, the Board of Governors acted last May to allow the seminars to be taught in the building.
The seminars are designed to further "infuse the importance of interdisciplinarity throughout the University," Lewis explains, "and we particularly hope to excite senior faculty with this opportunity to team up with someone with whom they might not ordinarily work."
Lewis also notes that the seminars connect directly with the mission of the University, "enabling the participants to explore what we think we know, to look at it with fresh eyes, to know it better. That's always exciting."
"Our hope," he adds, "is that, once launched, the seminars will seed a number of other University objectives. We anticipate that some of these one-time courses will become recurrent offerings. Moreover, we expect a kind of economizing on the part of the faculty. Once they have prepared specialized courses at the graduate level, we believe some will design hybrids for the undergraduate level. And in partnership with the Office of the Vice President for Research, we hope some collaborative teaching efforts will lead to new research possibilities, too.
"We also expect that more than a few faculty will find these courses and the related symposia valuable settings for fostering new intellectual partnerships. If realized, we potentially countermand the structural-if not cultural-temptation to separate along disciplinary and school or college lines."
Details on how to submit a proposal for an RIS will appear in the Nov. 26 issue of the Record.