William H. Newell on Catherine Lyall, Ann Bruce, Joyce Tait, and Laura Meagher: Interdisciplinary Research Journeys: Practical Strategies for Capturing Creativity

Lyall, Catherine, Ann Bruce, Joyce Tait, and Laura Meagher. Interdisciplinary Research Journeys: Practical Strategies for Capturing Creativity. London: Bloomsbury, 2011. 240 pp. Hardback ISBN 978-1-84966-013-6.

During most of my teaching career I never concerned myself with what students in my undergraduate interdisciplinary courses would face if they became inspired to go on to become interdisciplinary researchers, especially on interdisciplinary teams. I was engaged in liberal education that familiarized them with interdisciplinary process, instilled interdisciplinary habits of mind, and inculcated the skills, sensitivities, and sensibilities required to address the myriad complex problems they would face in their jobs, communities, and personal lives. Interdisciplinary Research Journeys lays out the challenges confronting students such as my own, in graduate school and each subsequent phase of their career, who are drawn to interdisciplinary studies. Even more prominent in the book, however, are bullet-point, nuts-and-bolts recommendations at each step in the “research journey” for how to overcome those challenges. These take the form of case studies, key advice, comparative lists (e.g., benefits and risks), and questions to ponder. I encourage teachers, staff, and administrators involved in interdisciplinary undergraduate courses and programs to read this book with an eye to how well their students are being prepared for interdisciplinary careers.

For those of us interested in interdisciplinary studies itself, Catherine Lyall and her colleagues have provided a remarkable range of perspectives on interdisciplinary research. They look at it from the perspectives not only of individual researchers, but also of dissertation supervisors, department chairs, directors of research centers, university administrators, and funding agencies. Moreover, because the authors’ extensive experience with promoting and evaluating interdisciplinary research has been primarily in the UK, especially Scotland, (supplemented with spotty references to interdisciplinary research in the US and transdisciplinary research in the continental EU) American readers get a rare cross-cultural view of interdisciplinary studies. The array of institutional and cultural perspectives constitutes a tacit invitation to integrate their insights into a more comprehensive and robust understanding of interdisciplinarity.

Unlike so much of the writing on interdisciplinary studies in the US, especially scholarship spawned by the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies, this book is not concerned with the intellectual and cognitive challenges of interdisciplinary teaching and research, but rather with those challenges posed by institutional structures, policies, procedures and culture. In contrast to the focus of AIS on developing a profession of dedicated interdisciplinarians, the authors view interdisciplinarians the way we used to view Olympic athletes—as talented and hardworking amateurs who still hold a day job (here, a discipline). Hence, they view interdisciplinarity as something to be learned largely through experience rather than through professional training in interdisciplinary process and best practices. To be fair, the authors have pioneered the use of Master Classes that explicitly train graduate students in interdisciplinary research, but those classes seem more focused on institutional than intellectual challenges.

Consequently, when they diagram the overall system of interdisciplinary research in Figure 2.1 (p. 21), they depict it as situated within individual universities rather than operating at a more macro level. Missing are the professional associations, journals, and graduate programs that provide training in interdisciplinarity and contribute to the development of its intellectual foundations. Later in the book Lyall and her colleagues devote an entire chapter to the importance of establishing academic standards for evaluating interdisciplinary research, but they settle for relying on the judgment of individual experienced interdisciplinary researchers rather than on the codified collective judgment of an interdisciplinary studies profession.

It is clear, though, that the authors are avid enthusiasts of interdisciplinary research, and they seem to have independently arrived at a remarkably similar conception of interdisciplinarity to that promoted by AIS in particular (complete with a focus on process, especially integration, that can be divided into stages or steps carried out by either teams or individuals). They also insist on the complementarity of the disciplines and interdisciplinary studies. But they sometimes appear to think of interdisciplines, rather than a more comprehensive understanding of a particular complex problem, as the primary fruit of interdisciplinary labors. And some of their ideas and wording may be off-putting, e.g., their assertions that some problems are inherently interdisciplinary whereas we would say they are complex and it is the study of them that’s interdisciplinary, and their repeated references to the integration of disciplines rather than their insights. Still, it is clear to me that interdisciplinarians in the US and UK have much in common yet much to learn from each other.

Interdisciplinary Research Journeys is an excellent place to start.

William H. Newell
Executive Director, Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (formerly the Association for Integrative Studies)