Book Review: Augsburg, Tanya. Becoming Interdisciplinary: An Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies

By Laurence Winters, Fairleigh–Dickinson University


MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: Well, what do you know about that! These forty years now I’ve been speaking in prose without knowing it!


With the third edition of Becoming Interdisciplinary Tanya Augsburg has undertaken a difficult—or maybe an impossible—task. First or second year students, no matter how well motivated, could hardly be expected to have been socialized into the disciplinary world so familiar to career academics. This task is admittedly no more difficult than the task of teaching an introductory course in interdisciplinary studies to students who hardly have a notion of academic disciplines, of their history, or of the academic debates that surround our specializations.

To make matters worse, in many interdisciplinary studies programs, students are attracted by particular specializations, flexibility of program design, or individual attention. They are not concerned with abstract justifications for a free-standing interdisciplinary discipline; nor are they interested in learning means to defend their choices and their professional skills before interviewers or even in an elevator or at a party.

Yet this is a very good textbook, and should be seriously considered by instructors who have taken up the daunting challenge of teaching courses in interdisciplinary studies.

The book is divided into two sections; the first constitutes a classical text with chapter-by-chapter learning outcomes, outlines, short selected readings, and review exercises.  The second provides a number of rationales for Interdisciplinary Studies majors, responses to potential challenges and criticisms, as well as aids for job seekers. I shall discuss this section later in this review.

Most interesting and useful in the first section is Chapter 2, “What Is Interdisciplinarity? Some Essential Definitions.” This question is, after all, the one interdisciplinarians all hear regularly. While interdisciplinary approaches to scholarship and research are hardly new, so many of our colleagues, especially those vested in discipline-dominated academia, are unfamiliar with the long, complicated history of the intersections of interdisciplinary and disciplinary approaches to their subject-matter. (Graff, 2015) This brief chapter does an adequate job of fulfilling the “outcomes” outlined on the first page. It ends with an exercise asking the students to “memorize” the definitions. They might well ask, “Why should I?” and it is not clear in the text why they  should. I would hope that we have advanced in our pedagogy past “because I said so.”

The following chapter introduces the idea of metaphor as a useful tool for explaining interdisciplinary studies. Augsburg argues on page 35, “when you make comparisons between two unlike things using metaphor, you encourage interdisciplinary thinking as you are presenting one thing in terms of another perspective.” In this, she is drawing heavily on the work of Julie Thompson Klein, one of the most important writers and scholars in the field. (Klein, 1996) Remarkable in this chapter is a reading from Asif Majid that identifies and discusses cross-cultural metaphors for knowledge integration and interdisciplinarity. The reader of this review will immediately recognize in Majid’s concerns the question of just how to go about integrating information from various sources into an interdisciplinary research report. (McDonald, et al. 2006) These notions may well serve pedagogical purposes and facilitate relatively simple integrative efforts; however, it is not at all clear how they would assist complex interdisciplinary research projects involving data derived from multiple methodologies within a diverse disciplinary team.

Chapter 4 offers definitions of related terms that will be useful in the task Dr. Augsburg sets for the students in introductory classes in interdisciplinary studies—self-justification. While these definitions and the controversies surrounding them are both important and interesting for the committed students, others may wonder at the lack of settled lexical foundations. Most concerning to this reviewer are the efforts to separate what she calls the “transdisciplinarity” of the I2S initiatives from interdisciplinary studies. Gabriele Bammer (2013), for example, discusses detailed procedures for bringing information from diverse disciplinary scholars, differing methodologies, value systems, and cultural presuppositions into useful and focused coordination to the end of engaging efforts directed toward the solutions of “wicked problems.” Having distanced interdisciplinary studies from the most promising contemporary efforts to constitute an engaged “transdisciplinary” methodology, we might well ask just what is left beyond self-justification.

This chapter is followed by a brief “History of Interdisciplinary Studies.” This is an important exercise for the students’ understanding of their field of study. However, none of the sources cited are Classical scholars or medievalists, and the paragraphs tracing the pre-modern development of interdisciplinary thought raise more questions than they answer. Harvey Graff’s study cited above, inaccessible to most undergraduates, does a far better job of rooting interdisciplinarity in the history of the university and its more familiar disciplines.

The final chapter in section one returns to an approach that dominates the earlier versions of this text, as well as the other widely used introductory text by Allen Repko. (2013) Personal characteristics or value systems of interdisciplinarians and transdisciplinarians are listed and briefly discussed.  While this may interest late adolescent students, once again it raises practical questions when we try to think through actual efforts to produce interdisciplinary knowledge and practice. Will conflicts never arise when all the members of a research or pedagogical team adhere to the stated value systems? What if they do? Value conflicts are common and perhaps even productive in real world problem solving projects. Maybe this is the most important issue here, how to resolve conflicts within research teams rather than stipulating putative systems of shared mind sets. (Repko, 2008)

Part 2 is a grab bag of brief readings, exercises, and defensive arguments. Chapter 7 begins with the often cited “debate” between Thomas Benson and William Newell about the value of interdisciplinary studies. (Repko, 2013) When punctuated with student activities and exercises, the chapter fills more than thirty pages.

The remaining chapters of the section cover a variety of student-oriented projects, such as the development of interdisciplinary portfolios, self-justifying debate language, and autobiographies. Most interesting are the “six word memoirs” and the “elevator pitch” in Chapter 11. Students would find these projects engaging and, perhaps, useful. Clearly instructors would pick and choose from the variety of workbook-style projects that make up the majority of this section. By themselves these pages make the text a good choice, allowing as they do the development of several sorts of context-specific introductory courses.

The reader of this review might well ask at this point whether this reviewer has adopted this book. Yes, I have, and I look forward to trying it out during the coming semester. And, indeed, I strongly recommend its adoption to any instructor facing the challenge of teaching such a course.

Finally, as a life-time college instructor and administrator, I have to wonder about the overall focus on self-justification. Interdisciplinary research has become common in both the natural and social sciences. This, by itself, should be enough to support the continuation and further development of interdisciplinary initiatives on both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Have we all not, like Moliėre’s M. Jourdain, been doing interdisciplinary work all our academic lives?


Works Cited

Augsburg, Tanya, Becoming Interdisciplinary, 2nd ed. Dubuque: Kendall, 2006.

———. Becoming Interdisciplinary, 3rd ed. Dubuque: Kendall, 2016.

Bammer, Gabriele. Disciplining Interdisciplinarity. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2013.

Graff, Harvey J. Undisciplining Knowledge; Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

Klein, Julie Thompson. Crossing Boundaries: Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisciplinarities. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996.

McDonald, David, Gabriele Bammer, and Peter Deane. Research Integration Using Dialogue Methods. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2009.

Repko, Allen. Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2008.

———. Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies. Thousand Oaks: Sage 2013.