Broad church of the mind

Could working in a ‘team of rivals’ encourage academic creativity - and turn out better equipped graduates, too?

February 20, 2014

Ask a vice-chancellor what’s on their agenda and the same few topics tend to crop up. Most relate to the bottom line: the future of research funding, ensuring that applications hold up, and the sustainability of pension arrangements would be three typical answers.

But another buzzword, less obviously about brass tacks, is “interdisciplinarity”. It is usually used in the context of research, but in this week’s Times Higher Education, historian Robert Zaretsky makes the case for a broader approach in teaching, too.

Working as part of a “team of rivals” encourages the academic cut and thrust from which productive sparks fly, he says, and is an antidote to “intellectual mustiness”.

One of many institutions planning a more interdisciplinary future is Dartmouth College, the smallest member of the Ivy League, which is putting together 10 to 15 teams of early career researchers from different fields, specifically recruited to focus on issues of mutual interest. The teams will teach and develop courses as well as carrying out research.

This call for interdisciplinarity to swim forth from flooded campuses is surely the point of focusing multitalented teams on ‘grand challenges’

There are plenty of challenges to achieving a truly interdisciplinary environment, which is as much to do with the culture of a place as anything else. Talk about “breaking down silos” is all very well, but the response from hard-pressed staff is often “Nice idea, but who’s got the time?”, while some – including those at the top who know where the Nobel prizes lie – may refuse to change their approach.

There is also cost and pain involved in restructuring research and teaching (Dartmouth’s new teams will be funded through philanthropic income – great for those who have it).

But there are clear benefits, too. Our recent feature on the California Institute of Technology, for example, highlighted the importance of loose management structures and serendipitous encounters in its extraordinary success.

There is also an argument, particularly pertinent in the UK, that interdisciplinarity can help to improve the impact of research.

In our opinion pages this week, Phil Ashworth, professor of physical geography at the University of Brighton, bemoans the fact that academics have been widely used by the media for instant opinion during the recent floods, but not by government to tackle the problem.

What is needed is greater coordination of effort, he writes, for “gifted, media-savvy researchers from a range of backgrounds to give a trans-science, balanced verdict”.

This call for interdisciplinarity to swim forth from the flooded campuses is surely the whole point of focusing multitalented teams on what are often called “grand challenges”.

As Ashworth points out, helping to resolve a national crisis should also be a blueprint for a cast-iron “impact case study”.

The danger – besides falling foul of politicians next time they cast around for scapegoats (a role fulfilled by Eric Pickles’ “so-called experts” at the Environment Agency during the current floods) – is that breaking the mould and submitting truly interdisciplinary work to the research excellence framework is still seen as too great a risk.

But if forming teams of rivals can reinvigorate the academic process while informing responses to “real world” problems and turning out graduates better equipped for the messy, fragmented reality of the modern workplace, it will have solved some of the grand challenges faced by higher education itself.

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