As an educational approach, interdisciplinary integration offers many potential benefits (see Chapters 6 and 7), but implementing integrative curricula faces possible barriers at multiple levels, from the preferences and pressures that inform student and faculty choices, to departmental and disciplinary structures, to college- or academy-wide priorities and practices, such as budgeting practices and criteria for promotion and tenure review. These challenges are practical and organizational, but they are also cultural: established practices remain so in part because professional identities, disciplinary structures, and organizational and bureaucratic arrangements are interlinked in ways that tend to sustain the status quo (Crow and Dabras, 2014). At the same time, marking these challenges simply as “cultural,” where culture stands for the inertia or recalcitrance of established arrangements, risks giving too crude of a diagnosis. It is important, therefore, to undertake a more nuanced examination of the factors that might inhibit integration and to explore how these barriers can be overcome.
In this chapter we offer an in-depth discussion of the common barriers to integration, while also acknowledging that, as the many examples offered in this report demonstrate, some faculty have found ways to develop integrative courses and programs, and some institutions have facilitated the implementation of these curricula. As such, they are exceptions to the status quo that prove that barriers to integration are not insurmountable. Though the committee does not believe there is a one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming barriers to integration, here we offer readers a practical framework for developing implementation strategies that can be catered to the local context of their specific institution. We also describe several
examples of how certain institutions have overcome some of the common barriers to integration.
The National Academies and others have devoted significant prior attention to both the potential of interdisciplinary research and teaching to advance human knowledge in new and innovative ways as well as the factors that inhibit it (NRC, 2003, 2004). Today, we see that interdisciplinary classes and team teaching are relatively common. A national survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that greater than 40 percent of full-time faculty who teach in 4-year institutions reported that they had taught an interdisciplinary class within the past 2 years (Jacobs, 2013, p. 198). This remarkable level of interdisciplinary instruction is not a new phenomenon; it has been a consistent pattern since enthusiasm for interdisciplinary approaches began in the 1990s. Yet, despite enthusiasm for interdisciplinary approaches in teaching and research, it has also been well documented that numerous factors tend to discourage interdisciplinary integration—even within related fields. The vast majority of courses, even if cross-listed, are discipline-specific and not integrative: their content and learning goals are recognizable as particular to a single discipline, and they are taught by faculty members with training in that discipline who hold a teaching position in a disciplinary department (Jacobs and Frickel, 2009). Notwithstanding significant investment in advancing interdisciplinarity within the natural sciences and engineering over the past several decades, and in spite of widespread receptivity of such initiatives, many of the barriers to integration that were enumerated over a decade ago in the National Academies 2005 study Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research persist today. While the focus of previous National Academies studies has been on interdisciplinary integration within the science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) fields, the insights that apply to interdisciplinarity, in general, also apply to the integration of the arts, humanities, and STEMM fields.
Many of the barriers to interdisciplinary teaching derive from an array of established arrangements and practices that tend to keep significant departures from internally controlled disciplinary norms in check (Abbott, 2001). In other words, some of the most significant barriers to integration derive from entrenched practices that, although not built to intentionally discourage such alternative approaches, do nevertheless have that effect. Thus evaluating the potential benefits of integration also invites us to reflect on the potential opportunity costs and impediments to change asso-
ciated with discipline-centric curricular, professional, and organizational approaches in higher education.
Sociologist Andrew Abbott (2001) has observed that a dual institutional structure has contributed to the continuity of disciplinary departments in American universities over the past century. The structure of disciplinary (departmentally administered) majors came into being very soon after the discipline-department structure itself, and has remained equally as durable. He notes: “Once institutionalized, the major system has never been questioned. Indeed, it has never really been the subject of a serious pedagogical debate, since allocating the undergraduate curriculum on some basis other than majors raises unthinkable questions about faculty governance and administration” (Abbott, 2001, p. 128). On the macro level, disciplines shape labor markets for academic faculty. Positions tend to be within disciplines, and, in general, careers tend to remain within the bounds of a discipline rather than the bounds of a single university. This structure is then reflected in the organization of disciplines into university departments. With a few exceptions, most American universities have the same mix of departments, with broader professional disciplinary structures and individual university departments perpetuating each other. As already noted, the overwhelming majority of faculty hold Ph.D.s in the same field (i.e., from the same sort of department) as the department in which they hold teaching positions. Even as new interdisciplinary fields (e.g., communications, cognitive science, bioinformatics) or professional or applied programs (e.g., business) have emerged, they have tended to follow the same structural patterns as the traditional disciplines. For example, initially highly interdisciplinary, a majority of faculty in communications departments now also have Ph.D.s in communications (Jacobs and Frickel, 2009). The mutually sustaining relationship between professionalized discipline and department affects the arrangement of everything, from the allocation of resources to faculty hiring, graduate training, and the characteristics of undergraduate training.
Discipline-based departments do not preclude the development of interdisciplinary activity, but they do regulate it. Disciplinary structures persist as centers of gravity that generally ensure that interdisciplinary efforts tend to exist on the margins of established disciplines and are often less sustainable and hold less institutional agenda–setting power than disciplines.1 Thus, even though there may be interest in pushing research and teaching
1 The sociology of education literature notes that the exceptions to the marginalization of integration and interdisciplinarity come about when (1) big money pours in from somewhere outside the university and helps create an interdisciplinary field that persists so long as the money does and (2) social and political developments create demand that universities feel compelled to respond to—e.g., women and gender studies, Afro-American studies, and science, technology, and society.
in interdisciplinary directions, there is a pull toward disciplinary structures that discourages all but the least risk-averse from pursuing such trajectories. Rhoten and Parker (2004) have observed that younger researchers are more interdisciplinarily inclined than senior researchers, yet are also more aware of potential costs associated with interdisciplinary work, which include risks to employability within the academic job market or in achieving tenure based on disciplinarily defined criteria of quality. Interestingly, Rhoten and Parker also reported that researchers in their study who chose to pursue a riskier, interdisciplinary professional course did so out of the belief that such a course was more likely to contribute to important societal needs, even if potentially at a cost to their own professional success (2004). The faculty who spoke with the committee over the course of this study reported similar motivations and constraints. For the most part faculty told the committee that they developed integrative courses in spite of, not because of, departmental and disciplinary priorities. And despite investing significantly more time and energy than would have been required to teach a traditional, nonintegrative course, they generally did not (and did not expect to) receive extra recognition from their departments. This investment of time and energy came at the cost of developing a more conventional portfolio of research and teaching within a single discipline. Indeed, at many institutions faculty may be unable to count integrated course development and implementation toward their career advancement, and if integrated courses require significantly more time and labor than simply reproducing a standard, disciplinary course, faculty may not be able to afford the professional cost of such efforts. Reappointment, promotion, and tenure criteria often require faculty to meet teaching, research, and service expectations, all of which tend to be evaluated according to disciplinarily defined criteria and by senior members of their discipline. Thus, even though early career faculty are more inclined to take their research or teaching in more interdisciplinary directions, they are also the most vulnerable to the potentially negative professional consequences of doing so (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2004).
Even where there may be an explicit institutional support for developing integrative courses, disciplinary control over the evaluation of faculty work nevertheless poses risks that may lead faculty to be conservative. Mansilla and Gardner have shown that researchers evaluating interdisciplinary work tend to rely on proxy criteria (patents, citation counts, journal impact factors, etc.) that reflect tacit disciplinary priorities. Thus, even where interdisciplinary work is supported in principle, it may be penalized in practice because of the application of inappropriate criteria in evaluations of quality (2006). Mansilla and Gardner observed that researchers doing interdisciplinary work “were often critical of these ‘proxy’ criteria
because they saw them as ultimately representing a disciplinary assessment of their interdisciplinary work.”
These barriers and negative incentives persist regardless of whether integrative courses prove to be more or less effective than the traditional alternatives. It is simply much less risky and much less demanding for faculty to avoid innovative teaching practices and instead to continue doing what has been done before. Even simply asking whether there is a better way tends to be inhibited. And if the question cannot be asked in a serious and sustained way, neither will it be possible to achieve a robust and definitive answer. Thus, while questions remain about the extent of the benefits of integrative learning, disciplinary and institutional conservatism exerts a strong counterforce to the sorts of experimentation in integration that would help answer these questions.
Another way that disciplinary structures exert this conservative effect is in the sheer effort required for faculty trained in those disciplines to acquire the opportunities and competencies necessary to teach integrative courses. Disciplinary and departmental structures are not only epistemological structures but also social and, in certain respects, physical structures. At many institutions, humanities departments are located near each other but far from natural science and engineering departments. Departmental meetings, committee service, and other opportunities for interaction often privilege interactions with faculty in the same discipline. Unless it is actively encouraged, there may be very limited occasions in which faculty from disparate fields might meet and interact with each other, let alone find themselves in circumstances where they might discover points of convergence between their teaching goals, interests, or methods (Feller, 2002; Rekers and Hansen, 2015).
Even for the faculty who actively seek out opportunities or partnerships for integrative teaching, doing so requires investing time and labor. One of the challenges of offering integrative courses is the lack of faculty preparation and expertise for offering them. In an environment in which faculty tend to be trained by, and squarely located within, a discipline (and corresponding department), efforts at achieving interdisciplinarity in research and education are difficult, and are initially more likely to be aggregative than integrative; that is, they will tend to draw dollops of material from the various different pools of disciplinary expertise in parallel rather than bring them into conversation or productive confrontation. Chapter 3 of this report categorized this form of integration through aggregation as multidisciplinary rather than interdisciplinary. Multidisciplinary courses offer the opportunity to juxtapose complementary skills and content areas, and in some cases teaching a multidisciplinary course might serve as a stepping-stone to full interdisciplinarity, which requires the development of a sense of points of connection and coherence, and also of disjunction—
of differences in underlying epistemological assumptions, methodological commitments, and styles of thought (Crombie, 1994; Fleck, 1981; Hacking, 1992). However, for faculty from distinct disciplines to co-teach an interdisciplinary course requires the time and freedom to work through different assumptions and goals in the search for common ground and synthesis that transcends their disciplinary methods and styles of thought. Though rare, such opportunities can engender in faculty, as well as students, the capacity to achieve a sense of the critical limitations of a given disciplinary approach and recognize and explore the unoccupied intellectual territories and potentially transformative, yet unasked, questions that lie beyond the existing borders of disciplines.
There are, however, some categories of faculty whose training makes them particularly well suited to teach integrative courses without requiring the extra resources needed for two faculty from traditional disciplines to co-teach a single course. For example, some faculty have been trained in interdisciplinary fields that exist at the intersection of disciplines, such as Arts, Media, and Engineering, or Science and Technology Studies (Jasanoff, 2010). They engage in research that is already integrative and thus are well positioned to introduce students to the forms of knowledge and the methods in which they are expert. Yet early-career scholars with such training tend to have a difficult time finding positions, particularly in traditional disciplines, and may feel pressure to shift their research, publishing, and teaching practices to reflect the norms of their discipline or department. Even where there is an openness within traditional departments to incorporate interdisciplinary courses into the curricula of the major, if these courses are to exist, there must be positions and support mechanisms at institutions of higher education for faculty willing and able to teach such courses.
The departmental structure is, of course, only one node in a larger network of structures, all of which shape and are shaped by each other. Academic departments interested in fostering interdisciplinary integration may still face institutional or academy-wide challenges, for instance in justifying interdisciplinary courses in budgetary allocations or in incorporating them into curricula where accreditation standards disallow or appear to discourage departures from traditional, disciplinary practices. Also, the structure of majors and the tendency of advisers and departments to (often incorrectly) characterize the major as a straightforward path to a particular profession, may encourage students to think of coursework outside the major as unnecessary and extraneous to their education, even as frivolous. Given that, for the vast majority of students, the cost of higher education is a significant concern, if they do not have a sense of the potential value of coursework that is not marked as valuable by virtue of being a requirement of the degree, they are unlikely to avail themselves of opportunities to
take integrative courses, even if such courses exist. Thus the majors system can inhibit the success of interdisciplinary courses, not only by imposing certain requirements on students but also influencing how students form impressions of what is valuable (and not) in their education in terms of those requirements. For students to recognize the potentially significant value of academic exploration, particularly of the sorts evaluated in this report, there must be a corollary commitment within institutions of higher education to inform students of the value of such exploration.
Overcoming the barriers to integration requires more than simply providing endorsement of, or even resources for, integration (Klein, 2009). It also requires that the variety of existing structures and practices that discourage departures from disciplinary norms be discerned, evaluated, and actively mitigated. This report catalogs and describes a diverse array of integrative programs and courses that demonstrate that overcoming some of the common barriers to integration is possible. These existing courses and programs can serve as models and offer lessons learned about how to implement integrative courses and programs; however, the committee believes that no one-size-fits-all “solution” exists for overcoming the barriers to integration. Although the common barriers to integration are widely shared among institutions, solutions for overcoming those barriers will almost certainly apply differently depending on local circumstances. Institutional leadership, modes of resource allocation, existing departmental and divisional policies, and other factors will all have a significant impact on whether and how an integrative course or program is successfully implemented. For instance, at some institutions deans can promise faculty that their tenure requirements will be tailored to their field in specific ways, while at others this would be unthinkable. The same variation applies to how courses get approved, cross-listed, and incorporated into majors curricula, and how teaching is assessed (e.g., by student feedback, by number of courses taught, “service” teaching, new course development).
Nevertheless, the committee recognizes that many faculty and leaders will look to this report for insight into how they can successfully implement new integrative educational experiences on their campuses. To those stakeholders looking for practical input on how to implement integrative courses and programs we offer not a specific list of solutions but rather the description of a general process that can guide the implementation of an integrative course or program. The specific context of a particular institution will determine what form implementation will take in practice. This process unfolds in five major stages:
- Articulate the goals and intended outcomes of an integrative educational experience.
- Assess the institutional context—the opportunities, constraints, and assumptions.
- Identify in your institution’s curricular framework the opportunities where integrative learning can enhance students’ learning goals.
- Consider existing best practices at your institution (if any) and some possible practices at other institutions that might potentially achieve the goals and intended outcomes of integration in the context of your institution.
- Use a design process that includes a mix of idea shaping, testing of strategies, outcomes assessment, and iteration to successfully implement a new integrative course or program.
In many ways, the structure of this report reflects this process. Chapters 1, 2, 6, and 7 each speak, in different ways, to the many goals and intended outcomes of integrative educational experiences, while the foregoing section of this chapter and portions of Chapter 2 assess some of the common constraints and assumptions that influence the institutional context for integration. However, steps 3, 4, and 5 of the process are necessarily highly context dependent. There is enormous variety among institutions of higher education in the United States, and approaches that have proven successful at one institution may not succeed at another. The following sections offer several examples of institutions that have recognized the interconnections between the common barriers to integration described above and have sought to develop strategies that address them. While we cannot say that these strategies will be applicable at all, or even most, institutions, they can serve as examples of “possible practices” for implementing integration. We do not offer these examples as solutions, per se, but as conversation starters that will stir the pot, spark the imagination, and inspire faculty to ask further questions.
As we have already described, promotion and tenure criteria can serve as barriers to integration. In an effort to overcome this common barrier, some institutions have begun to change policies to explicitly include interdisciplinary scholarship within the criteria for promotion and tenure. For example, the University of Michigan is explicit that faculty should “receive full credit for their contributions to interdisciplinary and/or collaborative scholarly projects.” Similarly, Indiana University Bloomington’s tenure guidelines state that “candidates for tenure and promotion are
encouraged to pursue innovation wherever it seems promising, even at the edges of disciplinary boundaries or in between them.” Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) has also made changes to its governance documents for faculty retention, promotion, and tenure to explicitly authorize and encourage boundary-crossing scholarship—categories of work that are now explicitly recognized as scholarship for purposes of promotion and tenure include “scholarship of integration” in which “faculty use their professional expertise to connect, integrate, and synthesize knowledge.”
In the case of RIT, these changes to the tenure and promotion criteria are part of a larger effort to make interdisciplinarity an explicit element of a university-wide strategic plan to “diminish the lingering effects of a silo culture.” The plan specifically calls for encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration and learning, including by reducing impediments for approval of jointly offered interdisciplinary programs and inviting students to develop individualized, interdisciplinary undergraduate projects and courses of study. RIT leadership has recognized that impediments to interdisciplinary integration are cultural, institutional, budgetary, and logistical. Thus it calls for innovation in budgeting procedures, in processes for allocating space, and in local decision making that can facilitate generative risk taking.2
The University of Arizona (UA) offers another example of an institution that has taken steps to facilitate integration. For example, UA has developed Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs (GIDPs) that bring faculty together to offer Ph.D. programs in interdisciplinary fields that cross multiple disciplinary boundaries. Sixteen GIDPs offer Ph.D. degrees or minors. Some of these GIDPs cross boundaries of STEM, social sciences, and humanities. For instance, the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching GIDP is associated with five colleges and 19 participating departments, including Anthropology, East Asian Studies, Linguistics, and Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences. In addition, Cognitive Science, an interdisciplinary study of human mental processes, includes pursuit of problems in reasoning, language comprehension, and visual recognition and involves the integration of disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and computer science. In addition, graduates of the Arid Lands Resource Sciences GIDP work in interdisciplinary fields that include international development; famine, famine early warning systems, and food security; land use, history, change, degradation, desertification, management, and policy; ethnoecology and other ethnosciences; economic and agricultural policy and development; borderlands issues; globalization; civil conflict; and urban development as they relate to the arid and semiarid lands of the world
2 See https://www.rit.edu/president/strategicplan2025/dimension5.html (accessed September 21, 2017).
Part of the success in overcoming some of the common barriers to interdisciplinary teaching has come from giving GIDPs a certain amount of autonomy and budgetary independence, as well as a role in faculty promotion and tenure. GIDPs are administered by the graduate college and an executive committee of program faculty. The graduate college provides administrative support and moderate levels of teaching assistantship support. The institutional budget model rewards departments and colleges by crediting faculty teaching in a GIDP course with the student credit hours and thus awarding the relevant tuition income to the college of the instructional faculty member. Furthermore, the GIDP has a voice and a role to play in the promotion and tenure process of the faculty members participating in the GIDP.
Arizona State University (ASU) offers another interesting example of an institution that has taken steps, at multiple levels—from restructuring of majors to the organization of departments and schools—to promote greater integration across disciplines. One way that ASU has encouraged the development of integrative courses is to make them a required part of the curriculum of certain majors. For example, undergraduates at ASU pursuing bachelor of science degrees are required to complete six credit hours (generally, two courses) in “science and society.” The purpose of this requirement is to expose students to the reciprocal relationships between science and society, to develop a critical understanding of the scientific principles and problems underlying the scientific dimensions of issues of significant importance in the public domain, and to cultivate students’ capacities to formulate, communicate, and defend well-reasoned views about such issues. As a result of this requirement, thousands of students at ASU take courses that, in one way or another, seek to integrate arts, humanities, and/or social sciences with STEM.
The science and society requirement came into being in conjunction with broader reforms of disciplinary and curricular structures at ASU. In the past 15 years, most departments at ASU have been restructured into transdisciplinary schools that combined faculty from a variety of disciplines to achieve forms of interdisciplinary breadth capable of addressing complex “grand challenges” (Crow and Dabars, 2015). This process began with creating the School of Life Science, which merged several previously separate life science departments, and integrating faculty positions (and, therefore, course offerings) for historical, philosophical, ethical, and social scientific research related to the life sciences. The intraschool integration of biological sciences with life sciences–focused humanistic and social scientific research has allowed forms of integrative teaching, research, and graduate training that are generally difficult to achieve when spanning separate units. Fifteen years later, courses that integrate the biological sciences with humanistic study of biology’s historical, social, and ethical dimensions have become a
routine element of undergraduate biology education at ASU and have been taken by thousands of students. Since then, other units at ASU have also been restructured in similar ways, facilitating the development of a variety of integrative undergraduate and graduate programs. To offer just a few examples, the degrees offered by the School of Sustainability draw upon fields as diverse as environmental sciences, political science, economics, sociology, and ethics. The School of Arts, Media and Engineering combines faculty in fields as diverse as computing, design, mechanical engineering, philosophy, and media arts, and offers courses and degrees that reflect this diversity. A majority of biology undergraduates take writing-intensive biology and society courses, and doctoral committees for the Ph.D. in Biology & Society routinely include a combination of natural scientists, social scientists, and humanists.
Although ASU offers an example of particularly radical and rapid restructuring of traditional disciplinary and departmental arrangements, and its approach is, therefore, unlikely to be readily replicated at other institutions, it does offer some important lessons. Opportunities for integrative education have followed from commitment to fostering integrative interdisciplinary research and by creating faculty units that are themselves integrated by virtue of combining arts, humanities, and STEM expertise. Teaching, training, and research that are collaborative between faculty with backgrounds in humanities and natural science fields happen much more readily because numerous barriers are eliminated. Whereas at many institutions it can be difficult for faculty from different departments to get permission to team-teach a course, it is no more difficult for an ecologist and an environmental ethicist who are in the same school at ASU to co-teach a course than for an evolutionary biologist and a geneticist. Collaborative teaching and research tend to happen more spontaneously because faculty from different disciplines may interact more frequently and informally simply by virtue of occupying the same building; serving together on administrative, hiring, and doctoral committees; and encountering each others’ research in the context of departmental business like promotion and tenure reviews. Each of these settings has tended to offer opportunities for faculty to encounter and understand the approaches of colleagues from other disciplines, laying valuable but otherwise difficult to achieve foundations for offering integrative learning opportunities to students. Because integration is part of the culture of the unit, integrative courses are integrated into the curricula of majors, and an interdisciplinary faculty is present to advise students, direct honors theses, and so forth. Students who are not otherwise convinced of the need to look for learning opportunities beyond a disciplinary major will nevertheless encounter them.
The strategies at Arizona State University, University of Arizona, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, and Indiana Univer-
sity Bloomington that we describe here offer a few examples of how specific institutions have worked to break down the cultural and administrative barriers to integration. These examples were chosen not because they are superior to other efforts under way at other institutions, but simply because they are models with which the committee is familiar. Indeed, several of these examples are from institutions with which members of the committee are affiliated. We hope that these examples offer readers of this report a sense for how institutions can facilitate integration; however, we do not expect that the strategies that have worked at these schools will necessarily work at other institutions. We urge those interested in facilitating greater integration at their institution to consider these examples, along with additional existing strategies in place at other institutions, as a source of inspiration that might inform the development of approaches to integration that are catered to the specific goals, needs, and constraints of their specific institution.