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Ian Horswill says “Interdisciplinarity is Hard” (Media Systems)

One goal sometimes pursued by interdisciplinary programs is to move beyond the arbitrary divides in knowledge represented by the schools and divisions of universities. One way of accomplishing this is to report to multiple deans, or to no dean at all (perhaps directly to the provost level). This sounds appropriate in theory, but at the Media Systems gathering we discussed the difficulties such models of interdisciplinary organization have presented for pioneering programs such as Animate Arts at Northwestern and Arts, Computation, and Engineering (ACE) at UC Irvine.

In the talk we’re posting today, Ian Horswill offers a postmortem of two major efforts at Northwestern. The first was relatively easy and inexpensive to put together, but didn’t result in deep interdisciplinary engagement by students or faculty. The second was much deeper — and in some ways a model of how to jumpstart interdisciplinary learning using a set of disciplinary faculty — but required ongoing agreement and funding from four deans and five department heads. Neither program is operating any longer.

Horswill also discusses research, introducing a topic — protecting “making as a mode of inquiry” — that became a touchstone for the rest of the gathering. All the disciplines present at Media Systems make things, and learn in important ways through that process, but generally have reward systems in place that put this in a secondary position. For example, for computer scientists like Horswill, at a professional level making systems is a route to publishing papers — which often doesn’t require making a system robust enough for audience interaction, or maybe even that could honestly be called “complete,” which means important kinds of learning don’t happen if we focus on the existing reward structure.

Horswill also advocates an approach focused on problems, not disciplines, departments, or trainings. While this may sound obvious, the easiest path to interdisciplinarity is to apply one’s training and tools to an interest in another discipline. But this may not actually address any pressing problem, and can lead to problems he characterizes as “disciplinary imperialism” (with quite humorous examples). He also addresses some deep issues around methodology and evaluation that a number of other Media Systems speakers also discuss. Finally, he notes that our challenge is that none of these lessons learned fit well within the organization of modern U.S. universities.

As with Janet Murray’s talk posted last week, PDF slides are available on the main Media Systems page for this talk. Feel free to discuss here in the comments or on Twitter with hashtag #MediaSystems. Also, watch for Alex McDowell’s fascinating talk here next week!

This material is based upon a project supported by the National Science Foundation (under Grant Number 1152217), the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, the National Endowment for the Arts, Microsoft Studios, and Microsoft Research.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, Microsoft Studios, or Microsoft Research.

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