Widgets Magazine

Blending disciplines, ‘finding solutions’

Interdisciplinary programs form a fundamental part of Stanford culture

At Stanford’s last commencement, President Hennessy spoke of the challenge of balancing the “old and new, the innovative and the traditional.”

Today, about 20 percent of Stanford’s research is conducted in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs. Such programs cross the hard and fast boundaries that traditionally defined academic disciplines. The transition is not about breaking walls, but rather about building bridges for interdisciplinary dialogue.

The transition to interdisciplinary programs and research has not always been smooth, because some departments don’t want their faculty to spend the time outside the department or use grants with such programs. Education professor Myra Strober has dealt with these obstacles as the founding director of the Stanford Center for Research on Women (now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research) in 1974. The institute has been interdisciplinary from the beginning and draws upon various departments, including economics, history and sociology.

“I think one of the things that President Hennessy has been working on quite successfully,” she said in a phone interview with The Daily, “is getting departments to realize that this is, after all, a university, and if the faculty wants to collaborate outside the department, that’s a good thing.”

These days, as people become more and more specialized within their fields, what compromises are required of these experts when taking part in interdisciplinary research?

“You could think about people coming together with their expertise,” Strober said. “It’s that expertise that everybody wants.”

Dean of Research Ann Arvin described interdisciplinary research as “bringing together your expertise with the goal of adding value, adding knowledge.”

“We always need the disciplines,” she added. “There is no interdisciplinary research if we don’t have well-defined disciplines.”

Arvin went on to highlight the unique history of interdisciplinary research at Stanford. While “most universities do not have programs like that that are specifically designated to be interdisciplinary,” Stanford has “structures where people from different schools and disciplines come together to share their research interests.”

“That is the long-standing thing at Stanford,” she added, “and [it] is unusual in terms of organizational structure.”

While interdisciplinary research is going in new directions all the time and more institutions are being founded with the purpose of integrating disciplines, such institutions are part of Stanford culture.

“Interdisciplinary research is very important for Stanford’s goal of finding solutions,” Arvin said. “If you look at complicated problems that we face right now, it’s not likely that one discipline will have all the answers…which is why we are doing this, now in particular.”

As a researcher and economist, Strober has collaborated with historians and social scientists to share ideas and methodologies. Such efforts have helped all of them reach a much better understanding than they could have achieved on their own. Strober sees such collaboration as a chance to listen to other voices and learn things you would not have otherwise considered.

When people come together, Strober said, “they can learn new things…put their brains together, and eventually, possibly come up with some new way of thinking about a problem or solving a problem that they hadn’t before…because whatever problems we have–climate problems, water problems, poverty problems–those problems don’t care about what discipline people are in.”

  • student08

    One shining example of the resistance that some faculty have had to interdisciplinary endeavors is the establishment of symbolic systems in the late ’80s. It’s always been a collaboration of the departments of linguistics, computer science, psychology, and philosophy. Computer science, unsurprisingly, was very adamant about not establishing the program, to the point that those backing it were ready to give up. Thank goodness they didn’t, because symbolic systems is still the model interdisciplinary program at Stanford. The resistance might have been due to well-known arrogance among CS people at Stanford (yes, they’re still very arrogant 20 years later, and many want to believe their discipline exists in a vacuum, even though CS only more recently left the “nest” of applied mathematics). But it’s clear that a change has occurred–interdisciplinary research and learning is embraced now, though not always with enthusiasm.