Diversity and Democracy

The Ins and Outs of Undisciplined Engagement

After twenty years in an English Department, I recently joined the Department of Gender, Women's, and Sexuality Studies (GWSS). The move reflected a shift in my scholarship: as my interests had strayed to experiential learning, I had begun working with community partners, and what they taught me profoundly changed my work. How, after all, could I teach a service-learning course on human-animal relationships in art, culture, literature, and the surrounding world without a multidisciplinary ecosystem? 

My attraction to an interdisciplinary department was also inspired by my vantage point as director of the University of Iowa's Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. While our fellowship program supports deep disciplinary research, most of our programs encourage faculty to reach across disciplines and often boundaries between campus and community. These programs serve artists and scholars who share the motivation Jack Tchen describes: "Some public artists and scholars begin with single-discipline framing, and others, like me, start with a problem they are trying to solve. Through a Deweyian learning-by-doing process, I discover my capacities and limits. We do what we must to make something happen, developing new capacities ourselves" (quoted in Cohen-Cruz 2014).

How can institutions best support artists and scholars like Tchen as well as those whose teaching fits comfortably in disciplines and departments? First, colleges and universities can provide imaginative "Switzerlands" (often centers) where participants temporarily set aside departmental loyalties to work on shared problems. They can fund faculty collaborations and campus-community experiments; train facilitators and project managers, especially for sustained partnerships; and develop clear guidelines for evaluating the process and outcomes of collaborations. Finally, they can explicitly, publicly express a commitment (backed by procedures) to "counting" engaged, collaborative, and interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship in ways that are meaningful to each participant's department or organization.

Intellectual Matchmakers

My own center is an intellectual matchmaker—for faculty who span two disciplines, for multidisciplinary teams, and for scholars interested in "interdisciplines" (like animal studies) that are struggling to be born. Our most ambitious programs begin with a "town hall" meeting. We invite every potential stakeholder we can identify from the campus and community to brainstorm how they might collaborate on complex issues like "the health humanities" or "human-centered informatics." Faculty members who co-teach courses with community partners—from a practicum in a nearby women's prison to literacy studies with local veterans to my own literature class, where students collect animal narratives with staff at the animal shelter—are especially eager to meet experts outside their fields.

Nearly every town hall event begins with faculty, students, and community members hunched into themselves—skimming a printed document or an email on a cell phone. As we shift from "lecturing" to listening, postures recalibrate. The collective gaze lifts as participants glimpse new opportunities. After many gatherings, faculty who had been completely unaware of their shared interests linger in parking lot conversations. From these meetings emerge smaller teams of people able to commit to the time, effort, and education demanded by cross-disciplinary work.

Interdisciplinary Constellations

Sometimes these smaller groups continue collaborating as official Obermann Working Groups. A recent working group collaboration joined a mechanical engineer and a feminist anthropologist. H. S. Udaykumar was disappointed that village women in Rajasthan, India, had rejected solar cookers his class had designed—until Meena Khandelwal and her students offered insight into village gender politics. Udaykumar and Khandelwal applied to direct an Obermann Working Group, which they called Living with the Earth. Along with professors in geology and urban planning, they created a new general education course, People and the Environment: Technology, Culture, and Social Justice. Their class was joined by another interdisciplinary course, Origins of Life in the Universe, developed by astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics faculty. I anticipate that yet another working group will bring together faculty members in the arts, history, and literature as they map out a team-taught course focused on The Global Midwest.

Students in these "constellation" courses use technology to share discoveries with larger audiences, while faculty experiment with publicly engaged pedagogy—despite facing significant obstacles. Although some courses have more than eighty students, most departments fail to consider them as part of the regular teaching load. Without better policies to support them, these intellectually rich, inventive, active learning courses will not survive. For now, the faculty members' delight in working with each other and with diverse students is their chief life support. 

Collaborative Models

Advice for sustaining interdisciplinary collaborations is available. A University Leadership Council report provides a succinct list of obstacles to interdisciplinary work that also applies to community-based teaching. The report finds that faculty often perceive interdisciplinary work to be of inferior quality because it doesn't conform to disciplinary practices; that richly collaborative work defies a focus on individual evaluation; and that faculty insist that they are unable to judge work outside their disciplines (Firedman and Wardell 2010).

As an environmental scientist who works with teams of researchers, activists, public policy organizations, and more, Stephanie Pfirman is especially insightful about cross-disciplinary research and teaching. Research that she has conducted with Diana Rhoten suggests that women and minorities are especially drawn to diverse, messy, complicated collaborations that stretch far from the strongholds of individual disciplines. Rhoten and Pfirman offer pragmatic suggestions to institutions seeking to support not only interdisciplinary work but also vulnerable faculty members (2007).

An Imagining America report, Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University, offers terminology, case studies, and guidelines for evaluation. The report's portfolio approach captures the process of forming interdisciplinary collaborations as well as the myriad results—essential for projects that include community partners, nonacademic experts, faculty, staff, and students (Ellison and Eatman 2008).

Collective Departmental Happiness

When our GWSS department revisited our guidelines for promotion to full professor, we were inspired by both Imagining America and Pfirman's recommendations (Pfirman 2009). Our new guidelines, which our university's administrators are citing as a model for other departments, give equal weight to individual and to collaborative, publicly engaged, and interdisciplinary work. Two passages specifically address the concerns outlined in this essay:

The Department encourages faculty members to be innovative and risk-taking, and we recognize the unique challenges a faculty member confronts in a field that values teaching difficult subjects, such as gender and sexual difference and social justice issues; conducting interdisciplinary and/or collaborative work; pursuing publicly engaged scholarship and teaching; and experimenting with new forms such as digital scholarship.

Faculty members may also be recognized for public engagement that encompasses innovative forms of making knowledge "about, for, and with" diverse publics and communities. Publicly engaged creative scholarship often involves complex projects carried out by teams of experts from both the campus and the community. Such projects may result in peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals, public performances, exhibitions, screenings, readings, community-based public dialogs, and new or revitalized teaching approaches, but may also yield outcomes as varied as policy recommendations for local governments.(University of Iowa Department of GWSS 2012)

At my first faculty meeting with colleagues in GWSS, I was struck by what I can only call collective departmental happiness. What we want from and as faculty members is the very best—the best teaching, research, and service. Helping colleagues excel and acknowledging their success in all of its diverse forms—whether in a department focused on a single discipline, in a center or department of multidisciplinary colleagues, in the crevices between disciplines, or out in communities—should be the mission of every institution.


Cohen-Cruz, Jan. 2014. "Hybrid, Evolving, and Integrative Career Paths." Public: Art, Design, Humanities 2 (2). http://public.imaginingamerica.org/blog/article/hybrid-evolving-and-integrative-career-paths/.

Ellison, Julie, and Timothy K. Eatman. 2008. Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University. Syracuse, NY: Imagining America. http://imaginingamerica.org/publications/reports-essays/.

Firedman, Dov, and Diana Wardell. 2010. "Aligning Promotion and Tenure Policies to Promote Interdisciplinary Research." Washington, DC: Education Advisory Board. http://www.eab.com/research-and-insights/academic-affairs-forum/custom/2010/09/aligning-promotion-and-tenure-policies-to-promote-interdisciplinary-research

Pfirman, Stephanie. 2009. "Making Interdisciplinarity Work." PowerPoint Presentation. http://envsci.barnard.edu/sites/default/files/pfirman_making_interdis_work.ppt.

Rhoten, Diana, and Stephanie Pfirman. 2007. "Women, Science, and Interdisciplinary Ways of Working." Inside Higher Ed, October 22. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2007/10/22/rhoten.

University of Iowa Department of GWSS (Gender, Women's, and Sexuality Studies). "Post-tenure Promotion Guidelines." Approved 2012.

Teresa Mangum is professor in the Department of Gender, Women's, and Sexuality Studies and director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa.

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