SAS Dean’s Blog

Our Interdisciplinary Future

Rebecca Bushnell

Rebecca Bushnell

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor of English

The organization of teaching and research according to disciplinary frameworks has long defined the American research university and the liberal education embedded in it. I believe that this model is increasingly unsustainable, as the advance of knowledge and complex problem-solving requires scholars and teachers to cross disciplinary boundaries and find new modes of collaboration.

So where are we headed now, in this second decade of the 21st century?  What will universities that offer a liberal arts education be like 50 years from now? Who will the students and faculty be? How will we teach and do our research? And what will we teach and study?

I predict that many of the traditional disciplines as we know them today will persist, even as what is contained within their borders is redefined or evolves. I can illustrate this point using an example close to home—my own academic home, the Department of English here at Penn. Here’s how the department describes itself on its website: “Our faculty are among the nation's best across the entire range of periods and subfields, from Medieval and Renaissance Studies to Gender and Sexuality Studies, Transatlantic Studies, Cinema and Media Studies, Postcolonial and Globalization Theory, Asian American Literature and Contemporary Poetics.”  Courses offered this fall range from my own admittedly traditional course on British Literature before 1660 to Peter Decherney’s course on Culture and Copyright.

Indicators of profound change are in evidence in the sciences and social sciences as well, with researchers of all disciplines extending themselves into new fields. On our own faculty, Vijay Balasubramanian has applied his insights as a theoretical physicist to questions in neuroscience, and Campbell Grey, of Classical Studies, will be studying for a Master’s in Environmental Studies as a means of advancing his research on the lives of Roman peasants in ancient Tuscany. To develop the field of genomics, our Department of Biology recruited mathematician Joshua Plotkin, and our Physics and Astronomy Department just recruited Alison Sweeney, a biologist whose work on the fluorescence of squid cells has great potential for the field of optics.

So what does this mean for the liberal arts in the 21st century? It means that we are going to have to think very differently about the ways we organize and institutionalize our research and teaching. When I became dean and led the development of a strategic plan for SAS, my colleagues and I decided to focus not on strengthening individual departments, but rather to invest in a select set of big ideas where we could capitalize on our strengths and make an impact. In consultation with the faculty, we chose five interdisciplinary themes that integrated both research and teaching: nanoscience, an area we called “genes to brains to behavior,” “cross-cultural contacts,” the social dimensions of health, and “constitutionalism and democracy.” Full descriptions of each of these interdisciplinary themes can be found in our Strategic Plan.

I believe this approach gave us a strong start; our challenge for the future is how to sustain this momentum without dissipating the energy and rigor that have always defined the power of the traditional disciplines, where students and faculty master one subject well. The obstacles to the promotion of interdisciplinary research lie in the disciplines’ tendency to replicate themselves. As long as the training and hiring of new faculty are still focused in the departments that are defined by traditional disciplines, there can be resistance to change—which is why hires such as Alison Sweeney by our Physics and Astronomy  Department or Joshua Plotkin in Biology represent an important breakthrough.

At SAS we are committed to sustaining the strength of the traditional disciplines, but we are also experimenting with a new approach to faculty hiring designed to enhance research and teaching across multiple departments. We have invited departments to work together to create proposals involving multi-year clusters of faculty searches that would build strength around “big ideas” with interdisciplinary dimensions, such as energy or evolution (in the broadest sense of the word). This is just one experiment, and it is still in its early stages, but we have been very pleased by the enthusiasm with which our department chairs and faculty have engaged in the process of developing these ideas. I am even more encouraged by the process itself, which is proving invaluable in breaking down barriers between departments (and their corresponding disciplines), and showing us, I believe, a path to our interdisciplinary future.