Break down academic silos: adopt a “non-disciplinary” approach

Solving societal problems such as climate change may require dismantling rigid academic boundaries, so researchers from different disciplines can work together collaboratively – through an “undisciplinary” approach, suggests a new study from Cornell.

Instead of rallying around a specific mission, it is better to integrate a human approach and focus on the process to find solutions. The work was published May 16 in Nature’s Humanities and Social Sciences Communications.

“The topic of research is remarkably unimportant as a motivation to engage in collaboration, which runs counter to relying on engagement simply around a significant crisis such as climate change. “said co-author Johannes Lehmann, Cornell Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor, School of Integrative Plant Sciences Section of Soil and Crop Sciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Colors projected onto a 3D screen convey a captivating intersection of arts and sciences, during an exhibition last October at the Soil Factory.

“Effective collaboration between disciplines is much more about tackling problems, finding a common way to interact. It was intriguing,” he said. “In academia, we may want to question how ‘disciplines’ constrain a common vision.”

In the article, the authors tell how the Soil Factory, a large, unremarkable warehouse on the southern outskirts of Ithaca, became a place of collaboration in 2021 for students, scientists, artists and everyone else.

The Soil Factory – once a veritable soil factory – has hosted classes, art installations and exhibits, experiments on the circular economy of bionutrients, Friday night film screenings, trade shows, talks, concerts in outdoors and round tables. It dissolved academic boundaries and participants began to have conversations about scientific perspectives and community engagement.

Through unstructured workshops, the authors found that who participates tends to be less important than how they interact.

“It’s refreshing to be in spaces with people who aim to cross boundaries in their work,” said co-author Verity Platt, professor and chair of the Classics Department at the College of Arts and Sciences, who is interested in environmental humanities. .

Traveling between science and the arts is inspiring. “Since working on ancient Greece and Rome, crossing those boundaries helps me think about bigger questions,” Platt said. “And it’s helped me better reach students who are majoring in science – but who may be interested in the arts and humanities.”

For Rebecca J. Nelson, professor, School of Integrative Plant Science and the Department of Global Development (CALS), one of the first researchers behind the concept of Soil Factory, the factory is a node in a much larger network.

“Our network in and around Ithaca has brought together a wonderful and diverse cast of characters, who come together to work on different things for different reasons, with intersecting interests around environmental issues and a willingness to explore and learn about each other,” Nelson said. .

“A theme that intrigues me – and many of the scientists and artists who spend time at the Soil Factory – has to do with excreta (human waste) and the circular economy of bionutrients,” Nelson said. “It’s a taboo subject that has a lot of potential to respond to a roar of contemporary crises. Our local network connects to a global network that actively engages people in the United States, India, Kenya and elsewhere.

To test the impact of undisciplinary approaches as drivers of engagement, after the workshops, the researchers confirmed their findings at the Soil Factory experimental center. Lehmann said the results clarified the importance of synchronous and asynchronous interactions in a common space – like the Soil Factory – large enough to allow an unimpeded flow of ideas.

“Our process suggests that universities could benefit from tolerating a more porous structure on behalf of their faculty, staff, student body, and especially surrounding communities,” Lehmann said. Learning, sharing, and catalytic social and intellectual action were supposed to have emerged from the university.

Lehmann said, “The trick to getting diverse stakeholders from different disciplines to break down academic silos is decentralization, dispersion, and indiscipline.”

In addition to Lehmann, Platt and Nelson, the article, “Undisciplining the University Through Shared Purpose, Practice and Place”, was co-authored by Andrew Freiband, Artists Literacies Institute, Queens; Noliwe Rooks, formerly Associate Professor at Cornell, now Professor and Department Chair, African Studies, Brown University; and Nathaniel Stern, Professor of Art and Design and Mechanical Engineering, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Cornelian co-authors are: Katherine L. Dickin, associate professor, Department of Public Health and Ecosystems, College of Veterinary Medicine; Mitchell Glass, Lecturer in Landscape Architecture (CALS) and Urban and Regional Planning at the College of Architecture, Art and Urban Planning; Michael Gore, Professor and Chair, School of Integrative Plant Science (CALS); Juan Hinestroza, Rebecca Q. Morgan ’60 Professor of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, College of Human Ecology; and Aaron Sachs, Professor of History (A&S).

Dickin, Glass, Gore, Hinestroza, Lehmann, Nelson, Platt, and Sachs are faculty members of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, which funded this work.

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