Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Connections and Collaborations

Special Meeting I

Julie Thompson Klein, Machiel Keestra, and Rick Szostak

On Monday, September 11 at the 2017 international meeting of the Network for  Transdisciplinary Research (td-net), three former presidents of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS) hosted an open meeting. Our purpose was two-fold: to describe the AIS mission, activities, and resources and to explore with participants ways of serving common interests. Many of those present were representatives and/or members of kindred organizations, such as td-net, the Implementation & Integration Sciences (I2S) network, the Science of Team Science network, and the Center for Interdisciplinarity (C4I) Toolbox Dialogue Project. In welcoming participants Keestra explained how AIS since its birth in 1979 has taken an interest in, on the one hand, assembling best practices for greater consistency and rigor in  interdisciplinary studies and, on the other hand, appreciating the increasing diversity of approaches. Over the years individual AIS members made connections with other organizations, leading to occasional collaborations and presentations at each other’s conferences. At the same time the AIS Board and membership were becoming aware of other dimensions of diversification. As a result, the Board and presidency expanded to include Canada and Europe. More recently, the AIS mission has also explicitly included cultural diversity as an integral component of interdisciplinarity. Our Open Meeting was a logical outcome of these efforts.

Klein then presented an introductory overview of the AIS website and commitment to building a professional community for interdisciplinary studies, advocating best-practices, and developing standards for learning assessment, program accreditation, and policies for tenure and promotion. In reviewing the history of the AIS, she traced its emphasis on integration as the central feature of interdisciplinarity then recalled co-founder William Newell’s reflection on the state of theory in 2013. He admonished AIS to consider its mission at a time when the primary locus activity and funding of interdisciplinarity has shifted from its traditional focus on teaching to research, from undergraduate to graduate students, from humanities and social sciences to natural sciences and medicine, from individual to team activity, and from the ivory tower to real-world participants beyond the academy. Newell highlighted in particular rapid expansion of “Transdisciplinary Studies” and the Science of Team Science, raising concerns their escalation might prioritize teamwork, the “messy world of interpersonal dynamics,” political and social activity, and problems of communication and technology over “interdisciplinarity itself,” the search for truth, and intellectual inquiry into interdisciplinary process.

Szostak then highlighted a number of resources on the AIS website. He highlighted the (recently updated) list of publications and the discussion of the Scholarship of Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning. In addition, he noted AIS links to a variety of kindred organizations and a list of consultants vetted by the association. In devoting particular attention to the “About Interdisciplinarity” and the “Interdisciplinary General Education” sets of webpages, Rick emphasized both resources provide a great deal of advice to interdisciplinary scholars. Each is written in a way that provides brief introductions to important issues then suggests resources for further reading. He also stressed AIS has tried to include references to literatures produced internationally by scholars associated with several groups represented at the Leuphana conference. In closing, he invited conference attendees to let him know of additional resources that should be mentioned, an invitation Rick also extends to readers of this newsletter.

After the presentations focused specifically on AIS, Keestra mentioned that in 2010 several individuals and most organizations present at Leuphana were involved in an effort to start an International Network of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity (INIT). Its mission was to “provide an international platform for discussion and promotion of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, teaching, and policy.” More concretely, INIT aimed to “inventory existing understandings, facilitate and enhance communication, and stimulate new research.” Yet after an international symposium, hosted by the Universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam in 2011 on “Exploring, Mapping and Anchoring the Field of ID and TD,” and an online series of “Virtual Seminars on Inter- and Transdisciplinary Horizons,” an attempt to obtain funding for a series of symposia failed. Lacking shared, practical goals for collaboration and regular contacts between group members, the network could not stay afloat. The AIS Open Meeting was a step toward new conversations about how to foster inter-organizational exchange and collaboration.

The discussion following formal presentations was wide-ranging though two themes stood out: exploring ways of achieving greater cooperation across organizations and, in response to a number of participants who had never heard of AIS, helping them decide whether and how any organization might serve their immediate interests. We were particularly struck by the number of new scholars who had been seeking precisely the sort of information that AIS and other websites provide. This realization reinforced our conviction increased international collaboration between AIS and kindred organizations could potentially expose more people to the valuable resources each has to offer. When the session was formally at an end, several individuals expressed interest in continuing to talk. So, we remained with them to further explore ideas for inter-organizational cooperation–an aim that would later during the week materialize in a new proposal.