This week I’ve been getting ready for two days of strategic planning with one of the CSU’s disciplinary affinity groups, reading faculty responses to surveys of where their field is heading, and how their community of practice might respond. It makes for a compelling look at one frontier of knowledge, and it calls to mind some other things I’ve been reading.
On the publication of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson recently addressed a group of investors who were eager to inform their next bets. Here’s how the Washington Post quoted his advice:
“The real value creation, especially in the technological revolution, is not just from the engineers but the people who connect the humanities to technology, or the arts to science,” he said. “That has been the theme so far of the digital revolution,” he said.
The Post article goes on to report that “Isaacson called on those who study the sciences and humanities to pursue knowledge of the others’ discipline, and to come together to develop the transformative technologies of the future,” paraphrasing an observation he’s made elsewhere recently. As Isaacson said, “One of the conclusions I came to was it wasn’t just lone visionaries who made this happen.”
He put it more starkly last month, in an interview for Harvard Gazette:
Those of us who write biographies know that to some extent we distort history. We make it seem like somebody in a garage or in a garret has a ‘light-bulb moment’ and the world changes, when in fact creativity is a collaborative endeavor and a team sport.
These ideas aren’t new. Around a century ago Shaw wrote this in the preface to his play Major Barbara:
“If there is such a thing on the philosophic plane as a matter of course, it is that no individual can make more than a minute contribution to it. In fact, the conception of clever persons parthenogenetically bringing forth complete original cosmogonies by dint of sheer ‘brilliancy’ is part of that ignorant credulity which is the despair of the honest philosopher, and the opportunity of the religious impostor.”
So, same ideas, differently (but always wonderfully) expressed.
You can see that same humility in these dispatches from CSU faculty at the bleeding edge of one discipline – a hunger to build on the understanding of others. Except these survey responses have a new wrinkle, amid the chronic pleas for money, staff, equipment, and release time: they want help conducting interdisciplinary research.
Until very recently, we organized the production of knowledge in isolated departments, leaving any connections to emerge on their own:
In that world, whose assumptions shaped ours, the premium was on sustained focus and individual reputation within the discipline, as established by sole or leading credit for publication reviewed by peers – that is, by other experts in the same field. It sounds a little incestuous, and can be. (A friend of mine in a private non-profit university calls it “the quarterly journal of You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours.”) But for generations, this system served us pretty well.
Looking ahead, we want to add support for the interdisciplinary production of knowledge, filling in the buffer zone around disciplines:
That is, we’ll want to foster learning that’s not just collective, but contiguous.
And in this emerging world, the new premium is on openness to exogenous ideas, on lucid communication crafted for educated outsiders, and on getting along. We could see tenure decisions based not only on contributions to fields in isolation, but also, maybe even mostly, on the candidate’s ability to help other people apply those contributions to their own work.
Behind the scenes, universities and the informal learning communities that flourish inside them should stop leaving those interdepartmental connections to chance. Instead, we can add value by cultivating the boundaries, the interfaces between ways of knowing.
This occurred to me as I was reading a Steven Pinker book on good writing, called The Sense of Style. As a language junkie I’m a pushover for such stuff, but Pinker’s angle is especially intriguing: a psychologist, he draws his advice from concepts like working memory, the human attention span, and cognitive load. The result is equal parts utilitarian and beautiful, a grammar book that puts purpose above tradition.
But there’s also something fundamental in here, bigger than sentence structure and central to the way we share our ideas.
Repeatedly he comes to the chief failing of those who don’t communicate well, what he calls the “Curse of Knowledge.” As he puts it:
The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know.
One whole chapter deconstructs typically bad academic writing, of the kind that Pinker and the rest of us run into regularly. At the end he summarizes the diagnosis:
“Most of the problem comes down to the very expertise that made [the author] so qualified to write his books . . . after a lifetime of scholarship he was so laden with erudition that his ideas came avalanching down faster than he could organize them.”
I think there’s a reason this theory-of-mind argument recurs in a psych-based grammar book: understanding the other is essential to the negotiation of space between consciousness, to filling in those gaps between us, and between our academic departments. Listening carefully, evaluating how much your audience already knows, and then sequencing the new information for optimal understanding, is a growing part of the job. We seem to be running out of ways to make progress without it.
This leaves me wondering if we’ll see a new set of organizing principles shape our intra-system learning communities, along with our journals of faculty research, our student research competitions, and, I guess eventually, our colleges and departments.
They’d all be better suited to the work ahead if they promoted interpersonal and interdisciplinary communication, bringing people together on the basis not of where they came from (the way we do now), but of where they want to go.