Author Information: William Davis, Virginia Tech, email@example.com
Davis, William. 2012. “Interdisciplinarity and Pedagogy: Disciplining Collaboration in Academia. An Interview with Carl Mitcham” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective.
The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-54
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This interview between Carl Mitcham and William Davis (SERRC) took place by phone on Wednesday, September 14th, 2011. Carl Mithcam, Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University, directs the Hennebach Programme in the Humanities at the Colorado School of Mines, and has held posts at a number of US and European universities. He has published regularly since the 1970s, including Philosophy and Technology (1972), Thinking through Technology (1994), and the Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics (2005). More recently, he co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity (2010), and this book serves as the stimulus for much of the interview.
The interviewer, William Davis, is a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech studying Science and Technology Studies (STS). His interests include pedagogy of STS, philosophy of science and philosophy of technology. Though this interview primarily concerns the general topic of interdisciplinarity, some of the questions deal directly with STS, as an example of an interdiscipline, and how instruction in such programmes can, does, or should occur.
Keywords: Epistemology, Interdisciplinarity, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Technology, STS, Transdisciplinarity
William Davis (WD): Can you tell me why you wanted to work on the Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity (OHI)? Why you think the book is important, or what you would like to see as a result of it?
Carl Mitcham (CM): I have been working with Bob Frodeman and Julie Thompson Klein for a number of years on various interdisciplinary projects. They were always specific interdisciplinary projects, and it seemed appropriate to thematise interdisciplinarity in general. Julie and Bob and I have had a number of conversations. Julie is the leader in the scholarly field, as a historian, participant, and creator of self-conscious reflection on interdisciplinarity from the inside. Bob and I have been coming at it more from a philosophical perspective and a little bit from the outside, and so we thought we could have value added as a couple of new kids on the block by collaborating with somebody who has been a long-time promoter of interdisciplinarity. Fortunately, Julie was amenable. We wanted to raise the concept of interdisciplinarity for greater thematisation, for further conscious reflection ― in modest advance over what had been done before.
At Penn State, before coming to Colorado School of Mines, I had been involved with Joe Kockelmans. Bob had studied with Kockelmans before I ever thought about interdisciplinarity.* I learned about Julie from Joe. Joe had created a programme at Penn State, the individualized interdisciplinary doctoral program. And when Joe retired from directing that program, I was asked to take it on. So I had involvement there at the graduate level trying to promote interdisciplinary graduate education. Then I realized by reading Julie’s work, before I ever met her, that what I had really been practicing interdisciplinarity (although I had not called it that) since I was an undergraduate. The idea of the OHI was the natural outgrowth of a long trajectory of work.
WD: Do you see Philosophy of Technology, which is a field you work in specifically, as almost inherently interdisciplinary? Have you always thought of it that way?
CM: Yes, that’s true. From my earliest work in philosophy and technology, I was doing interdisciplinarity without realizing it. Hemingway made a comment one time that it was strange that he had to go to Paris to realize he was an American. I had to read Julie to realize I was an interdisciplinarian.
For me philosophy is about trying to figure out what it means to live in the world that we are living in. I became convinced even in high school, or certainly as an undergraduate, that technology was a primary influence on the world I was growing up in. In the philosophy field, there was no respect for the Philosophy of Technology. It was dismissed in favor of real problems in the Philosophy of Science. But what I discovered was that engineers were willing to talk about questions related to technology even if philosophers weren’t. So even though I have a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, I took a double Bachelor’s in General Studies, because I wound up going outside the philosophical discipline in order to find people who would talk about the kinds of questions that to me seemed important. Thus even from my undergraduate studies I found the discipline of professionalized philosophy was not adequate to reflect on the issues that seemed most important.
Then in the 1980s I discovered Science, Technology, and Society (STS) Studies, and began to think of Philosophy of Technology as one of the three major fields that contributes to STS, sociology and history being the other two. In fact, for one of my first publications, the Bibliography of the Philosophy of Technology (1973), there was no philosophy publisher that wanted it. It was the Society for the History of Technology that published it. So there again, I realized I was crossing boundaries. And then when I discovered Joe Kockelmans and Julie Thompson Klein’s work, where they thematised interdisciplinarity, I realized STS was also a kind of interdisciplinarity. So it was just sort of climbing up the ladder and getting a better perspective on what I was already doing, in order, I hope, to do it better.
WD: Is interdisciplinarity a broad approach to education? Should it affect entire disciplines or curriculums? Or is this just what specific programs like STS are about, and interdisciplinarity is not going to affect the entire university curriculum?
CM: I think it should affect university curricula. This relates to a conflict in the STS community. For ten years I was at Penn State and for six of those years directed the STS programme there. We took the position that STS should not become a discipline; should not become a department; should not be professionalised in a disciplinary way. There is a tendency, when a new interdisciplinary field is created, for it to devolve into a discipline. Bio-physics, for example, was originally going to be a kind of synthesis that included biology and physics. But it became very quickly just a new specialised discipline. Bio-chemistry, the same thing. Geo-physics, to some extent the same thing. But from my initial involvement in STS, I wanted to try to keep STS from becoming just another specialisation.
At Penn State we consciously rejected the idea of having our own faculty. There were no faculty tenured within the STS program. We did not want the program to become a department. We didn’t want to create a major. We wanted STS to become a part of all majors, rather than its own major. We lost that battle. The work that people did at Cornell and other institutions, and to some extent there at Virginia Tech [institution of the interviewer], to promote STS as a discipline, as a major, as a department, won out, over attempts to preserve it as an interdiscipline. I think that is unfortunate. It was a loss to what education could have been, what STS education could have been. At Penn State we tried, but did not succeed, to make STS a requirement for all undergraduate majors. The best we were able to do was, among a suite of general education courses, to make STS an option.
For me, the transformation of STS from an interdisciplinary field to a scholarly specialization has been a real loss. STS is no longer Science, Technology, and Society. It has become professionalized as Science and Technology Studies.
WD: You are echoing what Frodeman mentioned in the intro to the Handbook. He thinks of STS as fundamentally anti-disciplinary as opposed to interdisciplinary. He thinks that is a very good thing. It sounds like you agree with him.
CM: Yes, Frodeman and I sometimes agree on so much that it’s not clear there need to be two of us on the planet.
WD: Is it too late for STS to be anti-disciplinary? Is there a potential for a shift, or this is what it is now, and we just have to figure out what to do from here?
CM: We probably just have to figure out where to go from here. There are other scholars like me, and I try to encourage my students to be interdisciplinary as well. I occasionally teach a graduate Intro to Science, Technology, and Society Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, trying to bridge the gap between Science, Technology, and Society and Science and Technology Studies. Steve Cutcliffe and I edited a book, Visions of STS, subtitled, Counterpoints in Science, Technology, and Society Studies. So to the graduate students I teach, I make this pitch. There is no STS program at CU-Boulder; the course is part of an environmental studies curriculum and a Master’s in Science and Technology Policy. Policy research is a useful context in which to promote STS interdisciplinarity in ways that revive some of the old interdisciplinary tradition.
The STS-related programme at Arizona State University (ASU) does this as well. It’s called Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology. Originally, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before the STS moniker got created, there was a diversity among programme titles. At Lehigh University it was Humanities Perspectives on Science and Technology. At Stanford it was something like Science and Human Values. At SUNY Stoneybrook the term of art was Technology Literacy. This diversity gave way in the late 1970s the STS standardization. Then in the 1980s STS as “Science, Technology, and Society” was replaced with STS as “Science and Technology Studies.” More recently there some modest diversity has re-surfaced, as in the ASU program. I think this is a good thing.
There is some discussion of this within 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science) as well. 4S tends to promote science and technology studies as a social science based discipline rather than an as interdiscipline, but there is always a bit of fluidity in the academic world. I think we can move forward with some kind of effort to preserve the rich interdisciplinary character of early STS, particularly within groups that are promoting interdisciplinarity itself. For example, Frodeman right now is at a meeting in Switzerland, TDNET, Trans-discipline Network. People in Europe and the TD community, I think, are more sympathetic to interdisciplinary STS.
WD: Would you help me with terminology: transdisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, are we talking about something similar? Are these not the same thing?
CM: Interdisciplinarity has a broad meaning and a narrow meaning. It can be an umbrella term that includes multi-, anti-, cross-, trans-, inter-, and other ways of stepping outside disciplinarity. I tend to use the term this way, primarily. This is its meaning in the title of the Handbook. There are different kinds of interdisciplinarity. There is, on the one hand, interdisciplinarity in different fields: chemists working with chemical engineers, working with sociologists, working with philosophers, etc. This tends to be what we call narrow interdisciplinarity, where you have disciplines in engineering collaborating, or disciplines in the sciences collaborating, or disciplines in science and engineering collaborating. This is all pretty narrow.
You have the same thing happening within the humanities. This tends to be what we can call multi- or cross-disciplinary work, as when I am involved in a programme here at the Colorado School of Mines, called Smart-Geo. This programme brings together computer and geo-scientists and geo-engineers to design and implement instrumentation in dams and bridges and buildings so that they become self-monitoring with regard to things like structural integrity, leakage, etc. We can instrument dams to talk to us about how well they are functioning. It is really important to have some computer scientists and computer engineers who are really good specialists in their fields working alongside geological engineers and geologists and geo-physicists to collaborate. This is multi-disciplinarity.
I think of cross-disciplinarity as when someone actually moves from one field to another. We have some students in the Smart-Geo program who were originally trained as civil engineers but now work as computer scientists. This crossing disciplinary boundaries is another kind of interdisciplinarity.
In still a third important case, trans-disciplinarity involves to some degree transcending disciplines, going outside the disciplines to appreciate the social contexts in which disciplines work. This can be done from a single discipline. Or it can be done from the base of multi-disciplinary collaborations. But trans-disciplinarity usually means going vertical. Going outside the academy to communicate with and collaborate with economists, business people, corporations, government agencies, the public.
WD: What do you think are the benefits of an interdisciplinary culture in the university? Does it have limits? Or should, for example, science education — you mention chemistry, or even biology — should they become more interdisciplinary? And if so, what would that look like? Is it just putting STS into every discipline?
CM: Your question points toward the increasing emphasis in the world on accountability and responsibility in research, which necessarily suggests the need for transdiplinarity in many areas of teaching and research. It is used to be the case that both the scientific community and the larger non-scientific public were content to have funds given to the scientists and allowing scientists to decide how to use them. Scientists did their work without paying much attention to where the money came from or what the needs were of the larger society in which they lived. But, increasingly, society is saying, governments and states are saying, look, if we are going to supply lots of money, which we do, then we want you not just to remain isolated in your laboratory, but to think about how in your lab you can be most useful to society. (This is simplified history, I know, but there is some broad truth in it.) Well, this is what STS as trans-disciplinarity can help scientists and engineers do.
The issue here is probably more one for science than engineering. Engineering has always been more collaborative with society. We say that engineers are “on tap, not on top.” Scientists have often had a culture of thinking they need to be autonomous, independent, left alone to do their own thing. And there is a place for this in some sciences. I am not denying that there is some place for scientific autonomy, but there is also a place for scientists trying to be proactive and not just reactive to the social contexts in which they live and work, in which they are citizens.
I think of STS and interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary, as helping scientists be better scientists in the sense of being more sensitive to the social contexts in which they work. And also to be better citizens, not isolating themselves from society. If scientists bring their work as scientists to the larger non-scientific community, they can help us all become more intelligent. This was the vision of John Dewey. What we should really be doing is trying to increase public intelligence. Science has a big role to play here. Science offers important perspectives on reality. Yes there is some social construction involved, but it is a social construction that has given us insights into reality that are to some extent superior to some other insights. And the scientists don’t need to be apologetic about this; they just need to be sensitive to the perspectives of non-scientists. It is part of their responsibility as scientists to be more aware of the world around them.
Interdisciplinarity and STS can help scientists be more engaged with the non-scientific world. Interdisciplinarity can perform some modest chiropractic on the way science is done. To take our Smart-Geo programme again: Initially there was considerable resistance to the required STS and science policy courses. Now, students are becoming comfortable with them. All Smart-Geo dissertations will have chapters on social and policy implications of the project that is the core of the dissertation. And the students the benefit, how this can help them understand why this problem should even cropped up, and how their research may benefit their fellow citizens.
WD: If interdisciplinarity is vital and important in academia, how do we promote it? By “we” I mean as a student, as a professor, perhaps as an administrator. How should each promote this? Is there anyone else that should be involved?
CM: One of the best examples of the really effective promotion of interdisciplinarity is at Arizona State University. When Michael Crow became president in 2002, he brought with him from Columbia University a strong commitment to interdisciplinarity. And at ASU he said something like although he was not going to punish anybody who didn’t do interdisciplinarity, future rewards were going to those who practiced interdisciplinarity. If any academic units or individuals on campus could come up with proposals for bridging disciplines and trans-disciplinary engagement with the community, particularly in Arizona, then he indicated he would work to find ways to get those proposals supported.
One great example concerned the departments of anthropology and sociology, which collaborated to propose a new School of Human Evolution and Social Change. In response to proposals like this, leadership from the top can really make a difference. But you have to have imaginative leaders like Mike Crow. He is a really exceptional guy.
I was on sabbatical at ASU in 2006, and ASU is one of the largest single campuses in the U.S. Crow, even while serving as president one of the most dynamic universities in the country, teaches a class. And he really teaches. He doesn’t just come and tell war stories. I saw the syllabus for the year before I sat in on the class with him, and the year I audited the seminar. It was a different syllabus. So he was continuously revising. We would meet on Wednesday mornings. He said, look: My days get away from me, so we are going to start class at 7am. We went until 10am. At the beginning of the seminar he gave out his personal email but said, please, don’t share this with anyone else. At the end of the semester, forget it, otherwise I just have to get a new one. But I will be available for you. I can’t make any appointments during the day, but if you would like to talk with me individually, I will be here at 6am. Any number of times, when I showed up a little before 7am, he was already there, having individual discussions with students. He is just an amazing guy. This was a class on Science, Technology, and Human Affairs. We read work in philosophy, history, sociology and management ― a fantastic class. I think he only missed one class during the semester. Leadership like that is just worth gold.
But the promotion of interdisciplinarity cannot just rest with administrators. There are roles for faculty and for students, too. It took me nine years to get my bachelor’s degree, and in the course of that nine years I attended four different universities, tried out at least three different majors, and stopped out to paint houses and do other kinds of manual labor that were something other than internships. That was nine years very well spent. I think it is a crime that we force students graduate in four year, that we judge ourselves on ‘through-put’. This should not be what education is about. It is about learning who we are, the complexities of the world. Students need to have more courage and push back and say, look, I am not here to just quickly get a degree in four years, in some minimum amount of time. String it out. Don’t string it out to play, but string it out to learn. Take a gap year. I feel like I am a success when I can convince a student to drop out for a while. I am convinced that perhaps 25% of my first-year students would be better off outside the university doing something else for a while. At Penn State I once got my wrist slapped by the president for encouraging students to drop out for a while.
WD: What are the values that interdisciplinary programs promote? Are they promoting autonomy? Or is it something else? Why are those values important to us, in either academia, or the world itself?
CM: I’d say the basic good of interdisciplinarity is leading a richer and more rewarding life. Human flourishing. It is really a kind of return to what philosophy was for Socrates, the examined life. For Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living. Interdisciplinarity is leading an examined life. Flourishing, human wellbeing raised to a level beyond just material wellbeing. Thinking about what we are doing. Trying to live responsibly. Recognising the challenges of social justice. Recognising that we are not alone, we are not just isolated individuals. We are part of a human community. We are part of a biosphere. We live on a pretty unique planet and galaxy, from all we can tell. It is becoming more self-aware and therefore being a different kind of person, a better kind of person. That is what life is really about, not making money.
WD: In terms of scholarship, what does an interdisciplinary approach mean? Does it mean greater collaboration in terms of research, in terms of writing? I am guessing you don’t think interdisciplinary scholarship should look like one thing and one thing only, but what might it look like to you? What would you want it to be?
CM: The only way I can answer that is at the level of cliché, alas. But, in scholarship, take more than one thing into account. One of the things I have argued in the ethics of technology is that the fundamental principle is to take more into account. Our larger moral responsibility as human beings is not just avoiding conflicts of interests or honesty in research, but to take more into account. To try to consider different perspectives, longer-term implications, to be reflexive, as the STS community likes to say. (I think that is a good way to put it, too.) Be aware of how we fit into a particular context, social, economic, political. This should find some kind of echo in scholarship. Maybe in part in the kinds of things we do as much as the way we do them.
I like to distinguish between two kinds of problem. One is doing things right and the other is doing the right kinds of things. I teach a graduate level course, Introduction to Research Ethics, in which we emphasize at the beginning how responsible conduct of research tends to be on just making sure we do things right, but how we also need to go further and ask questions about what’s the right thing to do. And the final assignment is always to write an ethics code for yourself. Sure, the professional society in which you work is going to have some kind of ethics guidelines, and you should take these into account. But, write an ethics code for yourself that you could put on your wall and help remind you that, after due consideration, these are the ways you want to lead your life, and these are the kinds of things you want to do. Then, look at it now and then and revise it every year or five years, because none of this stuff should be set in stone. It provides a helpful framework, because we all get bogged down and trapped in the details, in the quicksand of academic life. But we all need to work to rise above the trees to be able to see and appreciate the forest.
I would say this is what interdisciplinarity should help us do. To return again and again to thinking about what we are really doing and why, and maybe the path, the trajectory that we have taken. Disciplinarity is a good thing, too. It is not a bad thing. But it needs to be placed in a broader context, and interdisciplinarity can help us do that. It needs to be redone over and over again, because we are always in danger of being drowned in the sea of disciplinary minutia.
WD: How do you get comfortable working in multiple arenas? Is it just by doing it? As you say, you teach classes outside your area. Is this learning by doing? Could you tell me about your own experiences?
CM: Partly it is just a matter of time. Partly it is also accepting not being comfortable. I’m still nervous at the beginning of every semester when I meet classes for the first time. I used to look at other people and say, oh, they are so comfortable and so confident in what they are doing, and I am not. But now, I see it as a virtue, of not being comfortable, and not being overconfident. I see some of those people as being a perhaps too self-confident and comfortable. I don’t want to be self-righteous about it, but maybe there is a virtue in not being comfortable. Always recognizing, again like Socrates, there are lots of things I don’t know. Some of us think we know it all when we really don’t.
In another of the courses I teach on globalization, which is way outside my area of expertise, students often ask questions, and I have to say, I don’t know the answer to that. Give me until next class and I will see what I can find out. I’ve become more comfortable not being comfortable, not being an expert. But this is a bit scary in the academic world, where the coin of the realm is to be able to claim you are an expert in something. To reference Frodeman, again, he has a phrase that I have picked up and used. He claims to be a ‘specialist in the general’. I like his way of putting it and sometimes apply it to myself. I am a specialist in the general. I take as my model scholars such as Lewis Mumford, who never even got a bachelor’s degree, and did history and architectural criticism and literary criticism and philosophy and anthropology. It is a weird combination of boldness and humility.
I am still nervous. I keep thinking I will get over it, but I just try to accept the fact that I will never be a real expert, and this is OK. I really, in some ways, wish that I had been better educated. At Penn State I actually considered going back and getting a BS in Civil Engineering. I thought that it would help me have a little more bona fides when doing engineering ethics, if I had a degree in engineering. So I went to the engineering department and we looked at my old transcripts and figured out what I would have to do. And I started to realize it was going to take me away from too many other things and I just couldn’t do it. But in some ways I look back and wish I had had the discipline to do it.
WD: Do you think that STS students and practitioners should have a background in science and/or engineering?
CM: It would be very helpful. I don’t think this is necessary, but my council to my own kids and grandkids is, get a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering first. It is much easier, if you are a scientist at age 40, to become a humanities scholar, than it is the other way around. And I think we need people who are both. I was fortunate in that I did do a lot of science at university. I have a Bachelor’s degree in General Studies as well as in Philosophy and the general studies degree required me to do chemistry and biology. I did a good deal of math. In fact, I started out as a chemistry major and sometimes wish I had completed a chemistry degree.
But another thing that all students need to learn is languages, some language other than English. Being bilingual is a crucially important asset that most U.S. students lack. And this is probably more the case in science and engineering than in other disciplines. So getting a degree in science or engineering should not come at the expense of learning Spanish or Mandarin. Additionally, language learning can be a crucial stimulus to and support of interdisciplinarity, insofar as interdisciplinarity is also a kind of bilingualism.
WD: What does a pedagogy of STS look like? What is a philosophy of STS? What do you think STS pedagogy should be? How does interdisciplinarity play into STS education? For example, let’s say I take a history of science course. Should I just look at the texts and themes from an historian’s perspective? If I were a professor, how do I put philosophy and sociology into that course? Or are these separate classes and should they remain so?
CM: It will depend on context. I am not opposed to disciplinarity. There is a role for a course that is just the history of science. And maybe just internalist history of science. If I were teaching a history of science class, I would start by situating the history of science, and say look, this is how the history of science got started, this is the way it has worked in relation to other disciplines. That would be kind of a framing mechanism. Then we would do as high quality as I could muster history of science, and at the end come back out again and say: Here is what we did for the semester, but here are some of the criticisms of the history of science and its narrowness. What are we to make of this?
Scientists criticise because they say historians don’t really understand what scientists do. Sociologists criticise because they say scientists don’t really appreciate the social context. But we should also place both criticisms in context. You can’t appreciate the criticisms until you have immersed yourself in both disciplines, looking at each from the other. I’m in favor of immersing ourselves in disciplines but then, at the same time, after we’ve done so, stepping out and looking at what we have been doing. Then individuals, given their life trajectories, will be able to make different kinds of use of their disciplines. Disciplines are really useful for helping us throw diverse lights on aspects of reality, aspects of human experience, that we would not otherwise get. But the way we use them is going to be dependent on our personal life work and social historical contexts.
I try to do this in my ethics course. I begin the semester calling attention to ethics as a unique cultural achievement. It’s a little like art. It’s a little like music, like learning a new language. But then we set this point aside and turn to reading Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and Kant. But at the end of the semester we return to the idea that ethics is complementary to a cultural world, a human life. We ask how ethics relates to other things as well. This is what I think of as an interdisciplinary pedagogy. Since the world we live in is primarily influenced by science and technology, interdisciplinarity is naturally going to emphasize the relationship between science, technology, and society. This will take place especially in the ethics course, where we read great books but every now and then ask: Does this have any relation to the life of an engineer or scientist?
* Correction, April 23, 2012: In the revised version of this interview, posted 10 February 2012, Carl Mitcham stated: “At Penn State, before coming to Colorado School of Mines, I had been involved with Joe Kockelmans, whom Julie [Klein] considers one of the founders of the interdisciplinarity. Julie had studied with Kockelmans back in the 1980s before I ever thought about interdisciplinarity.” Julie Klein responded in an April 23 email: “I was never a student of Kockelmans. Frodeman was. I also don’t think Kocklemans was a founder of interdisciplinarity. He was a leading figure of its advance in the USA.” Mitcham’s answer was edited to reflect Julie Klein’s correction.
Note: A version of this interview published in November 2011 was withdrawn pending revisions. This update has few substantive content changes, but there are numerous stylistic alterations that have, hopefully, improved the readability of the document.