Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education

As one of the world’s foremost centers of research and teaching, Columbia University seeks to support its faculty, staff, and students as they pursue a wide range of scholarly endeavors. Often the most exciting scholarship takes place at the borders of different disciplines, so Columbia continuously finds ways to support interdisciplinary inquiry, both within the classroom and beyond it. A small sampling of these efforts is described below.

With a view to expanding support for interdisciplinary activities and ensuring that Columbia’s structures do not impede them, the Provost established an ad hoc committee, the Provost’s Interdisciplinary Working Group (IDWG), to engage in a critical review of the University’s policies and practices, examining whether these align with the goal to support both disciplinary and interdisciplinary programs, and whether steps could be taken to facilitate cross-departmental and cross-school work. Faculty from across the University were asked to join the group, bringing experience and expertise from a broad swath of disciplines and fields. The members of the IDWG have included:

  • Matthew Connelly, Professor of History and Co-Director of the Institute for Social and Economic Policy Research (ISERP)
  • Patricia J. Culligan, Robert A.W. and Christine S. Carleton Professor of Civil Engineering and Associate Director of the Data Science Institute
  • Thomas DiPrete, Giddings Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of ISERP
  • Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History, Professor of East Asian Languages Cultures, and Chair of the Committee on Global Thought
  • Carol Mason, Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology, Neuroscience and Ophthalmic Science (in Ophthalmology), and Chair of interschool Planning of the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute
  • Stephanie Pfirman, Professor of Environmental Science at Barnard College and Chair of the Earth Institute Faculty Development Committee (past member)
  • Muredach Reilly, Florence and Herbert Irving Endowed Professor of Medicine and Director of the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research
  • H. Blair Simpson, Irving Phillips Professor of Child Psychiatry and Vice Chair of Research of the Department of Psychiatry
  • Pamela Smith, Seth Low Professor of History and Director of the Center for Science and Society
  • Thomas N. Theis, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Executive Director of the Columbia Nano Initiative (past member)
  • Debra Wolgemuth, Professor of Genetics and Development and Associate Director for Research of the Institute of Human Nutrition

Other members include Provost John Coatsworth, Vice Provost Melissa Begg, Vice Provost Justin Pearlman, and Associate Provost Susan Smith.

The IDWG was tasked with assessing and making recommendations in the following areas:

  1. Updating tenure and promotion guidelines
  2. Implementing best practices for co-teaching, cross-listing of courses, and cross-registration by students from different schools
  3. Expanding communication and “in-reach” efforts
  4. Leveraging existing resources
  5. Launching new pilot programs to incentivize cross-disciplinary engagement
  6. Developing new surveys of University leaders and faculty to identify barriers to interdisciplinary work

To date, the committee has made a number of recommendations, and brought several of them to fruition, as summarized in its first annual report, available here.

One of the barriers to interdisciplinary work cited most often is that of the availability of seed funding. While most pilot award programs target more traditional, disciplinary efforts, there is a growing number of opportunities designed specifically to encourage and support interdisciplinary efforts. The Office of the Executive Vice President for Research maintains an active list of these offerings, accessible here.

In addition, the Provost has made funds available to promote interdisciplinary teaching at Columbia. The new Provost’s Interdisciplinary Teaching Awards (ITA) are designed to support faculty from different disciplines to work collaboratively on the design and launch of innovative interdisciplinary courses.  This program awards up to $20,000 to teams of two or more faculty from different departments or schools to develop and offer undergraduate or graduate courses that integrate content and perspectives from different disciplines to enhance student learning. This program is one of several made possible through Columbia’s Center for Teaching and Learning. The 2019 ITA request for proposals is available here. The list of funded Spring 2019 ITA projects can be found here.

Columbia faculty, staff, and students pursue a broad array of interdisciplinary research and educational efforts. Some noteworthy examples are highlighted below. To suggest an addition to this list, please contact the Provost’s Office at [email protected].