Monday, April 29, 2019

For future viewing, once I get time

Steven Vertovec, “Super-diversity as concept and approach: whence it came, where it’s at, and whither it’s going”

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Interdisciplinarity in the news!

This is a little old, but I teach an interdisciplinary writing course, and this semester there have been quite a few computer scientists who took the class. Last week, one of them brought up the breakthrough image of a black hole, so I took a moment to search for an article about it. I came across this article from The Guardian.

Skimming through it, I came across a quotation that we talked about briefly:
While still studying at MIT, the computer scientist Katie Bouman came up with a new algorithm to stitch together data collected across the EHT network. Bouman went on to lead an elaborate series of tests aimed at ensuring that the EHT’s image was not the result of some form of technical glitch or fluke. At one stage, this involved the collaboration splitting into four separate teams which analysed the data independently until they were absolutely confident of their findings. 
“We’re a melting pot of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and engineers, and that’s what it took to achieve something once thought impossible,” said Bouman.
The quote is from the end of the article--often the place where, as I understand it, the editors put what they consider the least important stuff--but to me this was the most important part. Bouman is talking about interdisciplinary research. (And it was an added bonus that she is a computer scientist!)

It's fun to bring these news stories into class because it shows the students how people from their own disciplines might be doing research with people from other disciplines that they had never imagined. I have also shown students this video in which mathematicians are doing research about sneezing!

The one troubling thing for me, though, is, as I have admitted to some students, the process we go through to do interdisciplinary work in this class is often the opposite of what I think professional researchers do. As I understand it, outside of the kind of class I'm teaching, researchers start with a problem and then begin to work together with people from various disciplines to solve those problems. (Just as Bouman describes it above.) But in my classes, for very practical reasons we usually start with the interdisciplinary groups and then have to figure out the problems or topics that those disciplines might have in common. For instance, if I require the students to work with someone from a different discipline, but I have a lot of engineering or computer science or business majors, there are only so many ways they can combine to form a group. This semester I had some groups that had a lot of difficulty finding a topic in common to do research on.

I'm still trying to work out a way to do it the way Bouman describes it, though. I've thought about using big "umbrella" topics like "sustainability" or "globalization" in the hopes that these would be big enough themes for everyone to be able to find a connection to. Now that the semester is over, maybe I'll have time to think about this problem and do some research into it.