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Updating the Two Cultures:
How Structures Can Promote Interdisciplinary Cultures

By Sean A. Valles, Douglas B. Luckie, Georgina M. Montgomery, Elizabeth H. Simmons, Ryan D. Sweeder, and Aklilu Zeleke

The Version of Record of this manuscript has been published and is available in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, Volume 48, Issue 6, December, 2016.

Calls to bridge the gap between the Two Cultures of the humanities and the sciences are increasingly being heard throughout the academy (Nature, 2015). Funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation are requesting interdisciplinary proposals (NSF, 2016a); education researchers are seeking to reform STEM education by integrating skills from the humanities and social sciences (McCright et al., 2013); faculty are seeking more intellectual space for interdisciplinary research and teaching (Jackson- Hayes, 2015); and students are seeing the benefits of a diverse educational toolbox for tackling contemporary challenges (Boehnke, 2015).

Numerous articles have recently highlighted the intellectual benefits of synthesizing approaches from across STEM, social science, and the humanities. But how does such a blending of disciplines impact the lives of faculty? What can be learned from faculty members who spend their careers working between the Two Cultures? We—a philosopher, a biologist, an historian, a physicist (and dean), a chemist, and a statistician—have embraced this career path at our institution and wish to share what we have learned.

We are members of Michigan State University's Lyman Briggs College, an interdisciplinary community of faculty working in a college founded to address the Two Cultures problem articulated by C. P. Snow (Snow, 1961). The college has been a success, but perhaps not as Snow would have imagined. To our surprise, even though we will celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2017, we still have not encountered the Two Cultures problem as described by Snow. As so often happens in science, our experiment has taught us that we initially misunderstood the phenomenon.

We have found that interdisciplinary collaborations between and among faculty members can, do, and should happen organically—as grassroots projects. The key is creating institutional policies and reward structures that serve as fertile ground for these organic projects to take root. In this essay, we describe selected aspects of what has been effective for promoting interdisciplinary faculty work in our milieu, focusing on those practices that are transferrable to other contexts.

Our college's overt approach to bridging Snow's Two Cultures was to facilitate interdisciplinary dialogues and debates, with an eye toward a grand cultural reconciliation between entrenched faculty camps of humanists and scientists. Along the way, as a critical part of this approach, we restructured administrative processes to promote interdisciplinarity—removing barriers, creating incentives, and providing support.

To our surprise, these seemingly mundane steps were sufficient to create a vibrant interdisciplinary teaching and research environment. We had braced ourselves for culture battles when, for example, a mathematician participated in the annual merit review evaluation of a historian, or a course was co-taught by a philosopher, a statistician and a biologist. Happily, we found that carefully written policies and procedures, along with deliberate attention to inclusive communication, can prevent such problems from arising in the first place.

The Lyman Briggs Interdisciplinary Faculty

Lyman Briggs College was founded in 1967 by Michigan State University as a bold experiment: to bridge the scientific/humanistic Two Cultures gap by forming a residential college within a land grant university (Sweeder et al., 2012). It was to serve as a center for cultural exchange between the Two Cultures, educating students in science within its humanistic and social contexts.

In designing and implementing their own experiments, our students discover background assumptions often prove to be mistaken. In their courses on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science, they learn that some of those erroneous assumptions are traceable to a scholar's social context.

The same can be said about Snow's observations of intellectual life in mid-20th century Cambridge, which do not encompass the range of experiences in modern American higher education. For instance, Snow notes how he is struck that his scientist and humanist colleagues are so different intellectually despite being identical in their race, family background, and income (not even bothering to mention their gender uniformity) (Snow 1961). At the same time, he predicts that the Two Cultures divide is not a universal phenomenon and that the dynamic between humanists and scientists would be contingent on features such as a nation's educational priorities.

Given how drastically science, the humanities, and education have changed in recent decades, it should come as no surprise that a 1959 metaphor for the challenges of interdisciplinarity is now past its prime. Contrary to the Two Cultures vision of a deep cultural schism, at Lyman Briggs, we have found that we need not convince faculty to be interdisciplinary; rather, we must allow them to be interdisciplinary.

Disciplinary segregation in today's university departments is not the result of grassroots faculty attempts to escape into cloisters. Hiring committees do not ask applicants whether they would prefer to be locked into disciplinary "silos" away from other scholars or in "ivory towers" above laypeople. Those structures are just an unfortunate side effect of administrative decisions and structures.

For example, it is insulting and inaccurate to claim that scientists care little for the world around them. Ask a student or postdoctoral fellow why they wish to become a professional scientist, and you are more likely to hear about a passion for the beauty of physical laws or an urge to create new beneficial technologies than a desire to follow the established research priorities of leading disciplinary journals. Similarly, there is a growing movement of humanists who are passionate about contributing to solutions to contemporary problems, many of which demand the integration of perspectives and methodologies from across the spectrum of STEM, social sciences and humanities (Consortium, 2016). An emerging generation of interdisciplinary scholars finds its teaching and research increasingly pushing against the disciplinary walls that have long constrained curricula, departments, and tenure processes.

Institutional Structures

Three structural elements of Lyman Briggs College combine to support interdisciplinarity: absence of departments, strategic space allocation, and faculty joint appointments.

The Faculty of LBC acts as a single governance unit rather than being divided into formal departments. The faculty members work in "disciplinary groups" (e.g. chemistry) that are each responsible for their discipline's slice of the curriculum. This allows disciplinary experts to coordinate relevant course content, assign tasks to course assistants, and manage other day-to-day curriculum tasks. But, in making requests for space or educational technology, these different disciplinary groups are explicitly required to work together; proposals involving multiple disciplines (e.g. computers that can be used in both chemistry and physics classes) receive priority.

The lack of departmental boundaries requires college members to collectively approve all institutional changes such as bylaw revisions or curriculum reforms. United by a shared concern for topics like faculty evaluation, inclusion, and an interdisciplinary undergraduate curriculum, faculty members refrain from banding together as voting blocs of mathematicians vs. physicists vs. philosophers, etc.

Free from the need to define departmental territories, each corridor in Lyman Briggs is lined with offices for faculty from a range of disciplines. An historian, for example, may have an office across from a physicist and a chemist, and next to a sociologist and a biologist. This simple arrangement promotes informal discussions concerning research and teaching that span disciplinary divides. For example, chats between a civil engineer and an environmental historian from the same office nook recently led to a project examining how the needs of children have historically been evaluated in environmental risk assessments, with the goal of improving researcher-stakeholder communication in cases such as the ongoing Flint water crisis (Science and Society @ State, 2016a). Similarly, nearly all classrooms in the college are designed to be used by faculty members from multiple disciplines; this has facilitated the development of cross-disciplinary courses and cross-disciplinary pursuit of funding for classroom and curriculum development.

Almost every tenure-system faculty member with their tenure home in Lyman Briggs has a joint appointment in a disciplinary-based department elsewhere on campus (e.g. the Department of Sociology). This offers the opportunity to teach traditional disciplinary courses, to receive mentoring from disciplinary colleagues invested in their success, and to supervise graduate students. The joint appointments also promote cross-fertilization between our residential college and other departments and colleges on campus: grant applications often involve several LBC faculty members along with colleagues from their joint-appointment departments, and new campus academic programs have been co-created with those departments. Having ties to a disciplinary department gives faculty greater freedom to explore their interdisciplinary interests within Lyman Briggs, knowing that both their within-discipline and cross-discipline work will be valued.

Interdisciplinary Faculty Evaluation

For an academic institution to truly embrace interdisciplinarity, encouraging collaborative research or teaching projects is just the start. For instance, if an institution still segregates disciplines during review processes such as annual or tenure evaluations, much of the momentum toward interdisciplinarity will be lost.

All Lyman Briggs faculty hiring or promotion committees involve a mix of scientists and humanists. Although it may be hard for a chemist to effectively evaluate the disciplinary contributions of a sociologist, the chemist still can effectively assess the quality of a candidate's teaching philosophy and experience. Similarly, an historian can recognize and evaluate the inclusion of reformed teaching practices in a physics course. Moreover, serving on cross-disciplinary evaluation committees gives each member a chance to learn more about a colleague's field, including similarities, differences, and synergies with their own.

As noted above, each LBC faculty member has a joint appointment in a department related to their discipline. Other universities have adopted alternative joint appointment structures as a means of supporting interdisciplinarity while working within the limitations of discipline-based departments. One such model at the University of Minnesota involves joint appointments for a historian in both a science department and the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine program; one could imagine analogous appointments for STEM scholars as well.

Although joint appointments inevitably generate concerns for junior faculty, and perhaps particularly faculty members from underrepresented demographic groups (Patton, 2015), these concerns can be minimized with a clear and fair Memorandum of Understanding (Simmons, 2011). Maximizing the benefits of joint appointments requires a robust and interdisciplinary mentoring program in conjunction with mechanisms to foster a sense of collaborative com- munity through email lists, family-friendly social events, and speaker series. For example, each Lyman Briggs faculty member has one STEM mentor, one humanities mentor, and a mentor from the disciplinary department in which their joint appointment resides.

Impacts on Faculty Development

The degree to which an institution supports interdisciplinarity can also impact faculty development, either positively or negatively. New faculty members are frequently excited to develop and join interdisciplinary teams cutting across rigid disciplinary boundaries that may serve to socially isolate new faculty members and constrain their creativity. In settings where involvement in interdisciplinary research or teaching teams is valued and supported, these teams enable new faculty members to develop meaningful relationships with colleagues, receive interactive mentoring in the context of a concrete project, and gain a richer understanding of the academy. Collaboration across disciplines in such teams also provides a springboard for new faculty on the tenure track in access to a variety of grants and publications that would have been di cult or impossible to achieve working alone.

A university can visibly support interdisciplinary work as part of its faculty development program in numerous ways. One example is having panels on effective interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching in training programs for new faculty. Another example is offering internal seed grant support to get new collaborations off the ground. Making space in the tenure and promotion evaluation process for a discussion of interdisciplinary work is a third, and there are many others. Each of these sends a clear message to new faculty that working with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries is valued and is a worthy investment of their time and energy.

Administrative Support for Grassroots Faculty Interdisciplinary Collaboration

While it may seem counterintuitive, carefully constructed partnerships between faculty and university administrators can enable grassroots faculty interdisciplinary efforts to flourish. At our own institution, a few of the Lyman Briggs faculty members helped build a new research center called Science and Society @ State (S3), which provides seed grants for new or emerging interdisciplinary teams seeking to develop external grant proposals (Science and Society @ State, 2016b).

S3 focuses on connecting scholars across disciplines to facilitate new collaborations that show potential to yield publications, presentations, and grants. Simultaneously, it creates a more cohesive social environment for new and established interdisciplinary scholars on campus. MSU's Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies saw the importance of this initiative, and its support (along with that of many college deans) has greatly expanded the number of seed grants S3 can make available. The 35 awards since 2014 have included over 150 scholars from across the university. Other institutions have also found innovative ways for the central administration to support faculty-led interdisciplinary collaborations, and more models will continue to emerge (MCubed, 2016).

Finding a Common Denominator

One of the most important lessons we learned at Lyman Briggs College is how essential it is to have some thematic focus that is shared across the college. Although in other institutions it may be a policy-oriented mission or a unifying academic topic, at Lyman Briggs the common denominator is a commitment to scholarly teaching. This focal point serves as the magnet that draws together a diverse group of faculty pursuing a wide range of interdisciplinary projects and gives them a basis for initiating mentoring or collaborative relationships. Like internal funding programs, an effective common denominator requires both grassroots support from faculty and institutional support from administrators.

It is noteworthy that our college was not founded with scholarly teaching (often including pedagogical research) as a unifying thread; even that feature of the college emerged from a combination of grassroots faculty interest and administrative support. While Lyman Briggs has always prioritized undergraduate teaching, over the years our interdisciplinary community identity coalesced around the much more specific goals of creating and using empirically-founded teaching methods. Our interdisciplinarity was dictated by our original 1967 mandate, but the form of our interdisciplinarity has evolved.

Having scholarly teaching as our common denominator has helped us to formulate a variety of creative initiatives. For instance, the positive working relationships between faculty members of different disciplines has yielded unifying curriculum reforms such as revisions of the physics and calculus courses to feature biological applications that help to engage the college's many life science majors. Another example is mathematics faculty members' teaching senior seminars about applying mathematics in the social and biophysical sciences, including courses on game theory and on the mathematics of elections and voting.

A particularly notable example of this common denominator is that for the last ten years Lyman Briggs College has been home to a project designed to strategically contribute to research on student learning. The NSF-funded Bringing Relationships Alive through Interdisciplinary Discourse (BRAID) project employs faculty members to teach students in innovative interdisciplinary courses that explicitly tie together STEM disciplinary areas such as math or chemistry with humanities like history of science or philosophy of science. These classes are small weekly seminar courses that emphasize use of active and cooperative pedagogies for stimulating interdisciplinary discussions between students and three faculty members. The distinctive feature of BRAID courses is that teams of faculty members from different disciplines serve as co-instructors in the small seminar setting.

Preliminary data suggest that this "multiple faculty" small class size model has a strong positive impact on student learning (Luckie et al., 2012; 2013). Intriguing early results also suggest that the experience also has a positive impact on faculty development, consistent with earlier data on the faculty benefits of co-teaching (Henderson et al., 2009). Collaborating with colleagues from different disciplines and at different career stages appears to also serve as a form of mentorship that catalyzes positive changes in faculty attitudes, understanding, and pedagogical development.

The Student Experience at an Interdisciplinary College

Given the large number of students who pass through LBC, one might expect many different responses to the idea of interdisciplinary education for science students. Yet, the overwhelming response from students is positive. LBC has achieved a STEM retention rate of roughly 70%, far higher than the 50% national average (Sweeder et al., 2012).

However, like any higher education institution, we have struggled to help students who enter the college with high financial need and relatively little college preparation. These students have often attended under-resourced secondary schools that tend to serve demographic groups historically underrepresented in STEM. Accordingly, an LBC team of scientists, humanists, and administrators recently obtained an NSF grant to test how scholarships and a combination of mentoring and learning opportunities could help alleviate some of these inequities (National Science Foundation, 2016b).

Although our college tends to attract future scientists amenable to the history, philosophy, and sociology of science (HPS) coursework featured in our curriculum, there still tends to be a shifting of student responses during their college careers. HPS courses are part of the required curriculum, and the faculty members teaching these courses have long faced a skeptical audience who need to be convinced of the value that the material will bring to their future endeavors. However, as indicated in a preliminary analysis of the qualitative data from the aforementioned BRAID project, this hurdle has been drastically lowered by the recent incorporation of ethical and social scientific content into the MCAT medical admissions exam (American Association of Medical Colleges, 2016). Since a large proportion of LBC students plan to attend medical school, when medical school admissions stopped the de facto devaluing humanistic and social scientific aspects of medicine it allowed students to enjoy and engage with their HPS courses without worrying about them as a distraction.

By the time our students are juniors and seniors, the case no longer needs to be made for the importance of an HPS perspective, and the students fully engage with these classes. For example, course evaluation responses collected during a spring 2016 capstone seminar revealed that just over one in four students cited an HPS component as one of their most impactful college experiences. For a subset of students, HPS becomes more than an addition to their STEM major, it becomes their primary focus.

Indeed, during the course of the academic career a number of students discover that the practice of science is not their passion. Rather, the love of science that brought them to LBC in the first place better manifests in the study of the process of science. One student captured this sentiment saying: "In particular, HPS classes as a whole have really informed my academic choices, and my individual growth. I can't recommend HPS highly enough and if I could do it over, I would make HPS my second major."

Time to Update the Two Cultures Concept

As an interdisciplinary team, we advocate for updating the Two Cultures metaphor. Such an updating for our own college, which has "Two Cultures" language in its mission statement, is a process that will require a careful and inclusive dialogue among faculty, staff and students. We can imagine no more fitting time for continuing this dialogue than the academic conference on interdisciplinary education that will accompany our upcoming 50th anniversary celebrations. If we are going to shift to a new metaphor for a new era, then we must do it the way Lyman Briggs does everything important: begin with grassroots interdisciplinary community enthusiasm and nourish it with administrative support.

Regardless of whether Snow's cultural schism ever was interdisciplinarity's biggest obstacle, we argue that it is not so today. Snow's view attracted a number of critics in his day, and we will surely have our critics too; we embrace such criticism. We know the scientific value (including historical, philosophical and sociological value) of forming testable hypotheses and debating them in an open forum.

And we are making an empirical claim: interdisciplinary faculty collaboration is primarily impeded by particular administrative structures such as merit review processes and intra-institutional funding priorities, and reforming those administrative barriers to permit and reward interdisciplinarity will increase participation in interdisciplinary work. Our team's combination of empirical data, decades of experience in an interdisciplinary institution, and interpretation of other institutions' experiences, all leads us to favor our hypothesis over Snow's description.

Looking beyond our own college, a growing number of faculty in 2016 are propelled by concern and curiosity about a common set of social problems (e.g., responsible technological innovation, sustainability, social equity, well-rounded science literacy) and a need to explore these problems without being confined by disciplinary strictures. To recruit and retain scholars from this generation, universities must allow space for grassroots change in the academy while also exploring points where the priorities of faculty align with those of administrators. Just as Snow's call for bridging the Two Cultures was a product of its historical context, so too our call for interdisciplinarity is a product of today's changing intellectual landscape.


Thumbnail image taken by Phil Squattrito. Retrieved from Creative Commons.