Thursday, January 18, 2007

The popularity (and importance, too?) of inter/intra/cross-disciplinary studies

Q: As you look at all of the changes in academic careers since the first edition, which ones have been the most significant?

A: I suppose that 10 academics would give 10 different answers to that question, but, to me, two changes — possibly connected — stand out: first, the explosion of inter/intra/cross-disciplinary studies and the commensurate rise of inter/cross-departmental programs, centers and institutes; second, the relative ease with which individual faculty members can move across traditional academic boundaries, e.g., between faculty and administration, between departments and programs.

From this interview with A. Leigh Deneef, one of the editors of the second edition of The Academic's Handbook.

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This brings up yet another chance for me to rant about India's lack of Real Universities, where undergraduate students are exposed to ideas from many different disciplines, and are taught by practising researchers. In those places -- such as Central Universities -- where programs in multiple disciplines are on offer, there is hardly any undergraduate education. In other places where UG students are taught by practising researchers -- such as IITs and the newly minted IISERs -- the institutions are too specialized (engineering and sciences, in the two examples). Finally, in places where a vast majority of our undergraduate students study -- namely, colleges affiliated with universities -- they are taught by (almost full-time) teachers with little research credentials.

India has all kinds of specialized institutions: medicine (AIIMS, JIPMER, CMC, PGI), engineering (IIT, IIIT, NIT, and state-level tech universities), sciences (IISER), law (NLSUI), etc.. (Just this morning, I came to know about the existence of Karnataka Veterinary, Animal and Fisheries Sciences University in Bidar!) The higher prestige associated with these institutions leads people to clamour for more and more of these. What we need, instead, are Real Universities.

Remember, this demand for multi-disciplinary university is not about just about faculty members being able to move from one field to another. Savvy researchers who want to cross disciplinary barriers will always be able to do so -- even if they are in specialized institutions, and even if they need a collaborator from somewhere else. For example, a computer scientist working in an IIIT would be able to cross-over to sociology to study social networks (for example) even if her institution doesn't have any expertise in sociology.

It's the undergraduate students who suffer because of a narrow education in specialized fields. In this age of nanotechnology, econophysics and social networks, I don't think I need to emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary fields. Our UG students deserve an environment that will prepare them to benefit from -- and contribute to -- these and other emerging -- and fantastically interesting -- areas. For this, they need an exposure to interesting things happening in all kinds of fields: arts and humanities, natural and social sciences.

In the National Knowledge Commission' Report to the Nation - 2006 (24 MB, pdf), there are interesting proposals regarding higher education and research (you can get just the recommendations here; it's just about one MB). I want to highlight two sensible recommendations: creation of 50 National Unviersities, and of the National Science and Social Science Foundation (NS3F). As someone who has been arguing for Real Universities in this blog, I'm absolutely delighted. Now, if only the government can start acting on these proposals ...


  1. pradeepkumar pi said...

    Abi, I completely agree with you. Basically this is what Prof. Yashpal has been arguing for severel years. To quote him

    "I am against setting up separate universities of science and technology because one needs to have all departments to understand the impact of science. The sickness of our country is that we are perpetuating a different kind of caste system. A social science department does not interact with a science department."

    "The social philosophy that I have in mind is that of a society where people can be happy, where there will be no hunger, where people do not feel lonely in the middle of the crowd, where there is no discrimination... "

    Also see a wonderful article by him: "India can follow a different path"

    "The separation and distinction between universities and laboratories has to be reversed. All new laboratories should be set up within universities, especially those laboratories that do a lot of basic work. Indeed most present laboratories should be converted into universities"