Session #4: Program Innovation: Fostering Interdisciplinary Work

Session #4

Program Innovation: Fostering Interdisciplinary Work

December 7, 2021

Panel Members
Elspeth Brown, Director, Digital Humanities Network
Fiorella Foscarini, Program Director, Faculty of Information
Alissa Trotz, Director, Women and Gender Studies Institute
Tanhum Yoreh, Graduate Associate Director, School of Environment

Highlights from the panel discussion

The BENEFITS of doing interdisciplinary work.

Fosters collaboration and group work

Brings experts from different fields into the same space to think about how to address problems together.

Enables people to bring different skills and research knowledge to the conversations.

Broadens thinking

Invites different disciplinary perspectives into research questions, methodology, and findings.

Provides the opportunity to incorporate different identities or backgrounds into thinking and questioning more broadly.

Reflects ways of working in a complex world

Expands expertise thereby preparing graduate students for a broader range of careers.

Facilitates opportunities to make connections with a diversity of people and ideas inside and outside of academia.

Promotes a collective way of thinking and doing.

The CHALLENGES of doing interdisciplinary work.

Academic culture

The concept of interdisciplinary work is unclear in certain disciplines.

Disciplinary policing can prevent people from asking interdisciplinary questions and academics can feel more comfortable thinking and working in their discipline.

It takes more work and time to reconcile differences in terms and practices between disciplines.

Academics in certain disciplines have historically not been trained in collaborative work, so there is a much larger learning curve when pursuing interdisciplinary work.


Collaboration involves working together, but the different means of communication and the physical distance between departments can make collaboration difficult.

Many processes for supervision, instruction, and research are based on disciplinary work, making it logistically difficult, and sometimes impossible, to do interdisciplinary work.

Institutional systems

There are departmental and institutional systems in place with respect to funding (for students and research), hiring, and course design that can inhibit interdisciplinary work.

There are institutional constructs that determine what research and publications are acceptable. These institutional values can foster inequity in funding and resources for interdisciplinary work.

Concrete advice for program leaders and supervisors to bring interdisciplinary work to the individual student level.


Let students stay loyal to the research question, not the discipline.

Be honest about your own academic limits of what you can offer your student.

Encourage students to learn from each other by taking courses in different disciplines or engaging in collaborative projects and group work.


Create opportunities for co-teaching.

Develop capstone courses that enable interdisciplinary work and collaboration.

Identify learning outcomes bases on an interdisciplinary perspective.

Create assignments that are meant to break down disciplinary silos.


Think about cluster hiring to diversify the faculty and promote interdisciplinary collaboration.

Use complement planning to support interdisciplinary work.

Adjust departmental responsibilities to make cross-appointments less onerous for cross-appointed faculty.


Develop and promote processes that enable collaboration.

Produce literature that reconciles different terms and practices and enables people to understand how notions have been shaped in different contexts.

Invest in spaces that bring people together to have conversations and share ideas.


Advance program structures that facilitate interdisciplinary work, including Institutional Strategic Initiatives (ISIs) and Extra Departmental Units (EDUs).

Review and adjust processes to ensure equity with respect to initiatives that get supported and funded.