Tag Archives: Interdisciplinarity

Reducing Complexity; Avoiding Responsibility

Columbia University Campus (courtesy of PauloGyensfan)

Columbia University Campus (courtesy of PauloGyensfan)

Back in the Sixties, I studied political science at Columbia University. It was a time of considerable turmoil, especially on university campuses. As students coming into maturity in the late fifties and early sixties, we had been imbued with the idea that, by participating, we could make a difference.

I was encouraged in this regard by my efforts in Berlin, New Hampshire,

we had been imbued with the idea that, by participating, we could make a difference.

campaigning with some of my fellow students on behalf of Senator Eugene McCarthy for president. Devoted to the cause, we went Clean for Gene. We slept on church floors, attended local hockey games, trudged from house to house through the snow, shaved our beards, and even put on brassieres. On returning home, we discovered that President Johnson had decided not to run for another term, based on the election returns in Berlin. Never before had we felt so empowered!

Our confidence in participation became somewhat tenuous, however. In the months that followed, we witnessed the shooting of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the continuing descent of the US into the Vietnam morass; as well as what we perceived as the great betrayal of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Meanwhile, at Columbia, student participation was intensifying, culminating in Mark Rudd and his followers’ siege of the administration and math buildings. In the chaos of the moment, it was hard to know where to take a stand. So, many of us positioned ourselves in the middle ground, that is to say, in a line encircling the math building, between the police and the protesters, opposing the siege but supporting amnesty. To our dismay, the line broke, as the policemen–some on horseback–charged through the crowd and entered the building. Most disturbing to me was the vision of one of our professors–who taught international social forces–being tossed over a hedge; apprehended by the police; and taken to jail.

Most disturbing to me was the vision of one of our professors–who taught international social forces–being tossed over a hedge; apprehended by the police; and taken to jail.

On campus, the response to this eruption was very mixed. According to rumors circulating around campus, a number of our professors stopped speaking to one another, and–as I came to understand it–they did not do so for several years. These tensions were mirrored in heated disputes among students walking on the quad, engaging in the classroom, and debating over lunch. At issue, first and foremost, was what, in a democracy, should be the limitations on participation. And, as a corollary, what role should academics–in particular–play in political affairs? For those of us who aspired to become future scholars within the academy, the burning question was whether or not it was appropriate, or even possible, to be value free in times such as these.

The answer, according to a majority of social science faculty, was to rise above the fray by turning to positive, quantitative analysis. And so it happened. The Department of Public Law and Government, which had a long tradition of performing institutional analysis, changed its name to the Department of Political Science. Mirroring this change at a more global level was the shift in the American Journal of Political Science from qualitative articles to those based on quantitative analysis. Disgruntled rumblings were stirring in another camp, however, where a revolt against scientism and the rise of post-modernism was beginning to take form.

Of course, debates about the proper role of social science have had a long and continuous history, dating back to the origins of sociology, and August Comte, who vigorously called for a new, positive and empirically based science of human behavior. As Bruce Mazlish points out in his contemplative history, The Uncertain Sciences — Comte raised the flag for positivism in reaction to the horror and chaos of the French Revolution. As Comte argued, to search for the real truth, the social sciences had to rise above ideology by mimicking the physical sciences. The complexities of the Industrial Revolution led to a similar effort to simplify the world, in this case by drawing on the lessons of the machine age to develop a science-base management program. Focused on specialization, standardization, and rationalization, the efforts of these social scientists culminated in the automated work place, Taylorism and–as Max Weber called it–the iron cage of bureaucracy. As might be expected, critics redounded ranging from Marx and Nietsche to Rathenau, Mumford and Ellul.

Once again we are, today, confronted with problems of great uncertainty, brought about by increased interconnectedness and speed of interaction on a global scale. Robert Axelrod calls it a complexity revolution. Much as in the past, the scholarly community–when fraught with uncertainty–has tended to remain aloof by simplifying–dividing itself between those who seek to contain the situation through the use of rhetorical and ideological categories and those who seek to distance themselves through abstraction in numbers. However, as Mazlish reminds us, neither perspective can–on it own–address the complexities of an environment in which human beings and natural phenomenon are continually co-evolving. To encompass these interactions, both approaches–the positive and the interpretive–are essential to understanding. Hence, academics, if they are to be relevant, cannot–as in the past–employ reductionism in whatever form to circumvent difficult situations. Rather, they must work together, looking both from within and from without, to gain a more coherent and decisive perspective.

Striking the Right Chord

Whatknow’s comment on Wesch’s YouTube movie,
A Vision of Students Today, which I posted on Back to School, got me thinking about the Communication Culture and Technology Program’s orientation, which takes place tomorrow.

I had been pondering the situation, wondering what is the right chord to strike? 

I had been pondering the situation, wondering what is the right chord to strike? How might I best introduce the Program; characterize its unique, and very special aspects; as well as set the new students on the right path? Whatknow’s comment on my Blog gave me a great idea!

In his comments, Whatknow identified himself with many of the students in Wesch’s film. He comes to class, much as they do, together with all of his digital artifacts. These allow him to multitask and draw on resources from a wide array of sources–all the while class is in progress. But Whatknow’s purpose is not to undermine authority, nor to question and/or diminish the content provided by the professor. To the contrary, his aim is to enhance his learning, by bringing multiple and diverse information sources to bear, and allowing them to converse–in real time–with one another. Isn’t that what learning is all about?

Grateful Dead in Central Park

Grateful Dead in Central Park

When reading Whatknow’s comments, the process that came to mind was that of JAZZ IMPROVIZATION. Pursuing the metaphor, I found that organizational theorist Karl E. Weick has actually used the metaphor of Jazz to analyze organizational improvisation and change. As Weich characterizes the similarities, both jazz and organizational adaptation require a rigorous and common grounding in skills, routines and structures, which then allows participants the wide-ranging freedom to build around them, develop themes and variations of their own, and then to rejoin one another in a greatly enhanced, and far more innovative, output. As the musician Ken Peplowski describes this process:

We name the key, count off the tempo and start the song and it’s the first time that we’ve ever played together. But the reason we can do this is that we have a common vocabulary, and we listen and react to one another.

Like Jazz players, who discover their ideas and new approaches in the very process of playing their music and getting constant feedback from others, students in the CCT Program try out different venues, build on them in creative ways, and then encounter the curriculum and research that is right for them. The underlying CCT structure, which allows students this flexibility, is a commitment to interdisciplinarity, a sound theoretical grounding in multiple disciplines, strong methodological skills, a modular curricula, a knowledgeable and creative faculty, helpful mentoring, and a collaborative and interactive student body. As is the case in any jazz group, The CCT Program, taken in its entirety, comprises an adaptive, on-going, interdisciplinary, community of practice, with each member doing his or her own thing–in delightful harmony with others.

Thank you Whatknow for your comments on my Blog. When it comes to orientation, it is always good to step back and reorient yourself.

Back to School

Courtesy of Avoire

Courtesy of Avoire

Across the globe, the New Year is celebrated at different times of year. My own preference is to begin the New Year in September–the date used in the Gregorian, Eastern Orthodox calender; for this is the time when, everywhere, students and teachers alike, are returning back to school. To be sure, on January 1st, I never fail to make New Year resolutions, some of which I actually keep. But in September, I feel differently. Instead of focusing on self-improvement, my expectations run high when the new school year begins. Satiated with all the diverse, lackadaisical, and serendipitous happenings of Summer, I am right up there–at the gate–ready to take off. Enthused and excited, I think: A new year, a new beginning!

I attribute some of these positive aspirations to nostalgia, and my early summers spent at Lake Hawthorne. In mid-August, not long after the brown-eyed susans blossomed, the huckleberries ripened, and the katydids arrived, we would begin to plan for school. It was a memorable event. My mother would drive my sister and I in our old, maroon-colored Dodge to the nearest large town, about forty five minutes away. Wandering along the streets inhabited by white, Victorian buildings, their paint often peeling down the sides, we would shop to buy new outfits for the first day of school. The selection in this rural town was limited to say the least, but we always found something–typically a red/blue plaid dress with a white collar and ruffled sleeves. No matter, it was never the actual style of the dress that was important: Rather, it was its newness, an important symbol that conjured up for me the idea of a a fresh start and a propitious beginning. To accompany the dress, we bought very sensible shoes, the ugly, brown, lace-up type. Then, we would stop by the five-and-ten cent store–now an artifact of antiquity, to be sure–where we would very carefully finger through and select from among the wide array of three-ringed notebooks, paper, and pens. I hesitated, convinced that my choice of which items to buy would determine my academic success. Best of all, before driving home, we would visit the local luncheonette, where we sat at the counter, and slowly savored an ice cream soda. Back at the lake, I imagined myself on the first day of school, dressed in my new outfit, and armed with my ‘lucky’, hand-selected writing implements. A renewed sense of confidence came over me. I knew that I would not be shy on that first day. No, I would be thrilled to see my old friends; glad to make new ones; and–in those brown shoes–start off on the right foot with my new teacher.

More than fifty summers later, it is that time again. Time to get ready for a new academic year. Already I have noticed recent graduates stopping by the office to catch up and say their final goodbyes; new students visiting in search of housing and perhaps to reassure themselves that their investments in the CCT Program will payoff; faculty straying back from out of town with tales of their summer exploits, and, of course, the book store nagging faculty to turn in their book orders. Refreshed and stimulated by my month-long vacation, I am eager to start. However, just as I did as a youth, I follow some rituals. First, I prime my pump, putting all my recent reading materials on the floor, and slowly savoring each. Each book has become a part of me, a new window through which I can look at the world. But, my attachment to all these books constitutes a major problem for me as well: how will I ever decide what books I should assign, and which I should leave out? Without a doubt, I will include The Stag Hunt, and for sure, Epstein’s introductory chapter in Generative Social Science.. Likewise, in my discussions on networks and emergence, I will use Paul Pierson’s Politics in Time and Beinhocker’s wonderful book, The Creation of Wealth. As part of this sorting process, I fiddle, and faddle, and fiddle some more, changing the reading assignments, the sequence of classes, and even the style of the font. Having become a convert to blogging, I also integrate an on-line component into my courses. Eventually, I am satisfied–I think I have it right.

Then, before going home, I check out Howard Rheingold’s blog, and look at his syllabi posted there. In one, he includes a short film clip, produced by Michael Wesch and his students at the University of Kansas. Entitled A Vision of Students Today, the film takes me aback. It all too compellingly coveys how our traditional teaching styles are less and less relevant in today’s digital environment. I stop. I pause. Tomorrow, I determine, I will revisit my syllabus, taking this film into account. In the meantime, and just to be on the safe side, I will stop at the store on my way home, and buy a new outfit to wear on the first day of school.

Honoring the Office of Technology Assessment

The Office of Technology Assessment was deprived of its funding by the 104th Congress.  The Agency, which we as staffers labeled “Congress’ Own Think Tank,” had become official in 1972, and was tasked with taking a long-term look at the implications of technology on all aspects of society.  By most accounts, we did a phenomenal job.  Although Congress has yet to rally enough support to reauthorize the Office of Technology Assessment, the former Agency’s loyal supporters and advocates have written frequently about the role the OTA could be playing in public discourse.  They have also recently launched an on-line archive of all of OTA’s work, which also depicts and details its 20+ year history.

From a posting on an FAS listserv by Nate Hafer, of the Federation of American Scientists:

Today the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) launched the Office of Technology Assessment Archive, http://www.fas.org/ota . The site allows the public to access over 720 reports and documents produced by OTA during its 23 year history, including many that have not been available to the public previously. OTA served as an independent branch of the U.S. Congress that provided nonpartisan science and technology advice from 1972 until it was defunded and forced to close in 1995.

The site also features a new video interview with Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ), who has been spearheading the effort on Capitol Hill to revive OTA. According to Rep. Holt, “if OTA were here, doing this kind of work, we would have better legislation for school safety, chemical exposure, grain dust explosions, the R&D tax credit, on and on.” He goes on to describe some current policy issues that OTA could address and explains why Congress should bring back OTA.

“The OTA was an invaluable resource that informed Congress about an incredibly broad range of science and technology issues,” said Henry Kelly, President of the Federation of American Scientists and a former OTA staff member. “Numerous reports, on subjects such as transportation, energy, health care, and information technology remain relevant, more than 10 years after OTA issued its final report.”

“OTA produced the first report raising the possibility of genetic discrimination in the workplace almost 17 years before the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act was passed,” according to Michael Stebbins, Director of Biology Policy at FAS. “That kind of foresight into major policy issues is sorely missed in Washington today.”

The Archive will track efforts to bring back OTA and will also highlight items not previously available to the public in a “Document of the Day” feature. The website also includes a new search engine that allows users to quickly and easily find specific content in OTA reports.

Visit the Office of Technology Assessment Archive at http://www.fas.org/ota

As a former OTA employee, I would like to add a tribute of my own.  From my perspective, the OTA not only provided Congress and the public with outstanding policy foresight on technology-related issues, in so doing, it also greatly advanced interdisciplinary research.  As Einstein once commented, problems cannot be solved within the context in which they were originally created.  The methods and practices at OTA implicitly took this insight into account.  Because many of its reports were problem-centered, OTA analysts reached out across a variety of venues to garner information and engage in cross-disciplinary dialogues.  As a result, those analysts frequently generated a number of creative, and often quite successful, policy solutions.

I owe my interest and devotion to interdisciplinary scholarship in part to the twenty years that I was fortunate enough to have worked at the Congressional Office of Technology.  Today, I try to maintain that legacy by bringing what I learned at OTA to Georgetown University’s interdisciplinary program — the Communication, Culture and Technology Program — where I presently serve as Director.  I like to believe that, in teaching my students to think holistically, and to conceptualize their research in an interdisciplinary framework, I am planting the seed corn for the time when Congress regains its wits and revives the OTA.