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People work on a chalk timeline on the Washington Avenue pedestrian bridge.

Students add historical events to a timeline on the Washington Avenue Bridge, part of the Institute for Advanced Study's two-year symposium on time.

Meeting of the minds

The Institute for Advanced Study explores the boundaries between academic disciplines

By Jim Thorp

Sept. 22, 2006 (Updated Dec. 8, 2006)

On Sept. 19, 2006, pedestrians on the Washington Avenue Bridge were given the chance to re-write history--with sidewalk chalk. Historic and geologic timelines running the length of the bridge gave passersby a first-hand look at how our perception of time differs based on scale: eras and epochs versus ages and years.

The timeline event kicked off the Institute for Advanced Study's 2006-08 University Symposium, an interdisciplinary look at how we perceive time. The idea behind the symposium and the institute is simple: To bring diverse scholars together to help each other--and us--think in new ways.

Nothing but time According to University of Minnesota history professor and IAS director Ann Waltner, time was selected to spark discussions between disciplines as diverse as geology, philosophy, physics and dance.

"We have an interdisciplinary group of 45 people on our brainstorming list, helping us come up with ideas for speakers and events," she says. "The first time we got together, I realized I didn't know most of the faculty in there. It's been really engaging."

According to Waltner, time itself is one of the factors driving the need for promote interaction across disciplines.

"Most disciplines are fairly new," she says. "Anthropology has been around since the late 19th century; ethnic and women's studies, only since the early 20th century. Some of the sub-disciplines in the biological sciences are just a few years old."

As a result, Waltner says that scholars fight a constant battle to define their expertise and distinguish their work from that of more-established or better-known disciplines.

"You see a fair amount of 'patrolling the borders' by people working in these fields, trying to keep people from saying, 'OK, now how is that anthropology?' While that may be good for the discipline, it's not good for knowledge. ... That's why spaces [and programs] like this are so important."

The Institute for Advanced Study:

>> Brings together exciting new work from across the University community.

>> Provides a place where faculty and students can meet for presentations, performances and discussions.

>> Sponsors "Research and Creative Collaboratives" in which scholars and artists come together to work on interdisciplinary projects.

For more information on the IAS-sponsored University Symposium, click here.

The big picture Interdisciplinary thinking benefits students and the public, too, as diverse perspectives often yield more comprehensive solutions to big problems. Some collaborations form around a specific issue that demands diverse expertise; others, like bioethics, evolve in response to other developments and become disciplines in their own right.

The IAS promotes a different approach, encouraging scholars to view topics through the eyes of their peers for the sake of sparking interaction and new thinking. For example, throughout the 2006-07 academic year, choreographer Carl Flink will host a series of open rehearsals for a work in progress called "Wreck," an evening-length dance theater piece, set in the final moments of life aboard a sunken ship and scheduled to premier in its final form April.

"A core interdisciplinary group will be watching the four open rehearsals and participating in discussions afterward about how time is represented in the performance," says Waltner. "These discussions will inform the final composition, with Carl serving as the interpreter and mediator, taking the group's feedback and interpreting it through his choreography.

"Or not!" she laughs. "Our fellows don't always agree. One of the ways we identify presenters is to ask the group, 'Who would you like to have a conversation with?' Some of these people have very different opinions the issues."

The resulting tension can fuel creativity and innovation within disciplines as well as between them, which is good for everyone over the long term.

Glimpse of the future? Waltner describes scholarship as being question- or problem-focused. The various disciplines provide specific tools for addressing the problem or question, but if scholars stay within their disciplinary boxes, they may find themselves trying to fix brand-new problems using the same old tools.

That's not to say disciplines should fall by the wayside, however--students and society may benefit from this broad-based approach to problem-solving, but many employers still seek specialists, and graduates are still expected to have a degree "in something."

To help tie programs like the University Symposium to student teaching and learning, the IAS develops curricula around specific events and topics, enabling students to earn credits for their own interdisciplinary explorations. And while the institute is only in its second year, it serves as an example for other such institutes under development as a result of the University's Strategic Positioning process.

The biggest challenge for IAS has been fostering collaboration beyond the walls of the College of Liberal Arts.

"There are still people who think we are a CLA institute," she says. "Sixty percent of what we do in the arts and humanities, but in fact, some of our most successful lecturers have been by scientists."

Topics of these lectures included Pluto's status as a dwarf planet, research into Alzheimer's disease, social interactions between female chimps, and evidence suggesting that Abraham Lincoln may have suffered from ataxia.

"You might ask, 'What difference does it make if Lincoln had ataxia?'" Waltner says. "But we had an advocate for people with disabilities saying, 'If we can point to Lincoln as someone who had this condition and still accomplished everything he did, we change people's perceptions.' It matters!

"We know that, from a faculty standpoint, the most important things we do are to give people money and time off. But we've been pretty successful so far in getting people to talk and interact in ways they wouldn't otherwise."