New Graduate Workshop Connects Students and Faculty Across Disciplines

Thomas Gaulkin
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Thomas Gaulkin

Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries

Interdisciplinary scholarship is valued throughout academia, but for graduate students focused on completing a degree in a specific discipline, opportunities to engage across fields can be elusive. Three Social Sciences doctoral students recently convened a daylong conference to help bridge this gap.


A first for the Division, the September 22 Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries event provided an opportunity for students to present and discuss their work with peers and faculty in other disciplines who study research questions similar to their own. The event was the first in a planned series of workshops that the organizers hope will continue through the coming academic year.


“Combining different forms of evidence can strengthen arguments or can invite new questions, but sometimes fields stick to their own way of doing things,” said Winnie van Dijk, one of three organizers of the workshop and a PhD student in Economics. “Seeing how other fields might approach the same topic using a different method, a different theoretical framework, or different sources of data can be very helpful in creating a more complete picture.”


The working group emerged from informal conversations between Van Dijk and Political Science PhD student Yuna Blajer de la Garza, who met while serving on a graduate advisory council convened by the Dean of the Social Sciences Division. “It gave us a sense of being in touch and connected with people from other departments and having conversations with other departments and faculty,” Blajer de la Garza said.


Together with third year Sociology PhD candidate Melissa Osborne, the students selected and grouped more than 20 papers on topics that cut across multiple disciplines in the Social Sciences, including several that addressed different dimensions of social and economic inequality. Among the topics covered in seven sessions over the course of the day were political elites and political change, formative events in economic history, family structures and childhood development, and the economic and social dynamics of Chicago neighborhoods.


At the end of each panel, a faculty member from a Department other than the presenters’ provided constructive critiques and suggestions. The discussants represented nearly all departments in the Social Sciences, and also included faculty from the Biological Sciences and the Harris School for Public Policy.


“We’re truly grateful for the intellectual generosity of all the faculty who participated,” Blajer de la Garza said.


In an opening presentation, Sociology professor James Evans applauded the efforts of students to engage across disciplinary boundaries. He said citation rates for various classifications of published research show that broadest recognition is achieved by findings that not only introduced new concepts and methods, but that also made novel connections to existing research from other fields.


“The idea of context novelty is that you’re in a place where no other person in your discipline would be,” said Evans, Director of the Knowledge Lab and Faculty Director of the Masters Program in Computational Social Science. “That doubles the likelihood that your combination of new content will catch on and become a massive success.”


The working group plans to convene a second conference next year, and is considering other ways to bring smaller groups of students together with faculty throughout the year.


One thing that wasn’t obvious to me when I started in the PhD program is how much research and scholarly work is a social endeavor,” Blajer de la Garza said. "It’s not that you don’t know that the University goes beyond your own building, but you don’t have many occasions to interact. It’s not as easy as it should be to walk across the Social Sciences quad and say, ‘Hey, you’re not in my department, can we talk?’ But this group is an avenue to do that.”