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For all their economic vulnerabilities, small Christian colleges, and universities might be the ideal environment for fostering interdisciplinary research. Given that the realities of size, scale, scope, and student load can serve to restrict the kind of projects faculty at these institutions can carry out, it makes sense to recognize our strength in this niche and formalize systems that empower interdisciplinary work. We also share an important theological motivation. Given that the God we serve is Lord over all areas of creation, interdisciplinary work makes it possible to serve, learn from, and explore a broader stretch of God’s kingdom.

Yet, one definition of interdisciplinary research alone is enough to reveal the challenges of this kind of work. The definition states, “Any study or group of studies undertaken by scholars from two or more distinct scientific disciplines.” Yet, when do scholars from distinct disciplines have a chance to interact? When do they listen to one another enough to understand their projects? Who sufficiently grasps the conceptual models from different disciplines enough to propose interdisciplinary questions? Can perspectives and skills from distinct disciplines truly be integrated? Even basic logistical questions can be difficult to address like, what journal would be interested in our results? Is this for your discipline, mine, or something in between?

However, interdisciplinary work makes the impossible possible. By partnering with thoughtful experts from outside of our own fields we are able to see our assumptions with new eyes and approach the familiar with new questions. Much of the time, when I am discussing antibiotics or biology, I am either teaching students or trying to impress peer scientists from other institutions. When conducting interdisciplinary work, a third kind of communication becomes possible wherein I am neither teaching nor sharing exactly but representing. In an interdisciplinary team, I represent my discipline which calls me to secure my foundations in one field in order to make it possible to build a bridge to another discipline.

I am currently part of an interdisciplinary team that is going to be sharing our experience with Christ Animated Learning through a short series of three essays. Our project began when a student asked me to help her think about the role of nurses in fighting antibiotic resistance. As we thought and wrote together it became clear that we needed more expertise from the discipline of nursing in order to speak into the area, so we partnered with a professor from the Nursing Department. That paper was published this year. My colleague from nursing and I later spoke about our project at a “Faculty Coffee” event on our campus. During our talk, two professors in the audience from the Education Department with expertise in behavior analysis became very excited. Our talk made them wonder if Behavioral Skills Training could be helpful in teaching nursing students how to use antibiotics safely. The conversation afterward turned into meetings and then a recognition that we needed more help in order to speak into this area. We partnered with more faculty from nursing and education and our team was built. A year later the data are collected, and the paper is being drafted.

I think that this team was possible because a few necessary preconditions were met. First, the project started with an excited student. Our students are a seemingly infinite river of energy, creativity, and curiosity and so much of our best work comes from trying to channel their interests. Second, the partnership came about because of engaged colleagues. At that Faculty Coffee, the advertised title of our talk was “Training nurses for the fight against antibiotic-resistant microbes,” but nonetheless, my colleagues in education gave up their open hour to come and hear us speak. Interdisciplinary opportunities are only possible when we show up, and I am so glad they showed up that morning. Finally, each of us was willing to invest precious time and energy into this project because our institution has been clear that it values interdisciplinary work. In the rubrics used to evaluate faculty for retention, promotion, and tenure there is special attention given to interdisciplinary research. Ideally, we would do the work because it was interesting, but it is easier to move an interesting question higher up to the to do list when we know the college will reward our effort.

While we needed curious students, engaged faculty, and a supportive institution to build a team, I think that the reason we have worked together so well is much deeper. As colleagues at a Christ-animated institution, we have shared goals, a shared vision, and a shared desire to honor God in all that we do. While our disciplines are distinct and have clear boundaries, God’s creation is a continuous whole. By investigating the world between and beyond our disciplines we are able to see how God is at work in all areas, across every square inch, of creation. God has blessed each area of study with different strengths and ways of looking at the world, and these gifts are for others. Through interdisciplinary work, we are able to share the gifts God has given us with other fields, and in doing so, we realize the disciplines are different but the work of honoring God is the same.

The goal of this project may be to inform nursing practice using Behavior Skills Training, but the goal of the team is to advance the Kingdom of God. With this shared goal, the distance between our disciplines shrinks and the bridges that span the gap are easier to build.

Small Christian colleges are the perfect place to carry out interdisciplinary research. The faculty know the students and what excites them. We know our colleagues, even those in other departments. But most importantly, when we build an interdisciplinary team of scholars from different fields, they are a team of brothers and sisters. We each represent our own discipline, but we are all working for the same Kingdom.

In the next two posts in this series, we will discuss the experience of being part of an interdisciplinary collaboration from the perspectives of the education and nursing colleagues involved in the project.

Clayton D. Carlson

Trinity Christian College
Clayton D. Carlson is a professor of biology at Trinity Christian College.