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Faculty Forum Papers



David A. Bella
Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering
Oregon State University

August 2000

On Sustained Interdisciplinary Dialogue

In this forum paper, I present a problem: the ongoing failure of faculty to sustain interdisciplinary discourse on a wide range of important topics. My approach will follow three guidelines.

Guideline 1: When approaching a problem, draw a sketch.

Disciplined sketching allows one to see past distracting details to uncover what is fundamental to a problem.

Figure 1. A Simple Sketch Showing How "We" Faculty Tend to Behave.

In this simple sketch, the boxes contain behaviors, incoming arrows provide reasons and outgoing arrows point to consequences. To read this sketch, first read either boxed statement. Then proceed to another statement, forward or backward along the arrow. If you move forward, say "therefore," if backward, say "because." Then, read the next statement.

The above sketch is incomplete because it does not meet my second guideline.

Guideline 2: Every behavior has a reason and a consequence (possibly more than one,
but at least one)

Figure 1 fails to meet this guideline because the first behavior in the chain does not have a reason (incoming arrow) and the last behavior does not have a consequence. Guideline 2 can be met by adding one statement and redrawing, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. A Behavioral Loop: A Sketch of a Pattern That "We" Faculty Tend to Act Out.
Every behavior has a reason and consequence.

Because of Guideline 2, the sketch appears in the form of a loop. Only in loops do all behaviors have reasons and consequences. "But," you might object, "Figure 2 is not a problem." You are correct; the sketch is incomplete. To complete the sketch, I rely on Guideline 3.

Guideline 3: When examining complex human problems, avoid blame, practice confession.

Blame is a form of reductionism, reducing problems to parts rather than seeing problems in terms of whole patterns. Confession is not self-blame but rather honest reflection upon our own behaviors. The purpose of such reflection is to expose the context (whole pattern) within which our normal (usual, common, ongoing) behaviors arise. Guideline 3 is applied by enlarging the loop in Figure 2, adding five behavior statements, and providing several relevant arrows (reasons and consequences). The result is Figure 3.

Figure 3. A Complex Problem That "We" Faculty Tend to Sustain. Within the context of this
pattern, all behaviors find reasons.

Read through Figure 3. Begin at any statement, then move forward (say "therefore") or backward (say "because"). Wind your way through the entire sketch, reversing directions and looping back, until you grasp the pattern as a whole. Yes, more is involved, but the advantage of such a sketch is that it uses ordinary language and addresses our own behaviors, lest we merely blame others (recall Guideline 3). I realize that there are important exceptions to such a pattern. I also realize that other factors are involved. But I do feel that Figure 3 can serve to promote reflective inquiry.

A seminar will be held at the following times to discuss this problem (as sketched) with examples of important topics that we have not adequately examined through sustained interdisciplinary dialogue.
    Thursday, October 5, 2000 -- 3:30 p.m., MU 208
    Monday, October 9, 2000 -- 12:30 p.m., MU Learning Lounge (main floor)

Comments can be sent via campus mail to David A. Bella in the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering.
Opinions expressed by authors of Faculty Forum articles are not necessarily those of the OSU Faculty or Faculty Senate.