New ILA issues call for Interdisciplinary Fellows

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Dec. 1, 2014

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“What we want to do is provide the faculty with an opportunity to branch out into new areas, take intellectual risks and try new things,” says philosophy professor Mark Risjord, who currently serves as ILA planning director. Emory Photo/Video.

When philosophy professor Mark Risjord was asked to help envision a new kind of faculty fellowship for Emory's Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts (ILA), it came with an intriguing challenge.

"Go out and imagine," Risjord recalls Emory College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robin Forman saying. "Don't think that you have to somehow start from the platform of what we have now. Figure out what would be good to do and then we'll figure out how to make it work."

The ILA has been engaged in a three-year transition from its status as a department, with permanent, assigned faculty, to an institute, with rotating faculty — as outlined under a 2012 Emory College of Arts and Sciences (ECAS) restructuring plan.

"The charge I was given was to figure out what an interdisciplinary institute would look like if it's not a department, which I found to be a very interesting question," says Risjord, who currently serves as ILA planning director.

This month, Risjord offers a glimpse into a new, revised vision for the ILA with a call for applications for Interdisciplinary Faculty Fellowships — an invitation for Emory College faculty to experiment with pedagogies that promote the core values of a liberal arts education in a collaborative intellectual environment through new interdisciplinary projects.

The multi-year fellowships are designed to allow ECAS faculty members to reduce normal departmental obligations while pursuing new fields of inquiry through the ILA. Fellows would typically receive a three-year, half-time appointment to the ILA, where they would teach two courses related to their research project and devote their remaining time to research, according to Risjord.

The fellowships are open to tenured, tenure-track or lecture-track faculty members in ECAS, who may apply as individuals or teams of no more than two. Fellows will also be permitted to collaborate with Emory faculty in other professional schools and divisions, as well as other universities. New faculty fellows are expected to be in place by Fall 2015.

"What we want to do is provide the faculty with an opportunity to branch out into new areas, take intellectual risks and try new things — to pursue research projects that are interdisciplinary in the sense that they require different kinds of expertise, different literatures, different methodologies, bringing faculty and students from different backgrounds into conversation," Risjord says.

What's next for the ILA?

In helping shape a new role for the ILA, Risjord first consulted a report commissioned two years ago by Dean Forman, when he appointed a committee led by English professor Laura Otis to examine restructuring possibilities.

From Forman's perspective, "the important takeaway from that report was that we should find some way of making this very interesting opportunity to work on interdisciplinary projects available more broadly to the faculty," Risjord recalls.

This fall, Risjord assembled a committee to help refine that vision, including:

  • Tina Brownley, Goodrich C. White Professor of English and director of the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry;
  • Robert McCauley, director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture;
  • Cliff Carrubba, Winship Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science and department chair and director of the Institute for Quantitative Theory and Methods;
  • Robyn Fivush, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology, associate vice-provost for Academic Innovation, and chair of the Coalition on the Liberal Arts (CoLA).
  • Eric Weeks, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Physics and department chair.

The Faculty Fellowship program arose from the work of the committee. "We've proposed that we establish our faculty program first, then work on ways to enhance interdisciplinarity in graduate and undergraduate education," Risjord says.

The expertise of current ILA faculty is also being sought on how best to sculpt those initiatives, Risjord says. He will be meeting with ILA alumni focus groups this spring to discuss changes.

Embracing innovation, intellectual risk

The new Interdisciplinary Faculty Fellowships program seeks to provide opportunities for faculty to pursue complex and innovative research questions, to expand graduate or undergraduate education in novel ways, and to build interdisciplinary communities.

That means research projects will ideally be at the early stages of development and offer potential for broad impact, while also posing a measure of intellectual risk, Risjord says.

At Emory's Laney Graduate School, expanded opportunities for interdisciplinary scholarship are welcomed. "We understand the value of authentic interdisciplinarity that goes beyond the boundaries of units and schools," says Laney Graduate School Dean Lisa Tedesco.

"Confronting complex challenges often requires expanding our perspectives to include new ideas, new methodologies, and new knowledge," she says. "Interdisciplinary research and scholarship provides the framework to engage these challenges."

Fellowship applications will be due next semester, with appointments to be announced this spring. Risjord says he anticipates that four fellows will initially be selected for a three-year appointment, with plans to grow that pool in coming years to as many as a dozen fellows.

In some ways, he adds, the timing is fortuitous. Not only will the faculty fellowships carry forward the interdisciplinary momentum of the ILA, "I see this as institutionalizing some of the interdisciplinary recommendations that came out of the CoLA report," notes Risjord.

Fivush agrees. "We're absolutely moving on the same path toward the same goals and objectives," she says. "All around campus we're seeing multiple initiatives to create these kinds of new interdisciplinary endeavors."

"I think it attests to a real excitement and interest in creating interdisciplinary learning communities that may be overlapping, fluid and supportive of each other," she adds.

The impact of both initiatives is already making a difference, says Provost Claire Sterk. "The collaborative and interdisciplinary ideas that are being generated through the ILA and CoLA are creating a highly visible synergy around the liberal arts at Emory," says Sterk. "As we begin to implement these ideas, we strengthen Emory as a distinctive place of excellence that grounds students with a strong liberal education."

Helping to provide seed funding for the newly imagined Institute is a gift from the Abraham J. and Phyllis Katz Family Foundation, which supports advances in medicine, life enhancement and music.

For more information about the Interdisciplinary Faculty Fellowships, faculty are invited to contact Risjord (mark.risjord@emory.edu) or attend one of the following informational sessions:

  • Monday, Dec. 8, 4-5 p.m. at the Center for Mind Brain and Culture, located in suite 464 of the Psychology and Interdisciplinary Sciences building, 36 Eagle Row.
  • Thursday, Jan. 15, 4-5 p.m. at the Institute for Quantitative Theory and Methods, suite 405 in the Modern Languages building, 532 Kilgo Circle.