Building Academic Bridges
A University program offers a boost to intellectual explorations across sometimes far-flung disciplines. By Scott Hauser
A bassoon-playing-engineering- professor-doing-cool-stuff-with-digital music probably would have turned up sooner or later when David Headlam, associate professor of music theory at the Eastman School of Music, was looking for better ways to teach a class on acoustics in the mid–1990s.
But thanks to a Rochester program that allows faculty the time to explore work in other disciplines, Headlam not only met amateur musician and professor Mark Bocko, but the two have been able to work extensively together.
Since 1995, their partnership has resulted in new courses—both at Eastman and in the College—as well as new research projects and new laboratory space devoted to the study of digital music.
Both credit the Bridging Fellowships —a Universitywide program which provides faculty with as much as a year away from their respective departments to explore new areas—with jump- starting their crossdivisional collaboration.
For Headlam, an expert on analyzing the qualities of sounds, that meant time to learn computer programming; for Bocko, an expert on superconducting electronics, it was time to train his ear as a musician (he also plays bass).
For both, it meant time to explore new ideas.
“We both bring our knowledge and our training to work on problems that we are interested in and that we think would benefit from our different perspectives,” says Headlam.
Finding ways to take advantage of such crossdisciplinary perspectives is the goal of the fellowship program, says Provost Charles Phelps, who notes that he’s unaware of a similar program at any comparable university. He says Rochester’s relatively small size as a research institution encourages such collaboration.
“People are more likely to bump into each other here and to talk about what they are working on and find areas of common interest,” he says.
Out of that interaction can come great scholarship, he says.
“What make us think people are interesting in their fields?” he asks. “They are people who are curious and interested in asking new questions.”
Since the late 1970s, about 40 faculty members have undertaken projects between the College and Eastman, the School of Nursing and the College, the Simon School and the Medical Center, and others.
Fellows design their own programs of study while on leave. Some take classes, some partner with other faculty—whatever they think they need to get a good grounding in a new field.
While fellowships within the same academic division are not discouraged, Phelps says the program is deliberately designed for faculty to work outside their units altogether.
“Quite often, the most interesting ideas pop out of the most uncommon ways of thinking about things,” Phelps says. “We’re hoping to find the spark that sets off an intellectual inferno.”
The fellowships differ from other forms of leave in that for the typical leave, faculty have to do exactly that—leave the University for a time. “This is out-of-field within the University,” Phelps says. “The normal leave is out-of-the-University and within the field.”
Mattie Schmitt, professor of nursing, says the work she completed during her 1980–81 fellowship continues to apply to her work as a researcher and teacher.
Schmitt, who holds a doctorate in sociology, spent a year in the Department of Anthropology, where she learned a new set of social science skills, particularly in ethnography. The training played a role as the nursing school implemented its doctoral program in 1979.
“We built up a little cadre of folks who had a broad skill set in qualitative, social science methodology that was, I think, unique,” Schmitt says. “A qualitative methods requirement was introduced into the program, which brought more balance to an otherwise quantitative approach. We expect our graduates to be comfortable with both approaches.”
The ethnographic training also has broadened Schmitt’s research efforts. A recent example is a federal research grant (with Judith Baggs, professor of nursing and associate dean for academic student affairs) for an ethnographic study of how patients, families, and providers in intensive care units make end-of-life decisions.
In combining their efforts, Bocko and Headlam have established a Music Research Laboratory at the College (with a branch at Eastman under way) and are working on a project aimed at improving “real-time” electronic transmission of live performances.
Both say the fellowships have sharpened their perspectives as faculty members and as teachers.
“It’s good to get a sense of the culture in a different department,” Headlam says. “You find out how another area of the University operates, which is helpful.”
And, they admit, diving into a new area can be eye-opening for faculty members who are used to knowing an area so well that they sometimes forget what it’s like to learn material for the first time.
“It makes you realize what it’s like not to know anything about a field and start from scratch,” Bocko says. “But you also rediscover the sense of what being a researcher is all about. People who are really effective at doing research are personally invested in the ideas and want to learn more about them.”
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