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A grant from the Mellon Foundation will help the University of Minnesota Press and Institute for Advanced Study bring about the blossoming of interdisciplinary research.

Crossing the lines

The University of Minnesota Press and Institute for Advanced Study write the book on interdisciplinary research

By Deane Morrison

Nov. 6, 2007

Every electrician knows that sparks fly when you cross lines, and that's exactly what people at the University of Minnesota Press and Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) have in mind. With help from a new $672,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the two University organizations are launching an initiative to integrate the University of Minnesota Press into the intellectual life of the University by involving it intimately with the work of scholars eager to cross departmental lines. The initiative will create working groups that mix faculty in the humanities and social sciences with those in the hard sciences and professional schools. Located in downtown Minneapolis, U Press is well known to large numbers of faculty at the University and elsewhere. It has a reputation for pioneering scholarship in humanities and social sciences, says its director, Douglas Armato, and about 80 percent of its authors are situated outside the University. The press is already known for interdisciplinary publishing, and the Mellon-funded initiative will give that endeavor a big boost. If it sounds as though a stream of overly technical books is about to be unleashed, fear not. When scholars from different areas talk to each other, the first casualty is impenetrable language, says IAS director Ann Waltner, a history professor. "Rule number one of interdisciplinary work is you have to learn to talk so people outside your discipline can understand it," she says. "Then smart people in a general audience can understand it, too." Nevertheless, the initiative has its work cut out for it. "Interdisciplinarity has made great strides, but there's still a big gap between social sciences and humanities and other sciences," says Armato. "All university presses have a faculty committee to assess the validity of proposed books. I've been in university presses for 30 years, and there's a lot of innovative work we publish here that would never get by the conservative faculty elsewhere. "Our goal is to reorient ourselves and create a model for other university presses." Called the Quadrant Program, the new initiative will support publishing projects by faculty collaboratives in four areas, each sponsored by a University unit:

By simultaneously launching all four collaboratives, Quadrant will help U Press achieve its goal of integration by immediately forging a multipronged connection between the press and faculty scholars. And, starting next fall, the Mellon support will allow IAS to bring in three or four scholars from outside the University each year to work with the collaboratives. Currently, IAS can give fellowships only to University faculty.

"I've been in university presses for 30 years, and there's a lot of innovative work we publish here that would never get by the conservative faculty elsewhere."--Doug Armato

A sampling of books U Press has already published gives a taste of what the four collaboratives could do. In the realm of health and society, U Press recently published Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, by Samantha King of Queen's University, Ontario. Drawing from fields like politics, medicine, and sociology, the book claims, among other things, that high-profile events like 5K races and merchandising to promote a cure for breast cancer actually exploit women with the disease and deflect attention from the search for its causes and ways to prevent it. In another U Press book, Designs on the Public: The Private Lives of New York's Public Spaces, University faculty member Kristine F. Miller shines a light on who actually controls New York City's "public" spaces. Miller, an associate landscape architecture professor, critiques how design helps the city exclude undesirables, restrict activities, and favor commercial interests. "Now, New York's City Hall prohibits protests," says Armato, citing an example of how politicians stifle the public in the one place where it ought to be heard. The book, due out in December, also shows how design can turn things around. Topics of interest to the global cultures collaborative might include human rights and violence against women on the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as immigration and the Hmong and Somali diasporas. In the environmental sustainability collaborative, among possible themes are the environmental impact of U.S. military interventions and how U.S. consumer culture affects ecosystems and the sustainability movement. "From my own work, it seems that the environment is an issue we won't get a handle on without being interdisciplinary," says Waltner. "There's a sense that science may not be the hard part--instead, it's human behavior." A potential phase of the Quadrant Program could also bring in University Libraries to set up a means for all the scholars to share or archive their work. Up-and-coming scholars will likely be first among the beneficiaries. "It's all about bringing more energy to the University, especially with younger scholars," says Armato.