Faculty voice:

John Beck: Trans-disciplinary Conversations

Sept. 23, 2015

John Beck is an associate professor of human resources and labor relations. Since spring semester of 2011, he has worked with Cynthia Jackson-Elmoore, dean of the Honors College, to run a distinctive evening lecture series, Sharper Focus/Wider Lens. The series has brought together trans-disciplinary panels of MSU faculty and staff to talk on provocative and overarching “big” topics for a broad audience from the campus and community.

Some of the most stimulating and enjoyable conversations that I have had both personally and professionally have been those that involved committed, passionate and knowledgeable people talking on “big” topics across a diverse set of disciplines and backgrounds. Often the opportunity to have such a conversation has come from happenstance — the luck of the draw when sitting in a big gathering.

The funny thing about many of these “trans-disciplinary” conversations is how rarely they occur in our daily, professional lives; it is more likely that we will interact with people who share our disciplines and often our perspective.

Sharper Focus/Wider Lens allows students, faculty, staff and broader community members to have the opportunity to experience such satisfying “trans-disciplinary” conversations on a more intentional, planned and regular basis. 

Sharper Focus Wider Lens panel

Since the inaugural program in March 2011, a discussion of the Arab Spring in wider context, more than 70 faculty and staff have served as panelists for the seventeen programs in the Sharper Focus/Wider Lens series. 

Programs over the four and a half years have covered such topics as “Picking up STEAM (Science and the Arts),” “Brain/Mind/Soul: Locating the Human,” “Questioning Technology,” “The Evolving Nature of Rights,” “Zombies, Apocalypses and Monsters: Real and Imagined,” “Salt Water Encounters: Conducting Research Beneath, Beside and Across the Oceans,” and “Mapping the Boundaries of Friendship: The Changing Nature and Tools of Relationships” to name some.

Honors College Dean Cynthia Jackson-Elmoore and I initiated Sharper Focus/Wider Lens to fill a perceived need for a program that would engage the campus and community in discussions on significant trans-disciplinary topics with panels of MSU faculty and staff experts. We designed Sharper Focus/Wider Lens to cover a wide array of topics, not only for perspective on issues of the day, but on the questions of the centuries.

We recognized that many of the most engaging and vexing problems or possibilities we have faced historically or now face contemporarily are not the province of any single discipline working in isolation; instead, it is evident that such questions must be addressed with multiple viewpoints and methodologies, exactly the strength of bringing diverse disciplines together to talk about such topics.

Our panels have drawn on faculty and staff from the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities and the professional schools. One program for example, “Understanding Genocide over Time and Place,” involved not only a historian of the Jewish Holocaust from James Madison College, but a writer, as well, from the College of Education who has created poetry out of her experiences working with students in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

In another example, for the panel on “Mapping the Boundaries of Friendship: The Changing Nature and Tools of Relationships,” we were able to tap into the team experiences of physicists, the psychological relationships between adolescent girls, the emergent worlds of Facebook and Twitter, and classical literature — all on one panel.

We made a very conscious decision to exclusively showcase the work and talents of MSU faculty and staff on these Sharper Focus/Wider Lens panels because we wanted the campus and community audiences to make a deep connection with the speakers, something that is not always possible with visiting scholars and presenters and to have the opportunity to have a longer and more developed conversation and interaction. This is intended to produce the highest likelihood that students will be exposed to faculty with whom they may take a class, do research or otherwise interact.

Our plans for the 2015-2016 school year involve four topics that are sure to stimulate lively and engaged discussion between our panels of faculty and staff experts and the campus and community audience in attendance. We kick off the fall semester exploring the region and culture above the Mackinac Bridge in a program on September 28 titled, “What’s UP: the Past, Present and Future of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”

We follow that program later in the semester with a panel, “Seeing China,” which will look across the disciplines at the land, peoples and cultures of the globe’s most populous nation; this panel builds on the current campus-wide collaboration, “The China Experience: An MSU Exploration of Arts & Culture.”

We kick off the spring semester with an exploration of “The Nature of Inequality;” this trans-disciplinary panel will be part of the “Advancing Equality” programming taking place under the auspices of the second year of Project 60/50, led by the MSU Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. The last program of the 2015-2016 year, “It’s All Politics,” will build on the interest in the 2016 presidential election and will feature a discussion of politics on a variety of levels from a diversity of disciplines.

For me, coordinating Sharper Focus/Wider Lens has reinforced the diversity and immense talents of MSU’s faculty and staff.

It is wonderful to have an opportunity to talk across disciplines about topics in ways that can inspire us to know more and to think more broadly.