One of the charming features of the SIF’s development is the haphazard way it has accumulated projects to work on. We were founded with the idea of being a labor force for faculty with ideas that needed implementation. This open-ended mission contributed to a fellowship program that has helped projects coming from disciplines all across the university, from English and History to Physics and Geosciences and the School of Public Health. This disciplinary agnosticism has been a virtue, and I think it has helped push all of us in the program into interdisciplinary work and perspectives. I can also be a tool to endear us to multiple aspects of the university by spreading our impact into as many areas as possible, and it can easily and fairly be seen as contributing to a kind of grass-roots, democratic impulse within the university, as ideas from faculty and lecturers bubble up in a refreshingly protean kind of way.
However, it has also contributed to certain problems within the SIF. Last year in particular, there were disjunctions between the projects we were supporting and the workforce we had. This has gotten better this year – but it still seems to me that we have some projects (3D Atlanta, for instance) that are over-supplied and others that are under supplied (anything involving video, for example). I think it has also contributed to our continuing willingess to take on more projects than is wise, some of which are pretty vague and do more to foster a sense of chaos than anything else. And, as our meeting with the CS SIF’s last week seemed to indicate, the more projects we have going at any one moment, the more difficult it becomes to coordinate work on them so that we achieve steady progress towards completing them. So, a couple of advantage of a more deliberate process for choosing SIF projects would be better capacities to match labor to needs, and increased ability to coordinate labor across projects.
Moreover, if the SIF evolves in the training directions that we have been outlining in our NEH grant application, we will be changing from an organization that works on projects generated from the outside into one that generates its own projects (albeit in consultation with others). On the whole, I think these will be positive changes insofar as they represent more intentional design. This is something about which Michael Crow has written in his work on the New American University. This is not the time or place to go into the complex merits and problems of Crow’s vision for the future of universities, but one thing I think he is correct in pointout is the importance of active design in education, especially in the area of interdisciplinary work. Ideally, a SIF project should exhibit a high level of intentional design, so that it can produce value not only to the university and/or the faculty involved, but also maximize the learning opportunity it presents to the SIF fellows who will work on it.