IRISE Rising

Posted by Dean Saitta on June 18, 2013
Denver, Intercultural City, Placemaking

In previous posts I’ve addressed my university’s interest in building partnerships with the city of Denver and some of the barriers that impede interdisciplinary teaching and research on campus. The prospects for better partnerships and interdisciplinary work on a host of topics may have just improved with pilot funding that’s been awarded to a new initiative at DU, the Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of Social (In)Equality, or IRISE.  This is one of six initiatives to emerge from a “Renew DU” strategic planning process aimed at transforming teaching and research at the university. In my view IRISE is potentially the most transformative of the six funded initiatives. The IRISE Advisory Board—of  which I’m a member—met for the first time last week to get our work off the ground. We’ve been asked to help promote the cause, hence this post.

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IRISE comes out of DU’s Center for Multicultural Excellence.  The goal of IRISE is to

…provide an institutional structure dedicated to (1) facilitating the interdisciplinary development of teaching and learning, research, and creative works focused on promoting equality for domestic historically marginalized communities, and (2) supporting institutional efforts to increase access and equity for domestic historically underrepresented populations in the Academy…Our overall aim is to create a permanent institute and establish an intellectual home for faculty and students to engage in teaching and learning, research, scholarship, and creative works that advance Inclusive Excellence and diversity at DU, as well furthering DU’s public good mission by extending and connecting this work to local communities.

The mechanisms that IRISE will use for accomplishing this goal include recruiting post-doctoral researchers and visiting scholars for residencies of one to two years, offering curriculum development grants to faculty and research grants to students, and hosting guest speakers, workshops, reading groups, seminars, and conferences.

The IRISE Advisory Board is still discussing whether we’ll prioritize particular thematic areas for research, or simply keep things as open as possible. Both approaches have their merits, and IRISE can be a player on just about any front. Personally, I’m hopeful that IRISE will attend to social inequalities in city planning and development, and how these inequalities are reinforced by urban design, architecture, the configuration of built space, and other “materialities.”  The historical moment is certainly right for engaging with this theme.  We’re living in the age of the city. Cities now contain most of the people living on the planet.  They are increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries of nature and the vicissitudes of global geopolitics.  They’re also becoming much more ethnically diverse.  As we’re discovering courtesy of the troubles in Turkey (sparked by plans to re-develop a city park in Istanbul) and the insurgency that’s erupting in Brazil (catalyzed by the rising cost of public transportation), we ignore social equity issues around urban development at our own peril.

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Urban Haves and Have-Nots? “Paraisópolis”, São Paulo, Brazil

Social equity issues around urban development are as significant in Denver as anywhere else.  The’ve been the subject for numerous posts on this blog, including multicultural planning (see also here), homelessnessaffordable housingwater rightspark design and use, and access to public space. These issues require interdisciplinary attention. They make our city a fertile—and perhaps extraordinarily attractive—ground for teaching, research, and public outreach that integrates the arts, sciences, and professional schools. I see IRISE as having considerable potential for catalyzing interactions and synergies between several other entities on campus whose subject matters encompass the social equity of urban development.  These include the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, the Intermodal Transportation Institute, the Institute for Enterprise Ethics, and the new Center for Sustainability.  With the rise of MOOCs throwing into question the value of a residential education it might be wise to intensify the case-making for why students and faculty should come to live and study in Denver as opposed to living and studying someplace else.  It’s certainly hard for me to imagine a better natural laboratory than Denver for investigating issues in the cultural and environmental sustainability of human settlement.

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Lincoln Park, Denver, after the Occupy eviction of 15 October 2011 (D. Saitta)

Whatever directions IRISE goes, its leadership is in great hands and the prospects are exciting.  The Big Question concerns the willingness and ability of other academic entities to play ball.  Here, I speak for myself and not anyone else associated with IRISE.  Interdisciplinary work is not about combining people from different areas only to have them do the same old stuff in the company of others.  Established disciplines already have substantial track records of borrowing, sharing, and poaching topics, theories, and methods across the boundaries that divide them (behaviors that are captured by the concepts of multi-disciplinarity and cross-disciplinarity). Will the traditional academic units at DU help IRISE pool expertise and resources in ways that can raise their own boats while furthering a common endeavor? Will participants in collaborative projects to study social inequality be able to recognize new analytical ground that no single discipline currently occupies? Will they be able to collectively imagine and invent the brand new models, concepts, metaphors, heuristics, and methods that might be required for solving the numerous equity problems that currently bedevil us?  Given that interdisciplinary work tests inter-personal as well as professional skills, will collaborators be able to subordinate individual egos and career ambitions to a greater cause? Will promotion and tenure committees at different levels of the university, and the individual deans of academic units, fully appreciate what interdisciplinary scholarship involves?  Will the central administration actively and publicly encourage interactions and synergies between departments, institutes, and centers in ways that can advance the institution’s mission to serve the public good?  Just as importantly, will academic leaders help IRISE recruit and retain–for the long haul–faculty that will help us look a little more like the public and the city we seek to serve?

The questions are many and the answers will come with time.  We’ll be keeping tabs here.

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