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IOWA CITY - Every summer, University of Iowa assistant professor Robert Cargill, an archaeologist and biblical scholar, takes students to Israel for hands-on work at the Tel Azekah archaeological site.
And that, by itself, can be a life-altering academic experience. But, Cargill said, the learning doesn't stop there, as he helps students connect their findings with religious history and then matriculate them to the digital realm.
'I take the information we uncover in the earth and pull it into a virtual reality model,” Cargill said. 'Then I can take that digital reconstruction and bring it back to an Iowa classroom.”
The work, he said, exemplifies possibilities that emerge through converging different disciplines - in this case humanities, religious and digital studies. It also bridges the university's academic and research missions.
'And that's the jackpot,” he said. 'The goal of a research institution is to generate new knowledge and bring it into the classroom.”
Cargill was hired to function as a sort of hybrid-faculty member as part of one of the UI's first 'cluster hire” initiatives. The university developed the initiatives by hiring groups of faculty members from various disciplines to work together to address broad interest areas, 'or grand challenges of the 21st century.”
Since 2011, the university has hired 49 tenure-track faculty into a total of seven initiatives, including ones focused on informatics, genetics, obesity and the aging mind and brain.
UI officials said they believe interdisciplinary cooperation - enabled through the concept of cluster hiring - will play a big role in the future of higher education instruction, research and employment. Cargill agreed and said the cluster he was hired into in 2011 - the Public Humanities in a Digital World initiative - seemed to be designed just for him.
'When I saw the religious studies position, I took note,” he said. 'And when I saw the digital aspect, I thought they wrote a position specifically for me.”
The digitally cued archaeology and biblical scholar had been working in the realm of digital reconstruction before the Iowa job popped up. And, Cargill said, the gig he signed up for has been exactly what it set out to be.
'It's digital humanities, and it's absolutely stayed true to that,” he said. 'That's what they hired me to do. And that's what I'm doing.”
‘There are grand challenges'
In addition to crossing boundaries within his own work, Cargill said the cluster concept has enabled collaboration and cooperation with other faculty across various departments, such as art history and English. And he said that mirrors today's workforce.
'We work in an increasingly interdisciplinary world,” he said, adding that hiring faculty with a broader skill sets helps institutions' bottom lines.
'This is also being driven by the finances of public universities,” he said. 'We don't have the money any more to hire a bunch of really narrow specialists.”
UI Provost Barry Butler said efficiencies across the board were in mind at the advent of the cluster hire initiative, which aims to maintain and strengthen the university's research and creative excellence by facilitating 'multidisciplinary scholarship, instruction, and public service.”
'The basic goal and reason for doing this is we recognize the fact that areas of interest for moving the institutions forward go beyond single departments,” Butler told The Gazette. 'There are grand challenges and large-scale issues that cross multiple colleges, and we wanted to create a process of identify those grand challenges ...
'We have recognized that ideas come and go and initiatives come and go,” Butler said. 'We are making sure they are achieving what we thought they would achieve.”
But, to date, the feedback has been stellar, Butler said, with reports of an economics professor receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health for obesity research, for example, and an engineering professor organizing a statewide symposium reacting to the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
'There are a lot of good stories like that,” Butler said. 'And they all come back to the fact that having a team of people from multiple disciplines is stronger than the individuals themselves - particularly in these issues of grand challenges.”