3. Can interdisciplinary work be the key?

  1. Are there ways that interdisciplinary work can help us achieve both goals? That is, to ensure students access to a high quality liberal arts education with coverage of a sufficiently broad and deep curriculum, while also ensuring that the college is on sound financial footing?

Author: Dan Ryan

I've been an Academic Program Director at MinervaProject.com, a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. My current mission is to figure out how to reorganize higher education and exploit technology so that we can teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

4 thoughts on “3. Can interdisciplinary work be the key?”

  1. “Coverage” is probably a misleading or at least distracting concept in this discussion. The question presumes that some version of coverage, breadth, and depth are the essential characteristics of LA education.

    Is “interdisciplinarity” important going forward? Probably. But you can't be interdisciplinary unless you start with some disciplinarity.

    I think what the question is really pointing to is this: can you build a liberal arts program around something other than a menagerie of discipline-based majors where each major has a legitimate claim to need to have all of its parts “covered” in the curriculum? I find it helpful to organize my thinking about this by first laying out some distinctions.

    One version of an alternative is something we already have some of: the “slash” major as in biology/chemistry in which a student would study much/most of what is required in each of these disciplinary majors. Sometimes this can be so institutionalized that the slash disappears and you just have biochemistry or biopsychology.

    A second version is the “managed buffet” approach – as we have in our PLEA major at my own institution. Here the student fills a curricular plate with servings selected from a vetted set of intellectual food groups.

    A third version is the curated smorgasbord in which a diverse set of courses is assembled around a theme or problem. Some “college majors” take this form, but we can also imagine programs like this that are faculty rather than student curated.

    Each of these generates organizational advantages. Type 1 allows for more student options without making us confront the discipline-major nexus directly. It has the possible disadvantage of expanding rather than reducing need for faculty expertise and it may well not draw new students but only move students from single majors to these hybrids.

    Type 2 might represent possibility of some truly novel programs that have a separate market. These programs can be expensive if we start to need special versions of courses or more frequent rotations of courses than would be needed in home disciplines. Management of these programs is sometimes a challenge and we tend to fail to budget for that.

    Type 3 probably has biggest possibility of creating new enrollment draw, but they could also have the high management overhead. The advantage to the college is that this overhead would probably be unacknowledged extra work for interested faculty.

    A fourth version is probably what the accountants have in mind: what if every major had on average, say, 20% of its required courses be courses offered in other departments or programs? For a 15 course major this would mean 3 required courses, all of which could be elective requirements. For a four year student the experience would be one course “outside” the major counting as a major requirement per year (soph, jun, sen). If we look, some majors already have something like this (as when a science major requires calculus, for example). Understanding the impact on class size, scheduling, FTE deployment, and budget requires a little more analysis than we have room for here, but it's worth exploring.

  2. Having three interdisciplinary degrees, I'm all for it. I also understand that interdisciplinary work presupposes disciplines. What would be interesting would be for people in disciplines to think hard about what they think are the key elements of their field that they would want someone to understand if they were to make use of that field without majoring in it. Then see how that kind of material could be offered to students who want to do interdisciplinary work.

  3. That would possibly be a much more useful exercise than the program assessment work we have done or been asked to do. Simply zero in on your program's key take-aways – what is your contribution to the discussion of X, where X is some interdisciplinary endeavor.

  4. In a playful moment, we might think of an interdisciplinary program as a potluck major and ask existing disciplines what they will bring. Everyone cannot bring salads and desserts.

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