Chronicle of Higher Education, Section: Commentary
Jan. 23, 2009 (Volume 55, Issue 20), Page A34
By KAREN GROSS and ANNE MYRKA
No major social problem can be solved within any single field of study, yet traditional academic silos often fail to demonstrate to students the interdisciplinary nature of our world’s problems — and, unfortunately, many students rarely cross those invisible lines between disciplines. While some institutions have developed bold and creative multidisciplinary courses and majors, such programming can be difficult to carry out at institutions that lack abundant resources, especially in an economic climate that dictates frugality.
In an effort to find a feasible way to provide quality interdisciplinary teaching on a small campus, Southern Vermont College has introduced a program called Roving Professors. A select group of professors — the Rovers — visit multiple classes across the college’s five divisions, and each one integrates his or her specialty into each course visited, illustrating how subjects interrelate and how different disciplines are synergistic. Roving differs from team teaching in that it does not occur regularly within a single course over the semester, and the Rover is not a contributor to overall course planning or grading.
How the program works: Professors chosen for interdisciplinary roving must be excellent teachers in addition to having broad-reaching understandings of their fields. They have to be comfortable leading classes that are not their own and able to show students the sometimes hidden connections between seemingly disparate concepts. Rovers must be flexible and well-rounded, capable of responding to questions and material outside their primary fields of study, and able to navigate classroom skepticism of the relevance of interdisciplinarity.
Given our large and growing institutional focus on health care, we began with a Rover with expertise in pharmaceuticals, seeking to demonstrate the connections between drug and related health-care issues and other disciplines. For example, the Rover demonstrated the use of electronic medical records to an information-technology course, and discussed the impact of recreational drugs on juveniles in a juvenile-justice course. During the spring 2008 semester, our Rover visited 14 classes across the curriculum, teaching one class per week on subjects that encompassed nursing, abnormal psychology, juvenile justice, information technology, and business ethics. During the semester, the Rover taught 150 students, which was approximately 41 percent of our then total student population.
Nonroving professors participate actively in classes taught by the Rovers through classroom discussion and interdisciplinary debate. For example, in the abnormal-psychology class, the Rover and the course instructor posed the questions: Is depression better treated through psychoanalysis, with drug therapy, or using some combination of the two?
We plan to adjust and improve the program based on feedback from student and faculty participants. This academic year, we hope to raise student awareness of the program and help Rovers adapt more varied teaching techniques to capture the interest of a diverse student population. We also hope to create better ways to integrate Rovers into existing courses.
Benefits: Student response to the Rover pilot project has been strongly positive. Almost three-quarters of the students taught by a Rover thought the presentation enhanced their overall understanding of the course, and more than 80 percent felt they had something to learn from a professional outside their own major. This type of inquiry between disciplines can create within students the cognitive dissonance that leads to deeper learning.
From an institutional perspective, a Roving Professor program is advantageous and economically feasible, as just one Rover can reach many students. On campuses with limited resources, a Rover program can be a cost-efficient way to provide critical bridges among diverse schools of thought, helping students experience firsthand the interplay among the academic disciplines and how that interaction broadens our thinking and approaches to problem-solving.
Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College. Anne Myrka shares a joint faculty appointment at Southern Vermont College, where she chairs the division of science and technology, and Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.