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.
Stanley Katz, Chronicle of Higher Ed – The Chronicle Review – Brainstorm, Dec. 4, 2008
I wrote in my last post about the downside of specialization, and one of the commenters quite rightly responded that whatever the virtues of a more general orientation, generalists have a hard time finding academic employment these days.
Quite right. I am, alas, sure that the trend to subdisciplinarity will not disappear anytime soon. But the problem is even more profound. Luke Menand, one of my favorite commentators on higher education, recently gave a paper at Princeton on interdisciplinarity, a much ballyhooed style of scholarship and pedagogy these day s. Luke’s main point was that what we normally call “interdisciplinarity” is really better described as hyperdisciplinarity, since it depends utterly upon disciplinary knowledge: “It is not an escape from disciplinarity; it is the scholarly and pedagogical ratification of disciplinarity.” Or, “Interdisciplinarity is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. . . . [It] actually rigidifies disciplinary paradigms.” Luke goes further, and claims that interdisciplinarity is a symptom of anxiety about professional status (which has traditionally been created by the disciplines), an attempt to shake free of the constraints imposed by the disciplines — but it cannot go far enough to do the job.
(Inside Higher Education, September 5, 2008)
Most faculty hiring is done department by department — a method that many scholars say contributes to the difficulties for those whose teaching and research can’t be neatly placed in one departmental box. Professors have complained for years that to do interdisciplinary work, they need to get hired by one discipline (playing down out-of-field interests), and then post-hire or post-tenure, they can branch out. After all, many a search committee is more impressed by a willingness to teach survey or intro courses than a desire to work with the department across the quad.
Seeking to break that pattern, Michigan Technological University used a new system in hiring this year. As in past years, it had about 25 professors’ slots open to fill existing positions on its faculty of 305. In recent years, the university has been able to replace those who leave, but hasn’t added positions. This year, the university made seven hires on top of replacing the existing faculty positions — but none of these searches were managed by departments. While those hired are working with one or more departments, they applied and were evaluated universitywide, and all around a single theme: for their ability to contribute to the study of sustainability. … Read more at: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/09/05/michtech
What do you think? Worth exploring?
Here’s an interesting experiment that has been implemented by Villanova’s undergraduate business program in order to spur innovation and integration in the curriculum. One aspect is to combine specific skills (e.g. communications, technology) so that they can be taught across the curriculum, which can enable students to get at “the big picture,” rather than compartmentalized sections. James Danko, the business dean also attempted to restructure departments to get at the goal of curricular integration. According to an article in “Inside Higher Education” (June 2, 2008: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/06/02/villanova), Danko “made ‘trial departments’ called strategic initiative groups. Professors were offered the chance to take a ‘leave of absence’ from their own department to join these groups. Some of these groups have focused on course development while others have focused on research. He said he encouraged the faculty to work in a ‘multidisciplinary way.’ This faculty reorganization became a precursor to the change in curriculum.”
Leaves of absence from departments, anyone?