Interdisciplinary Courses and Majors in Higher Education

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Interdisciplinary studies, broadly defined, is the process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a problem that is so broad or complex that it cannot be addressed through a single discipline or field. In higher education in the United States, interdisciplinary studies are conducted through individual courses, including independent studies; in specific programs of study such as major or minor concentrations; as part of a student's general education requirements; through practica, internships, and other educational experiences that focus on the application of theory and knowledge to the workplace and society; and occasionally through honors programs. In a few cases entire colleges or universities are organized in interdisciplinary units that replace discipline-or field-based departments or divisions.

The goal of most interdisciplinary courses and programs is to integrate the contributions of different academic disciplines or fields of study so that topics, problems, and phenomena under study are better understood. (Disciplines have traditionally have been defined as specializations within the arts and sciences; the term fields is often used to distinguish disciplines from professional fields, such as business, education, law, and medicine, which draw their content and methods from a number of different disciplines.) However, some scholars such as Jean Francois Lyotard contest the usefulness of academic disciplines as ways of organizing and generating knowledge, and thus challenge the idea that disciplines are the basis for interdisciplinarity. These scholars consider interdisciplinarity to be a critique of the disciplines; in their view, the goal of interdisciplinarity is to subvert, rather than to utilize, the disciplines as they are currently organized.

Rationale for Interdisciplinary Courses and Programs

Arguments favoring interdisciplinary teaching emphasize the need to bring multiple disciplinary perspectives to bear on real-world issues. Proponents of interdisciplinarity argue that the disciplines arbitrarily fragment the world and allow their adherents to select only those dimensions of a problem that their discipline can adequately address, thus leaving important dimensions of the problem unaddressed. The views offered by the disciplines are therefore considered partial; they provide a single lens or perspective from which to study and understand complex phenomena or issues. Advocates of interdisciplinarity argue that disciplinary approaches to education are therefore reductionist; they divide knowledge rather than generate comprehensive explanations of the world. Although many if not most proponents of interdisciplinarity believe that disciplines are necessary for the advancement of knowledge, they view overspecialization, in the form of increasing disciplinary isolationism, as impeding communication and understanding among disciplinary experts, their students, and the larger public that might be consumers or beneficiaries of their work.

Those who encourage interdisciplinary education seek holistic understandings of the social and natural worlds. Real-world problems, they argue, are not separated into disciplinary components; rather, they are complex, hard to define, challenging to solve, and often have more than one right answer. Such problems require that individuals know what kinds of information are needed and where to find that information. By requiring students to work on such problems, the argument proceeds, interdisciplinary education develops a number of intellectual skills. These include skills in problem solving, critical thinking, evaluation, synthesis, and integration. In addition, interdisciplinary courses are believed to develop the ability to see and employ multiple perspectives; to encourage tolerance and respect for the perspectives of others; to expand students' horizons or perspectives; to increase their willingness and capacity to question assumptions about the world and about themselves; to promote the ability to think in creative and innovative ways; and to create sensitivity to disciplinary and other biases. As a result, advocates argue, interdisciplinary study is excellent preparation for the role of citizen and worker in a pluralistic, technological, and democratic society.

Proponents such as James R. Davis, William H. Newell, and William J. Green also claim that interdisciplinary curricula are more engaging, capturing students' intellectual interests and encouraging them to make connections among the disparate realms of information provided by discrete disciplines. Even scholars, this argument continues, need to know about developments in other disciplines so that they may adapt or incorporate these into their own work as appropriate. Interdisciplinary training has therefore been recommended by Joseph Klockmans as a way to build bridges to overcome disciplinary isolation. Others argue that interdisciplinary courses can improve faculty morale by revitalizing instructors' interest in teaching introductory or survey courses that are not closely related to their areas of specialization. Similarly, supporters contend that interdisciplinary courses promote faculty development, offering instructors the opportunity to explore new areas of interest and collaborate with colleagues and thereby expand their repertoire of knowledge and skills.

Arguments, such as Thomas C. Benson's, opposing undergraduate interdisciplinary courses and programs typically focus on perceived detriments to student learning. Interdisciplinary study, opponents argue, cannot be effective unless students are first adequately schooled in at least one of the disciplines contributing to an interdisciplinary course or program. Without this foundation, students cannot marshal arguments, methods, or insights from the disciplines in an interdisciplinary course. Critics also assert that substantial commitment to interdisciplinary study as an undergraduate student, as is required in a minor or major program, may impede a student's development of disciplinary competencies. A third argumentthat interdisciplinary courses are shallow and lacking in intellectual rigorbuilds on the previous arguments. This criticism maintains that because students do not have the foundational knowledge of the involved disciplines that allows them to participate in demanding intellectual discussions in interdisciplinary courses, instructors emphasize what is entertaining and most accessible to the majority of students. Opponents also argue that interdisciplinary courses are costly because they often rely on team-teaching, independent studies, and low faculty-student ratios.

Interdisciplinary Study in U.S. Higher Education

The first interdisciplinary courses in U.S. colleges and universities were part of the general education, or core, requirements of the undergraduate curriculum. (General education is that component of the undergraduate curriculum intended to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and values required for life as a contributing member of society.) Although general education has a long history in higher education, interdisciplinary general education courses in the United States did not appear until the twentieth century when World War I prompted U.S. colleges and universities to institute general education courses designed to strengthen Americans' sense of cultural and national identity and responsible citizenship. These comprehensive survey courses, which relied on a number of disciplines for their subject matter, attempted to sustain the content and values of Western civilization. The courses required instructors who could effectively synthesize knowledge and make it accessible to undergraduates and therefore highlighted the need for interdisciplinary approaches to education. Despite concerns about disciplinary fragmentation and academic overspecialization, only a few institutions offered more than a handful of interdisciplinary survey courses; the Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin, which lasted only from 1928 to 1932, is perhaps the most famous example of an institution committed to an extensive interdisciplinary general education.

During the 1930s and 1940s, war again influenced interdisciplinary curricula as institutions developed area studies programs designed to provide knowledge about foreign cultures and peoples involved in World War II. Although international education was spurred by private foundation support before the war, these efforts diversified during and after World War II as programs focused on more and more geographic areas. By 1988, there were more than 600 area studies programs on American campuses.

The social and cultural transformations of the 1960s and 1970s inspired additional interdisciplinary educational efforts. As the civil rights, women's liberation, and Vietnam War protests created demands for more personally and socially relevant, student-centered curricula, institutions responded by offering interdisciplinary courses and programs in a variety of areas. While a few institutions developed interdisciplinary organizational models, most institutions developed interdisciplinary courses and programs that supplemented the usual disciplinary offerings. By the 1970s, interdisciplinary minor and major programs in Black, Chicano, Environmental, Urban, and Women's Studies appeared on campuses across the United States. In the year 2000 Barrie Thorne reported there were more than 700 women's studies programs in U.S. institutions. According to a report published by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2001, in 1998 more than 6,200 associate and baccalaureate degrees were conferred in area, ethnic, and cultural studies. In addition more than 35,000 students earned associate's or baccalaureate degrees in multi/interdisciplinary studies.

During the 1980s concerns about general education heightened and curricular reform in this area was often motivated by a desire to create more meaningful and less fragmented educational experiences for college students. General education distribution requirements, typically filled by allowing students to choose from a variety of introductory courses in selected disciplines, were replaced by a core of interdisciplinary courses common to all students in an institution. Proponents believed the goals of general education would be better served if students engaged in a common conversation regarding cultural and societal issues rather than haphazardly choosing courses from approved lists with little concern for their connection to one another. Interdisciplinary general education requirements often include multicultural studies, environmental studies, Western Civilization, and the Great Books. In the final decades of the twentieth century, the number and type of interdisciplinary curricula greatly increased as programs in cultural studies, interdisciplinary science fields (e.g., neuroscience, molecular biology, and environmental sciences), human ecology, information technology, public policy, and legal and labor studies gained prominence in U.S. colleges and universities.

Interdisciplinary Courses

A distinction is often made between multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary courses, although the difference is more likely one of degree. In multidisciplinary courses, instructors present disciplinary perspectives, often one at a time, without special attention to integrating those perspectives or examining their assumptions. In contrast, instructors in interdisciplinary courses not only examine the underlying assumptions of the disciplines that contribute to the course, but also assist students in integrating the separate disciplinary contributions that have been brought to bear on a topic into an inclusive understanding.

Typically an interdisciplinary course is organized around a topic, broadly defined as an issue, theme, problem, region, era, institution, person, or idea. Different disciplinary (and potentially other) perspectives on the topic are incorporated into readings and assignments. Interdisciplinary courses take a variety of formats and espouse a number of purposes. First-year seminar courses can provide a comprehensive orientation to a field or fields of study, often by probing a single issue, problem, or question. Advanced seminars usually have an integrative purpose, serving as culminating or capstone courses in which students refine analytical and critical methodologies. Fieldwork, internship, service learning, and travel-study courses may also employ interdisciplinary approaches to assist students in connecting life experiences with classroom learning.

Individual instructors often plan and teach interdisciplinary courses, but teams of two or more faculty members from different disciplines or fields of study are also common. Collaboration among faculty teaching interdisciplinary courses can involve course planning, content integration, teaching, and assessment. All members of the faculty team may be involved in planning a course or a single individual can take primary responsibility for this role. Responsibility for instruction can also vary. In some team-taught courses, all members are present in the classroom for each session; they may all contribute to each class session or team members may take responsibility for specific components of the course. In other team-based courses, a core of faculty supplement their lectures and discussions by inviting guest lecturers to provide instruction in a specific area of interest. In a dispersed team model, large classes of students meet together for one class session per week in which all members of the faculty team are present. Subsequent weekly meetings take place in smaller sections taught by a single faculty member. No matter what delivery model is used, team members must make decisions about how student work will be assessed. Faculty may share this task, with each team member reading and commenting on all student work, or they may divide the task among them.

Coordinated studies and learning community models are a variation on the team-taught course. In these models, members of a faculty team coordinate two or more courses that focus on a prearranged theme or topic rather than teaching about that theme or topic in the context of a single course. Each coordinated course is designed to contribute to a wide-ranging understanding of the subject under study; in addition to coordinating content across these courses, instructors may also coordinate course activities and assignments to enhance the learning experience. The multiple-course format is intended to achieve the goal of depth of learning; a few institutions seek to further enhance depth by extending coordinated courses over an academic year rather than confining them to a single semester.

Instructors who teach interdisciplinary courses alone rather than in a team must present disciplinary information and perspectives that are not part of their area of specialization in order to teach an interdisciplinary topic. Most proponents of interdisciplinary courses and programs argue that faculty must have a broad background in the disciplines that are engaged in a particular interdisciplinary course before they can teach it without assistance from other disciplinary experts; faculty teaching an interdisciplinary course must be able to present their own, as well as different, disciplinary perspectives accurately and in depth. Until instructors develop the requisite base of knowledge and skills, proponents of this view believe that "solo" efforts should be discouraged. Faculty development in the form of seminars in which faculty teach one another their disciplines can provide the kind of faculty development needed to support interdisciplinary courses, but can be costly in terms of human and financial resources.

Many interdisciplinary courses are never taught in teams; individual faculty design and teach all the perspectives needed in the course. Faculty trained in interdisciplinary programs may have the necessary background for teaching such courses. Others develop expertise once asked to teach an interdisciplinary course. Interdisciplinary programs sometimes offer incentives to persuade and reward faculty who serve the program. These incentives can take the form of salary stipends, teaching or research assistants, travel money, or funding for the purchase of books or other materials. These incentives provide helpful resources for course preparation and also recognize the time and effort dedicated to the preparation and teaching of an interdisciplinary course.

Team-taught courses are frequently used for general education course sequences and in interdisciplinary programs in which the variety of disciplinary perspectives engaged are disparate, each requiring in depth knowledge of a specific set of methods or concepts, such as in environmental sciences, biochemistry, or urban planning. Individually taught interdisciplinary courses are particularly common in the humanities, women's studies, cultural studies, and ethnic studies, and often include a critique of disciplinary knowledge.

Interdisciplinary Programs

Interdisciplinary major and minor programs take a number of organizational forms, but three forms are prominent: (1) established programs with permanent staffs and program budgets; (2) interdepartmental committees, programs, or colleges with defined curricula but no faculty members appointed solely to the unit; and (3) individually designed majors or other programs that permit students to design, with faculty guidance, customized degree programs to meet their educational needs.

Typically, established programs have a full-or part-time director who provides administrative leadership and who also teaches in the program. Individual faculty in established programs may hold joint appointments with the interdisciplinary program and with one or more departments related to their area of expertise. They may also be appointed for a fixed term to serve an interdisciplinary program (for a portion or all of their time). The number of faculty associated with such programs can vary, but this mode provides stability to the interdisciplinary program because it guarantees at least a portion of a faculty member's time will be dedicated to program responsibilities at a given time.

In interdepartmental committees, programs, or colleges, the program director is either full-or part-time and is responsible for arranging courses to be taught by faculty from different departments. These faculty are not permanent members of the program but are rather borrowed temporarily from their home departments. Such budgetary arrangements leave interdisciplinary programs vulnerable in times of resource and financial stress. Advocates of interdisciplinarity note however that the closer the interdisciplinary program is tied to the mission of the institution, the less likely it is to suffer financially during difficult periods in an institution's history.

Interdisciplinary Colleges and Universities

Most institutions that adopt an interdisciplinary approach value team teaching, student and faculty involvement in curriculum development and in governance, and active participation by the students both in the classroom and in external research or work internships. Academic departments based on disciplinary affiliations are either nonexistent or more fluid than in other institutions. "Great Books" colleges, characteristically small institutions such as St. John's College of Maryland and of Santa Fe, are often labeled interdisciplinary because they explore the foundational ideas and questions that distinguish a civilization. The few Great Books colleges in the U.S. organize their curricula around reading and discussion of what they believe to be a set of classic texts of Western civilization. Proponents of this approach believe that students are best prepared for life when they interact and wrestle with the greatest minds of our civilization, and they opt for a nondisciplinary structure because "neither the world nor knowledge of it is arbitrarily divided up as universities are" (Hutchins, p. 59).

Other interdisciplinary institutions organize curricula around specific societal or environmental issues, and encourage individualized programs of study developed collaboratively by students and faculty. In 1965 the Wisconsin legislature chartered the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay to devise a future-oriented innovative curriculum. Influenced by the ecology movement of the time, Green Bay offered an interdisciplinary curriculum focused on the relationships between humans and their environment. The university organized its colleges around environmental themes rather than academic disciplines and divided its curriculum into nine problem-centered concentrations. Over time, however, Green Bay added disciplinary majors and interdisciplinary minors to its original structure. A smaller institution, the College of the Atlantic, established in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1969 maintained its commitment to one primary issue. It offers individually tailored bachelor's and master's degrees in human ecology, a field that emphasizes the interrelationships between humans and their social and physical environments.

Other institutions, such as Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, offer a more extensive interdisciplinary curriculum. In 1967 Evergreen opened as a nontraditional liberal arts college. Its coordinated studies program allows students to participate in full-time interdisciplinary study through a combination of team-taught programs and student-designed areas of concentration. Hampshire College in Massachusetts also offers students the opportunity to create individualized programs of study built upon a core multidisciplinary curriculum. The number of colleges and universities offering exclusively interdisciplinary curricula is relatively small; the majority of higher education institutions in the United States either prescribe or offer interdisciplinary tracks within their general education offerings.

See also: Academic Disciplines; Capstone Courses in Higher Education; Curriculum, Higher Education; General Education in Higher Education.


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Lisa R. Lattuca

Lois J. Voigt

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Interdisciplinary Courses and Majors in Higher Education

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