04/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Proper Role of Interdisciplinary Studies

This year, Wesleyan is engaged in meetings on the future of the university that involve all major constituencies: faculty, students, alumni, staff and parents. A strategic planning process is valuable when it brings to the fore ideas that people already have about the direction of an institution but haven't articulated clearly. As our Chair of the Board Joshua Boger likes to say, "You don't make up a strategy, you discover the one you really mean to have."

One of the issues that regularly come up at faculty discussions is the proper role of interdisciplinary programs. At Wesleyan we like to think we were pioneers of the movement toward interdisciplinarity. We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the College of Letters (combining history, literature and philosophy) and the College of Social Studies (combining history, economics, political science and philosophy). Alumni who returned to campus this year to talk about the transformative education they experienced in the 1960s and 1970s were excited to hear about the projects being taken on by current undergraduates who had chosen not to limit their studies to a particular discipline. We marked the anniversary by creating a new program, the College of the Environment.

But if interdisciplinary academic programs for undergrads were adventurous in the late 1950s, today they are as common on campuses as fake IDs. All of the highly selective liberal arts colleges and major universities claim to offer interdisciplinary opportunities. Indeed, the I-word seems to have become synonymous with "thoughtful," or just "good." Professors and administrators can now agree that research problems don't necessarily fall within the borders of any particular department. Some interdisciplinary programs on several campuses have been so successful at recruiting faculty and students that they have become departments of their own -- American Studies and Neuroscience being two examples. Graduation to departmental status and to having professional organizations to legitimate once revolutionary forms of scholarly work are dubious distinctions, though, for those professorial mavericks who had developed identities as academic border busters.

In his recent "The Marketplace of Ideas", Louis Menand describes the wave of interdisciplinarity as a predictable reaction to the intense cultivation of disciplinary loyalty that was characteristic of university culture from 1945-1970, years when schools were expanding as never before. In any case, professionalization through focused, sometimes esoteric, research has continued apace even as disciplinary authority has been weakened. Research interests lead faculty members beyond their own departments and often result in ongoing collaboration with colleagues from other fields. The most exciting interdisciplinary initiatives -- such as animal studies or biophysics -- are often the creation of sub-fields developed through research-driven intellectual cross-pollination.

At our strategic planning meetings almost everyone paid respects to the "scholar-teacher model" as a key ingredient in our interdisciplinary academic culture. At large universities, especially elite ones, teaching often takes a back seat to scholarship, with many of the most important introductory courses delivered by part-time teachers with very low compensation. On the whole, it's the graduate students (those being tutored in the conventions of advancement through specialization) at universities who get to work with the most "successful" professors. At liberal arts schools like Wesleyan, by contrast, the scholar-teacher model means that our faculty believe in a virtuous circle connecting their scholarship to their undergraduate teaching. Stimulation in the classroom, they find, advances their research in ways that, in turn, invigorate their teaching and stimulate curriculum development. Undergraduates are inspired by the active scholarship of their teachers to vigorously pursue their own opportunities for sophisticated independent work -- a pursuit that exercises and increases their intellectual capacities and allows them to discover aspects of themselves and the world that will remain meaningful to them long after graduation

The best colleges that emphasize the arts and sciences also emphasize the importance of research for faculty and students, whether they are in English or Biology, East Asian Studies or Science Studies. But most schools still organize themselves by appointing teachers in departments like the first pair, even though many of those teachers are also working in programs like the second pair. In other words, academic bureaucracy remains disciplinary while student demand and scholarly excitement is often interdisciplinary. In our College of the Environment, for example, courses will be taught by people whose appointments are in Economics, Government, Biology, Philosophy as well as Environmental Science. That's why at the planning meetings faculty asked how they were to reconcile their desire to teach in broadly interdisciplinary programs with their obligation to mount a coherent program in their home departments. Calls to abolish departments (like the one proposed by Mark C. Taylor in the NY Times last year) have little resonance on our campus, in large part because researchers still find skills based in the disciplines to be an essential part of the work they do, even when this work leads them far from their departmental homes.

Decades ago, when universities were growing by leaps and bounds, one could imagine just creating new faculty appointments. Those days are gone. Now we must face the difficult choices of reallocating resources; deciding what is important going forward and not which department traditionally owned a faculty line. We must also rethink what it means to offer a coherent program in a discipline or a department while we explore the possibilities of appointing people (perhaps for specific periods of time) within interdisciplinary programs.

At liberal arts schools, these discussions and decisions must be guided by the objective of enhancing the virtuous circle of scholarship and teaching -- for it is this powerful feedback loop which brings the most excitement to both classrooms and fields of scholarship (emerging or traditional). How can we find more ways to give our professors opportunities to teach what they are most passionate about while giving our undergraduates the skills and contextual comprehension they need to launch their own intellectual adventures? If we keep this question in mind, I believe that campus communities can reshape their curricula in ways that offer a transformative experience to their students while giving faculty the chance to advance their own fields.

As we discover strategies for serving students, scholarship and creative practice simultaneously, we will also be charting a path for the continued vitality of the residential liberal arts school. This vitality will grow out of reconfiguring the productive tension between the departmental and the interdisciplinary while enhancing the powerfully productive relationship of teaching and research.