Looking back on my college experience, I believe I approached the liberal arts experience from the wrong angle. Like many students, I complained about general education courses and largely limited myself to courses from my department.
While talking with employers over the last few weeks, though, I’ve learned how desirable a diversified background is in the contemporary job market.
This brings me to my critique of the SVSU experience: a failure to focus on interdisciplinary learning.
When I refer to interdisciplinary learning, I’m especially interested in the cross-college potential of interdisciplinary studies through classes, programs, and organizations. SVSU may have some strong programs within each college, but as long as we lack cross-disciplinary conversations, our educational framework will appear outdated.
We live in a globalized, specialized world, which means categories are increasingly difficult to distinguish, and existing world problems are incredibly complex.
Take, for example, animal viruses. While animal viruses are often limited to one species, they sometimes spread to a human population; for instance, mosquitos can carry yellow fever.
According to NPR, the slave trade of the 1600s saw the emergence of the first recorded yellow fever epidemic, which spread in the Americas and Europe in the subsequent years.
Reading accurate narratives of those who have experienced yellow fever can benefit health professionals working with fever victims, since it’s important to empathize with patients and understand their backgrounds.
This information can be valuable when examining the recent resurgences of the fever in South America and Africa. For international work, an understanding of sociology and political science can ensure effective communication with doctors and patients.
I could go on, but I think the point’s been made. Interdisciplinary problems require interdisciplinary solutions.
Now, before you start saying “but what about ____?” please know that I recognize that there are structures at SVSU that encourage interdisciplinary learning, such as gen ed classes and some interdisciplinary programs. I just think we haven’t reached our full potential.
Like most liberal arts colleges, SVSU requires gen ed classes. The way many of my gen ed courses were set up, I felt the class was primarily organized to convince me to join the program, which isn’t always useful.
Worse still, a couple of my gen ed courses were run on what I’ll call “gen ed autopilot.” The instructors didn’t bother to learn names, generalized the entire class’s experience based on that of previous classes or generational stereotypes and explained that their primary goal was simply to “get students through the class.”
To improve the gen ed experience, professors should allow students more opportunities to draw from their own backgrounds and fields to more clearly see the ties between disciplines.
Students can help their gen ed situation by not following in my footsteps and instead taking courses that interest them but don’t neatly align with their field. For example, now that I’ve picked up interests in disability studies, age studies and science in literature, I wish I would’ve taken more specialized courses in health sciences and sociology.
To facilitate students gaining experiences in fields outside of their major, SVSU and its students should also push for more interdisciplinary programs.
As I mentioned, I’m familiar with existing interdisciplinary programs such as the Honors Program, Foundation Scholars, Roberts Fellows and Cardinal Solutions. Most of these programs are selective, though, which means only a handful of outstanding students benefit from the interdisciplinary structure.
These interdisciplinary programs have the potential to greatly benefit students. Not only are students able to learn from one another and study areas that aren’t solely situated as part of their own discipline, but they also learn to work effectively with those from other disciplines, which is valuable across employment fields.
Looking at existing programs, Cardinal Solutions stands out to me as a wonderful model for multidisciplinary work. The program draws together a team of students from several colleges to create and implement solutions for local organizations and businesses. The program is also not highly selective; by and large, the students who are interested in joining are able to.
When it comes to supporting multidisciplinary programs at SVSU, much of the responsibility falls on interdepartmental professor collaboration. If you’re a professor who’s been considering creating new partnerships, consider this your call to action.
Students can contribute to the establishment of more interdisciplinary programs as well by facilitating discussions between professors and encouraging the creation or re-framing of programs or courses in light of students’ cross-disciplinary interests and career goals.
Administration can also encourage innovative learning by creating opportunities for faculty members to meet and innovate multi-disciplinary programs.
Administrators can also capitalize on the wonderfully varied backgrounds of students by turning to certain organizations or committees like Student Association to assist with administrative dilemmas.
In fact, administrators may even consider turning first to teams of diverse students and professors before outsourcing projects. Though the threat of declining enrollment makes it easy to fall back on a business model for the university, we shouldn’t forget that our primary goal as a place of education enables administrators to use our “product,” so to speak—knowledgeable students from diverse disciplines—as a resource.
SVSU’s mission statement indicates the institution’s focus on “educational excellence and dynamic partnerships.” Considering this and our vision for “innovative teaching, experiential learning and state-of-the art facilities,” the interdisciplinary structuring of gen ed courses and the development of multidisciplinary courses and programs seems like a no-brainer.
As students register for classes and instructors and administrators begin to plan for fall 2018, then, consider what you can do as a student, professor or administrator to improve interdisciplinary learning at SVSU.