More than an indecisive decision

2 02 2010

The weekend before last, I had the priviledge of attending a national undergraduate on interdisciplinary education at McMaster in Hamilton. Although I must claim it was primarily due to the convenience of being within affordable proximity that I was able to attend as a delegate from Quest, I was nonetheless pleased to have such an opportunity. So, students from Arts & Sciences programs across the country gathered for a weekend to talk about our place in academia and to address common challenges in attempt to move forward.

“Interdisciplinary” seems to be the latest buzzword in education, much like “organic” is on supermarket shelves. And in the same way, it’s likely overused and sometimes slightly ambiguous. I guess you can work out the etymology to derive “between disciplines”, but “interdisciplinary” seems to also be the umbrella term that also encompasses “multidisciplinary” (= many) and “transdisciplinary” (= across). Although it might be a little too philosophical for some, in the working group I participated in, we started by establishing a definition for a “discipline”; “an organizational structure driven by a set of epistemological values that give rise to specific content, ways of thinking, interactions, language and methodology.”

The shift towards interdisciplinary learning is an important one, especially in light of our societal climate. Much of higher education is carried out in “silos”, each separate from the others. As a result, knowledge becomes highly specialized. Yet, our greatest challenges in the world are rarely restricted to one field of study, so they are left unresolved. But, when we cross disciplines, we strive to strike a balance between breadth and depth. The aim of interdisciplinary education is to produce more well-rounded graduates who will be able to look at an issue through a multitude of perspectives, becoming that much closer to finding its solution. I was once guilty of choosing such a broad program because I was undecided about what I was interested in and wanted to try everything. Although this has some merit, I now realize that it can be a decision in itself, rather than means to a more specific end.

With undergraduates, alumni and faculty from the Arts & Science programs at Guelph, McGill and most predominantly McMaster, as well as the Integrated Science programs at UBC and McMaster (new this year), Knowledge Integration at Waterloo, and of course, Quest University, we weren’t short of things to talk about. As we discovered over the course of the weekend, the way each program works is as diverse as the number of programs. At McGill, for example, there is only one required Art/Sci course and the program simply allows them to take courses in either faculty, and come out with a double major. As you might have noticed, I didn’t include a link which primarily reflects how obscure Arts Sci program info is on the McGill website. MacMaster falls at the other end of the spectrum. With its program almost 30 years old, Arts Sci at Mac has become one of the most prestigous (and best funded per capita) programs, with the highest average entrance grades and a supplementary application (that I , in fact, began completing myself). Quest might be the only school that surpasses McMaster  due to the fact, it ONLY offers an arts and sciences program. The others fall somewhere in between with varying numbers of mandatory classes/electives and a diverse array of teaching methods. But fairly consistently, these programs tend to be new (within the past 10 years) and on the leading edge of innovative instruction within universities. Take a look at McMaster’s new Integrated Sciences (or “iSci” as they call it unfortunately despite way too many things being already branded i(something)) or Knowledge Integration at Waterloo, or Quest as I’ve already talked about at great lengths. Classes tend to be smaller and students receive more attention from faculty, while tuition is often the same. So, does this mean that students in other programs (read larger classes) are subsidizing the education of Arts Sci students? Are these programs even self-sustaining? They must be. Why else would so many universities be moving in this direction. There must be increasing demand. Will more universities continue to start similar programs? Or will current programs get bigger? Is this possible without sacrificing the integrated and interdisciplinary nature of the programs?

I’m do not these answers which is okay because I’m getting used to having more questions than answers. But I do hope that interdisciplinary learning continues to catch on at every level of education. We have an infinite mass of information available, so instead of temporarily memorizing content or producing generic papers, we need to develop a different set of skills – critical and creative thinking, the ability to make connections and effectively communication. New alternatives are emerging, and prospective students need to be aware of their options. As I can personally attest, these interdisciplinary programs are rarely promoted by high school guidance counsellors. Maybe they don’t need promoting because they accept so few students, but students have a right to know their options and greater demand might just drive the post secondary market towards astonishing new frontiers.