Discovering interdisciplinary studies

Faculty discuss interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity in light of principal’s academic vision

Clarke Mackey, film studies professor, says he thinks it’s important to maintain a balance between interdisciplinary and disciplinary learning.
Clarke Mackey, film studies professor, says he thinks it’s important to maintain a balance between interdisciplinary and disciplinary learning.
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Journal File Photo

Queen’s increasing number of interdisciplinary courses is creating dialogue on how departments will be organized in the future.

Principal Daniel Woolf listed interdisciplinary studies as one of four “I” priorities in Where Next?, his academic vision document.

Geography professor Audrey Kobayashi said interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity are two different styles of learning.

Multidisciplinarity refers to people from different disciplines working on a shared issue. Interdisciplinarity, on the other hand, means taking in different views, methodologies, issues and approaches from a variety of disciplines.

“For example, engineering students taking an English class, the English class doesn’t change,” she said, adding that this is an example of multidisciplinary learning. “An interdisciplinary course needs to accommodate a wide range of perspectives … so it’s not taught from one perspective.”

Kobayashi teaches an interdisciplinary course, IDIS302, “Race” and Racism.

“The class is multidisciplinary but the course is interdisciplinary,” she said, adding that her students normally come from about 30 different disciplines.

Kobayashi said she thinks multidisciplinary learning is valuable because students from different disciplines learn to work together.

The fact that they can bring in a lot of views really enriches the programs, she said.

Queen’s doesn’t have many interdisciplinary programs yet, she said, adding that she thinks well-thought out interdisciplinarity could help offset some of the University’s budget challenges.

“If an interdisciplinary course can count towards a number of degrees, then it can help us accommodate different people in the classroom,” she said.

Associate Vice-Principal (Academic and International) John Dixon told the Journal via e-mail he thinks the University’s new cultural studies program reflects an academic shift to including different perspectives in learning and teaching.

“As we know, traditional disciplines themselves are not static but change over time—both by shifting their focus and by emerging from interdisciplinary niches between disciplines,” he said.

Dixon said the administration has been flexible when encouraging departments to consider multidisciplinarity or interdisciplinarity.

“Faculties and departments are encouraged to go beyond traditional boundaries in developing interdisciplinary programs,” he said. “This doesn’t mean eliminating traditional disciplines. It is, rather, a recognition that we have an opportunity to leverage our strengths in offering courses and programs that reflect the challenges and opportunities facing modern society.”

Andrew Grant, political studies professor, said he thinks multidisciplinary courses are important from both a student and teacher’s perspective.

He said he thinks it’s dangerous for the administration to assume that merging departments will create more multidisciplinarity in program choices.

“For the administration, there’s a view that if you combine departments you can save money, but you simply close multidisciplinarity,” he said.

Multidisciplinary work would lose its effect if departments combined, because disciplines would no longer be distinct from one another, he said.

He said he thinks if a new multidisciplinary program were introduced, it would have to be in addition to existing departments, not at their expense.

Grant chairs the Africa Days steering committee, which is an initiative to start an African studies program at Queen’s.

He said a multidisciplinary African studies program could group together courses from distinct disciplines that focus on African issues.

The Africa Days committee, along with African and Caribbean Students’ Association President Sacha Atherly, organized a two-day event looking at research that undergraduate and graduate students are conducting about African issues.

“It really gave us a sense of the interest that students have with events around Africa,” Grant said, adding that some issues brought up at the conference included democratization and politics, development work and health studies.

“It’s conceivable that you can have a robust program of African studies,” he said. It’s important to be multidisciplinary and you can do that by creating new departments and programs but you need money, support staff and faculty, he said.

Grant, who has conducted research in Sierra Leone, said he thinks multidisciplinary work is more reflective of life outside academics.

“In the work world, being more multidisciplinary helps [students],” he said.

English professor Maggie Berg is one of two professors for the course IDIS 303, Mathematics and Poetry. Berg said the course consists of the presentation of math problems and poems for class discussion.

“It was one of my favourite courses to teach,” she said. “It brings together students from an enormous range of disciplines into a single intellectual community, which is richer for the diversity of views.”

Berg said she learned new perspectives from co-teaching the course.

“What surprised me was we could explore the surprising degree of commonality between the inquiries of math and poetry in how we make sense of the world.” Berg said she found one area where students struggled at first to adapt to was the different styles of marking between the math and language disciplines.

“I think the advantages outweighed any disadvantages,” she said. “In my view, part of the purpose of a university education is to create a community in which we strive to understand each other, and I think an interdisciplinary class provides that opportunity.”

Clarke Mackey, film studies professor, is one of four professors who teach IDIS410, Contemporary Cultural Performance in Practice.

Mackey said he thinks the course is unique because it combines multiple disciplines together: art, music, drama and film and media.

“We create a show, a multimedia performance,” he said. “We start with a blank slate: the students will come up with a theme and develop a series of projects that explore the theme. The idea is that all the assignments the students do end up in the final.” Mackey said the final product the class mounts is often unusual.

“The students have to stretch themselves,” he said.

Mackey said he and the three professors he teaches with became interested in interdisciplinary art because they noticed students often collaborated with each other on projects outside the classroom.

“I was noticing there was a lot of interdisciplinarity happening at the student level. … In the real world, there aren’t strict boundaries anymore,” he said. “A lot of musicians are working with images and theatre pieces often involve multimedia.”

“It seemed to me that would be a good opportunity to connect to the real world what students are going to encounter; it was something all four professors wanted to do.”

Mackey said he thinks it’s important to maintain a balance between interdisciplinary and disciplinary learning.

“Certainly the four creative arts departments are looking at closer collaboration … but always keeping in mind that the disciplines need to keep their character as well,” he said. “There’s always something to be said for becoming really good at one thing.”

Mackey said he thinks interdisciplinary programs can especially benefit undergraduate students.

“At an undergraduate level, people don’t know what they want to do,” he said. “It’s good to experience a range of things.”

—With files from Labiba Haque and Holly Tousignant

Please see next Thursday’s Journal for part three of the Education 101 series, on degree structures and core program requirements.

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