Many university students will choose to enrol in an interdisciplinary program as the first step towards a career upon leaving high school, or as a means of refining academic achievement at the graduate level. Interdisciplinary programs, university degrees which blend multiple disciplines to create a student with diverse skill sets, are designed to create professionals who have a ‘toolbox’ of academic disciplines which enable them to solve increasingly complex problems in the workplace. Interdisciplinary programs are increasing in popularity and may be important to generating capable workers for knowledge-based economies, but what impact are they having on traditional academic disciplines? Is reduced ‘depth’ the price of increased ‘breadth’ of education?
A critique of academia recycling and repackaging curricula
Although seemingly harmless, a managerial tool enabling post-secondary administrators to reshuffle academics and programs can be overused to the detriment of learning and the reduction of degree value. There are four main criticisms of the current state of academic interdisciplinarity caused by administrative pressures:
Insularity of faculty. When it comes time to design new interdisciplinary programs, a tendency to pick professors from a single discipline or to build the program as an off-shoot from a larger department may lead to group-think mentality. Therefore, insularity stems from the lack of cross-disciplinary conversation within the new department and the lack of fresh outside perspectives. Avoiding such narrow thinking was the whole point of interdisciplinarity in the first place! Although the average political economy degree, for example, may attract new students that would otherwise not have applied to a political science department, political economy departments across Canadian universities hire an overwhelming majority of political scientists. Academic homogeny within departments may erode the notion that interdisciplinarity is more than the simple repackaging of academics.
Borrowed infrastructure and virtual programs. The creation of ‘virtual departments’ that bring together an assortment of professors as well as other teaching staff and researchers, but do not have a distinct location, is often a cost-effective solution to creating an interdisciplinary program without needing additional capital investment. The shared faculty in such departments generally remain attached to their primary department (most often a ‘traditional’ discipline) and are asked to teach on specific topics that fall under the umbrella of the ‘virtual department’. Such ‘virtual departments’ use disciplinary silos without blending disciplines and fail to bring academics from a cross-disciplinary environment together. This often leaves ‘virtual departments’ with no permanent tenured faculty members of their own to their own devices. It can also complexify the administrative tasks students face as well as a lack of advice from faculty that can affect students’ theses, grant and proposal writing, and opportunities for research assistant positions.
Academic deflation. Many have argued that the lack of specialisation, especially in previous degrees such as college or bachelors, fail to provide students with the fundamental building blocks generally found within any discipline (and that there already exists collaboration across disciplines). In addition to students’ knowledge being spread too thin across a variety of subjects, the lack of specialisation can cast doubts with regards to what can often be perceived as watered-down skills in many disciplines. ‘Create your own degree’ programs that allow students to pick their own coursework across a wide array of disciplines and subjects often fail to provide their students with the necessary core courses or building blocks within each discipline. This dynamic lends itself to academic deflation and a re-packaging of academics to create generalist degrees with a theme.
Multiplication of disciplinary silos. Unfortunately, to multiply the number of cross-disciplinary programs, universities have occasionally recycled and re-branded academics into their own new disciplinary silos. Creating new insular silos of study, as opposed to transdisciplinary sharing, bears the danger of, as Reading claims, “interdisciplinary programs themselves becoming disciplines”. The critique here lies in the multiplication of disciplines within universities, which achieves little other than re-branding silos. As an example, these new silos for students could consist of anything from a health sciences degree that fails to interact with the faculty of medicine to an environment/conservation degree that fails to interact with the department of public policy or any of the natural sciences.
So, why does academia occasionally engage in ‘cheap’ interdisciplinarity?
Although it is our opinion that interdisciplinary programs have a great deal to offer students, these critiques of trends in universities recycling, repackaging and rebranding academics should serve as warning signs to applicants in interdisciplinary programs of study. But why do administrations do it this way?
Attracting an untapped demand and expanding revenues. The workforce continues to rapidly evolve. Employers are seeking employees who are cognitively flexible and capable of drawing from a broad array of academic disciplines. Driven by the ‘knowledge-based’ economy, employers demand experts within a given field, who also can draw from a toolbox of generalist skills. An economist may be required to support the accounting department of a start-up company while also understanding the political climate of a given market. In general, demand for flexible and interchangeable agents creates demand for ‘expert generalists’ (pardon the neologism), which certain universities have capitalised on. The risk associated with this dynamic is the creation of interdisciplinary programs – perceived to be selective and elite – which output students with a dressed-up general degree.
Stretching current resources. From an administrative perspective, interdisciplinary programs also set conditions to increase the productivity of an indeterminately employed faculty while supplementing them with contract instructors. Rather than allowing faculty to research and teach exclusively within a given discipline, cross-assigning them to interdisciplinary studies departments increases the potential number of students which can access a given faculty member. For example, a political science professor may now also instruct graduate students focusing on sociology, economics, or history. By pulling faculty out of specific disciplines, the potential number of students they may influence becomes much higher.
Not only stretching resources but also adding cheap resources. The multiplication of interdisciplinary programs (or at least how they are currently implemented in academic institutions) makes it easier to bring in adjunct professors and sessionals that are cheaper. For example, applied interdisciplinary programs such as public policy, international development, journalism and so many others can call upon practitioners as sessionals or part-time faculty. The practice of relying on sessionals and other part-time faculty has been widely criticised within academia but has often fallen on deaf ears.
Finding the magic formula: creating the ‘proper’ interdisciplinary program
To ensure quality and credibility of interdisciplinary studies programs, it will be incumbent upon universities to ensure the assigned faculty are genuinely interdisciplinary: academic credentials from multiple disciplines must be demonstrated. So how can we build a truly interdisciplinary program? Building a robust interdisciplinary program requires institutionalisation and branding. A few key characteristics should be considered when program-building:
Dedicated faculty. Although some cross-listing of faculty may be acceptable, core faculty must exist within an interdisciplinary school. This is critical to establishing and maintaining a high standard of intake and output. Such faculty should be ‘protected’ from delivering research or instruction within other, larger departments, and should be the leaders in establishing the definition of ‘interdisciplinary’ from the school’s perspective.
Dedicated facility and space. The existence of an interdisciplinary school should not be on paper alone. A physical location with dedicated study space, library facilities, and support staff is required. This ensures a sense of permanence among faculty and students and sets conditions for the institutionalisation of research units, alumni, and scholastic journals.
Branding and association. Given dedicated faculty, standards, and physical location, a school’s association with a given industry, sector, or profession provides both students and faculty direction and guidance with regard to research objectives and curriculum development. This ‘centre of excellence’ approach sets important conditions for academic/practitioner interaction and can be a mechanism to measure the school’s effectiveness.
Controlling standards. Ultimately, the department and faculty themselves must monitor the standard, and clearly articulated standards must exist within a designated interdisciplinary program. Students must have a clear understanding of how they may be permitted to draw from various disciplines to accomplish course objectives, and some degree of differentiation from a ‘traditional discipline’ approach should be apparent. Close monitoring of standards is required.
Hiring more faculty that themselves studied in an interdisciplinary environment could be a great leap forward. However, regardless of where one stands, some consideration should be given to whether it is incumbent upon faculty to provide a truly interdisciplinary approach, or if students themselves must piece together a degree within a multidisciplinary environment.
Samuel MacIsaac is a Ph.D student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, where he specializes in International Economic Policy. He holds a Masters in Economics from the University of Montreal. His research interests include international migration, international finance and trade, and international relations. He has written on issues relating to negative interest rates, the impact of trade on education outcomes and forecasts of immigration within Canada.
Bryan Bereziuk is a Ph.D student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he specializes in International Conflict Management and Resolution. He is an experienced practitioner in counter-insurgency operations and defence organizational development. His research interests include counter-terrorism policy development, insurgency containment, and international technology transfers.