Report: Interdisciplinary courses come with drawbacks

Some faculty say administrators’ push for more cross-department research is misguided and could negatively affect some fields.

Professors cited reasons such as shared credit among faculty that team-teach classes and the difficulty certain disciplines have conducting interdisciplinary research, according to a report released by the Faculty Senate’s committee on educational policy this month.

Some professors said that during discussions, it became apparent that the decision to increase interdisciplinary courses had already been made. They said opportunities to publish interdisciplinary research are slim.

The challenges suggested in the report are some of the first objections to the portion of the University’s strategic plan regarding an increase of cross-disciplinary studies. The plan is expected to be finalized by the Board of Trustees in May.

The University will spend $20 million to $30 million to create new interdisciplinary research institutes in the next 10 years, as well as to create interdisciplinary faculty positions – efforts that have some faculty members concerned for their departments.

“The view was expressed that the teaching of such courses and the appointment of faculty to such positions did represent a challenge. In particular, the scarcity of journals meant that publishing was difficult for faculty,” the report read.

The report, penned by educational policy committee chair and engineering professor Robert Harrington, also said shared credit among faculty could be problematic and that novice faculty could be at a disadvantage because doctoral degrees are typically awarded in a single discipline.

Faculty are required to teach a certain number of credits each semester, but if courses are team-taught, it could be difficult to determine whether or not professors should receive partial credit for teaching that course, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Steve Ehrmann said.

History professor Tyler Anbinder, a former department chair, said creating more interdisciplinary courses would work for some departments, but push others off track.

“The provost has pledged a lot of resources to bolster this effort, by making interdisciplinary faculty hires. This might hurt popular disciplines, like history, that do not lend themselves to interdisciplinary teaching as well as other disciplines,” Anbinder said.

He added that he was hesitant that cross-disciplinary courses and research could be “the latest fad,” adding that the University ditched its 2002 strategic plan goal of raising the number of double majors after faculty and administrators realized the aim didn’t benefit any departments. Anbinder joined the history department in 1994.

The University started its first cross-disciplinary minor this year, launching a program in sustainability that is not housed in any department. Its introductory course is co-taught by five professors from departments across the University.

Provost Steven Lerman, whose office houses the minor, has raved about the interdisciplinary style of the field, which mixes elements of geography, science, economics, law and public health.

“It required faculty leadership. It required collaboration, in fact, five faculty co-teach the introductory course. And I think it’s a great model, one that we need to have more examples of,” Lerman said in an interview Wednesday.

Some of the University’s other efforts to encourage schools to break down barriers between their fields also faced resistance this year. Professors and students in the Elliott School of International Affairs, School of Media and Public Affairs and School of Engineering and Applied Science held that a proposal to unify the colleges at GW would harm their programs.

Anbinder said the biggest challenge in increasing interdisciplinary courses would be finding experienced faculty, especially for interdisciplinary studies. The University is anticipating spending $50 million to $100 million on new faculty positions, which will mostly include interdisciplinary-geared professors.

Still, Faculty Senate executive committee member and professor of nursing Kimberly Acquaviva said innovation implies challenges, but that faculty could overcome the challenges presented in the report.

“What I see in the strategic plan is much broader than ‘interdisciplinary courses’ – it’s a holistic emphasis on fostering cross-disciplinary research and education,” Acquaviva said. “By collaborating with others outside of our own discipline, we maximize our collective ability to solve problems and create innovations of global significance.”

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