Putting the case for interdisciplinary learning

With external pressures on the tertiary sector to provide specialised degrees which lead directly to a recognised profession, it is important to keep reminding the world at large of the value of the alternative approach.

That is to train well-rounded graduates, each with the interest and intellectual curiosity to consider contrasting viewpoints, explore other cultures, apply original thinking, and test their range of talents by signing up for courses taught by different schools or departments.

In the recent Times Higher Education (THE) Liberal Arts Forum, co-hosted by Lingnan University and Times Higher Education, the undoubted benefits of an interdisciplinary education were a recurring theme.

But one panel in particular discussed what it takes to move beyond the traditional split between sciences and humanities, and thus open students up to new challenges, skills and perspectives.

The featured speakers for the session were Nancy Gleason, director of the Hilary Ballon Center for Teaching and Learning at NYU Abu Dhabi; Taisaku Ikeshima, dean of the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University; and Shalendra Sharma, associate vice-president of academic quality assurance and internationalisation at Lingnan University.

Together with moderator Bryan Penprase, vice-president for sponsored research and external academic relations at Soka University of America, they compared and examined some of the best practices for providing high-quality multidisciplinary education in Asia and articulated a vision for what should come next.

The exchanges noted the fact that today’s students are generally much keener to pursue a wide range of options during their years at university.

However, the basic structure of many of the more popular degrees still makes it difficult to find the time and resources to broaden the available choices. Since the major academic disciplines have fixed requirements in place, some kind of reform is needed to promote the study of liberal arts alongside and, in doing so, develop the principles and practices which subjects grouped under that banner are known to nurture.

When this happens, it typically leads not just to enhanced knowledge transfer, but also better intercultural understanding and fuller involvement in on-campus and extracurricular activities. Those pluses point the way to improved student satisfaction, as well as more competitive applicant profiles when the time comes to line up career opportunities.

“We have a multidisciplinary cross-sector approach, and we don’t differentiate very rigidly between our seven main fields,” Ikeshima said. “We deliberately avoid major and minor programmes, but we do have specialisations and concentrations. We want our students to be exposed to diverse cultures, so there are ‘study abroad’ projects and we now teach almost all courses in English.”

When tackling topics like how to deal with maritime pollution, instructors are drawn from different departments – science, law and social science – to address the wider legal and political implications, not just the immediate cause and effect. This allows students to understand the big picture, but also to identify areas of most interest to them as they start to think about possible jobs and future careers.

“The employability of our students is very high,” Ikeshima said. “[When hiring] what companies really want is flexibility and adaptability, not specialised knowledge per se. Students have to adjust to whatever comes up. The right way of thinking is more important from the employer’s point of view.”

Professor Sharma noted there are perennial questions about the value of liberal arts in the job market, but as paradigms shift, there is also a new understanding of the benefits of breaking down academic silos, drawing on both Western and Eastern traditions, and applying the lessons of “service learning” initiatives. So far, this has been seen most clearly in courses on environmental studies, business and entrepreneurship.

“Lingnan students already take courses which are interdisciplinary or ‘disconnected’,” Sharma said. “For that, you need faculty buy-in and institutional support. We encourage students to do subjects they are interested in because then they will be more motivated towards critical thinking and [keen to] apply their knowledge to real-world settings.” In turn, Gleason highlighted the importance of keeping a close eye on emerging needs. There may be plenty of positive signs of a revitalisation of “interdisciplinarity” around the world, but it is also essential to figure the optimal balance between breadth and depth in any curriculum.

Any changes, she said, should be geared to producing graduates who are globally minded and civically engaged. This is helped by discussion- and project-based learning, which encourages students to see the connections between ideas, to think innovatively, take some risks and reflect on global challenges tied to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“You also need to value employability,” Gleason said. “Our students have bills to pay and want to commit to the fabric of working life. We have to link the curriculum to [what’s happening] outside the classroom and adapt to make sure it fits.”