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Interdisciplinary Activity

In her book Crossing Boundaries, Julie Thompson Klein points out, " [I]nterdisciplinarity is not a monologue." As many as three years before West Georgia was told to restructure its core curriculum and include "interdisciplinary opportunities," faculty in Arts and Sciences had already undergone dialogue regarding integrative course development. It is important to recognize that the initial urge to establish this kind of curriculum was an integrative act by the faculty, not an administrative dictum.

Roots of the intent to place interdisciplinary activity in the forefront of our curriculum can be found in the 1995 document created by the Arts and Sciences Planning and Prioritization committee. Prior to that time there were several urges to blur disciplinary lines across campus, such as the Women's Studies minor, the Classical Studies minor, and programs like Gerontology, Planning, and Geography. A Science Foundations course in the core integrating four different sciences was, at the time, the sole general education course that could be strictly defined as interdisciplinary. All this changed when a faculty committee recommended the reallocation of resources to establish a Director of Interdisciplinary Studies to oversee the development of not only courses but also new integrative minor and major programs, in addition to a Writing Across the Curriculum Program. The faculty recommendation was timely, for in the following years, the University Board of Regents eventually called for a complete revision of the core curriculum to include "a range of disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and professional programs at the baccalaureate level."

From 1995 through 1998, faculty in Arts and Sciences were proactive in their work, establishing subcommittees across the core areas determined to create at least one interdisciplinary option for each area. In addition, in 1996 a faculty team applied for, and was accepted to, the Institute in Integrative Studies, held each summer at Miami University and directed by interdisciplinary guru William H. Newell. The two-week seminar was extremely helpful because, while our institution had much interest in creating more interdisciplinary programs, it lacked sufficient faculty development opportunities to pursue these new goals.

Newell's institute introduced key faculty to the crucial world of interdisciplinary literature. One example is the identification of various "levels" of integration that continues to be helpful in defining interdisciplinary courses. The levels, interpreted as a series of steps (similar to a production process) or as an indicator of the extent to which a course or program is truly interdisciplinary, move from multidisciplinary, pluridisciplinary, and cross-disciplinary to the ultimate in course and program integration: interdisciplinary. As noted in the collaboratively designed "Guide to Interdisciplinary Syllabus Preparation" a truly integrative course would be one in which " faculty tend to work together as much as alone; interact instead of merely working together; and, collaborate toward forming a synthesis in the end." This became a familiar caveat in our own interdisciplinary course guidelines.

Another valuable aspect of learning the literature was its influence on creating our general education "interdisciplinary templates." Again, Newell's work was particularly influential here. Newell makes the following observation about the use of questions in another essential resource for course development, his essay "Designing Interdisciplinary Courses":

Successful interdisciplinary courses normally focus on a topic, although the term topic should be construed broadly as meaning an issue, theme, problem, region, time period, institution, figure, work or idea. Within that topic, the most effective strategy is to ask a question that is too broad for any one discipline to answer fully. (38)

The desire for topic-driven courses became apparent in the creation of templates for the Humanities, Social Sciences and Institutional Priorities area of the new core. At the same time, this use of a "topic-driven" method of course development allowed us to bypass (for a while) difficult resource and coordination problems. The two-week seminar provided the team ample time to work on a model template to bring back to faculty. "What Do You Really Know About X?" was created at the end of the institute and a pilot course using the topic of AIDS was taught in the Spring of 1997. In the fall of 1998, the template and similar ones for Humanities and Social Sciences were adopted into the core curriculum. The essence of the curriculum, at least in the core, was topic-driven. Faculty committees were established to set and monitor guidelines based in interdisciplinary theory. The prefix XIDS was given to all interdisciplinary courses, establishing an easily identifiable tag to courses that had been approved by various committees. A rich curriculum offered by a variety of faculty began to emerge.

At the same time, several faculty members were engaged in the development of new, integrative majors and minors, again leaving the issue of "resources" secondary to the efforts. From 1996 to as recent as the summer of 2001, four new programs have been approved: a minor in American Studies, a major in both Environmental Studies and Environmental Science, a major in Global Studies and a minor in Africana Studies. A certificate in Latin American Studies has also been approved.

Additionally, in 1996 a pilot Learning Community program was created. Currently, 5 Learning Communities are run each year using the "What do You really Know About X?" template in the core as a centerpiece. Retention and GPA data have been tracked since the inception of the program. Every year, Learning Community students outperform those not enrolled in communities. For example, from Fall 1999 to Fall 2000, the overall GPA for Learning Community students was 2.69 compared to 2.44 for all others in the same class. Retention rate was 74.40% for the Learning Communities, compared to 65.08% for returning students. Clearly, this is an interdisciplinary program we want to nurture.

Future goals for the interdisciplinary curriculum include the development of more upper level courses, integration of more courses in lieu of cross-listing, and the establishment of an on-going assessment plan which includes the gathering of both quantitative and qualitative information. These plans all encompass active participation in the Association for Integrative Studies, proven to be a valuable resource for developing a comprehensive interdisciplinary program with integrity.