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Interdisciplinary Learning & the Spirit of the Liberal Arts

The Association of Integrative Studies (AIS), a national organization that dedicates itself to interdisciplinary teaching and learning, often cites "comfort with ambiguity" as a student-learning outcome in interdisciplinary coursework. Certainly the educated person has learned that asking "why?" is as important as knowing why. Encouraging questions as well as answers is the spirit of the liberal arts and one way to accomplish this is through interdisciplinary learning. Integrative learning has also been noted as developing skills which are beneficial to students as they enter a marketplace that requires more teamwork than ever before.

Interdisciplinary inquiry or integrative learning is officially defined by AIS as "a process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline or profession." In redesigning the general education program in 1998 (i.e. "core curriculum"), faculty at West Georgia sought to incorporate this approach to learning and understanding for all students. This transformation of the curriculum is not new to West Georgia since the majority of institutions of higher learning now require some sort of interdisciplinary coursework.

What is comforting to know is that we have faired well in our own transformation. A new AIS document, Accreditation Standards for Interdisciplinary General Education, was recently applied to our diverse group of courses known as the XIDS curriculum, making West Georgia one of the first institutions in the country to assess their interdisciplinary work according to these national standards. Our faculty assessment committee found that overall, the curriculum offered a good number of options for students, with topic driven courses ranging from "What do you really know about Africa?" to "The Fin de Siecle in Germany and Austria." Additionally, the science core offers two XIDS courses, "Science Foundations" which integrates the study of Biology, Chemistry, GeoSciences and Physics, and "Environmental Studies/Science" which compliments our new interdisciplinary major in Environmental Studies/Science. These types of curriculum were cited as meeting national standards as well as setting the standard for "future integrative offerings in the College and University." Future goals were noted as including the development of even more upper level interdisciplinary courses.

The scope of XIDS offerings was cited by the assessment committee as a positive aspect of the new core curriculum, noting that "faculty members involved in interdisciplinary activities reflects a continued growth and members from almost every department under the College of Arts and Sciences either offer interdisciplinary courses or have submitted proposals." Faculty obviously enjoy creating and teaching these courses which often allow them more opportunity to elaborate on their research areas while engaged in core teaching. In addition, this early exposure to faculty research expertise is important to students as well, since it can naturally lead one to involvement in undergraduate research in later years.

Our recent process of assessing the XIDS curriculum is in itself intricately linked to the spirit of the liberal arts. Most of the literature on defining liberal arts education regards faculty governance, leadership, and dialogue as the foundation of a strong liberal arts environment. Certainly the faculty charged with establishing this new curriculum at West Georgia reflects this standard. Another basic principle of general education and in turn, of true liberal arts learning is that of fluidity. 1994 study by the Association of American Colleges regarding general education specifically cites that "strong general education programs are designed so that they will continue to evolve." The topic-driven nature of our XIDS curriculum insures that this principle is highly valued at West Georgia. Each year, new topics are added to the core, providing students myriad options for academic inquiry.

Our undergraduate curriculum also reveals good practice in its fostering of multicultural understanding, which being a tenant of our institutional mission, is yet another healthy sign of solid liberal arts approach. Several core courses under the auspices of our XIDS Arts and Ideas template provide study abroad components; a rarity for sophomore level coursework. These courses not only enhance student's understanding of a given topic (e.g. Cuba or Martinique) but pay attention to nurturing the experiential growth of an educated person: the ultimate goal of the liberal arts.

Our recent strategies in undergraduate curriculum like interdisciplinary learning prove that we are ready to assess and monitor ourselves when it comes to curricular development. Just this past year, a university-wide faculty subcommittee was formally established to maintain an on-going review of issues related to the core. This new focus on the core will only strengthen the courses we offer and continue to connect our students, as well as our faculty, to the spirit of liberal arts learning.