• April 25, 2014

Liberal-Arts Colleges Are Urged to Move Beyond Disciplinary 'Comfort Zones'

Leaders of liberal-arts colleges talked up the benefits of interdisciplinary approaches to learning at a conference here on Wednesday. They also described the many obstacles that often prevent instructors and students from crossing curricular boundaries.

Wendy L. Hill, Lafayette College's provost and dean of the faculty, said interdisciplinary studies take students away from "their focus on majoritis." Moreover, she said, building strong interdisciplinary programs enables liberal-arts colleges to affirm their distinctiveness. The conference—"The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World"—ended later Wednesday after sessions had tackled such topics as cost and quality as well as the sector's future.

To provide more of those opportunities, Ms. Hill suggested, colleges must foster—and reward—collaboration among faculty members. How? College leaders, she said, must develop better tenure and promotion models for interdisciplinary scholars, think more carefully during the hiring process about job candidates' capacity for collaboration, and find ways to reward interdisciplinary scholarship with merit pay.

"Intrinsic motivations" matter, too. Faculty members who work across disciplines, Ms. Hill said, need autonomy, the freedom to experiment, and recognition for their work.

David W. Oxtoby, president of Pomona College, said that while interdisciplinary research has been the hallmark of scholarship in the 21st century, it has had too little impact on how faculty teach and how students learn. He cited two primary reasons: Curricula, especially in the concentrations, have narrowed, and departmental structures have become more rigid.

"Interdisciplinary programs that burst forth from the clashing of disciplines," Mr. Oxtoby said, "have become their own disciplines."

Mr. Oxtoby recalled that after leaving the University of Chicago to become Pomona's president, in 2003, he thought it would be easier to find interdisciplinary collaboration. "If anything, the opposite was true," he said.

One reason: The relatively small size of liberal-arts colleges can reduce flexibilty. With fewer faculty members, it's harder to sustain interdisciplinary work. Moreover, Mr. Oxtoby said, disciplines are often bound in the "local politics" of departments.

Yet opportunities abound. Why not, Mr. Oxtoby asked, create an introductory course integrating sociology and anthropology? A one- or two-year program integrating biology, chemistry, and physics? Colleges, he said, must help faculty to move beyond their disciplinary "comfort zones."

Collaborations among colleges are one way to expose students to different modes of learning. Through the Claremont Colleges Consortium, for instance, students in Pomona's media-studies program take courses on theory and analysis on their campus, but go to Pitzer College for more hands-on courses.

Liberal-arts colleges often advertise that they prepare students not just for their first job, but also for their last, by training them to think critically, to collaborate, and to find creative solutions to problems. In other words, to think outside the box of a given subject. "If these are our principles," Mr. Oxtoby said, "we need to ensure that our product lives up to that promise."

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