Interdisciplinary Studies

By Stolpa, Jennifer M. | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Interdisciplinary Studies


Stolpa, Jennifer M., Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Some students enrolled in my introductory literature course last summer were surprised on the first day of class to see items on the schedule that may have seemed unconnected to our focus. "Why is the physics professor going to present on the theory of special relativity? This is literature, not physics!" Although the relationships were not immediately obvious, as the course continued the connections among literature, mathematics, and science became clearer. We discussed the creativity involved in science and mathematics research as we studied poems, novels, and plays which not only engaged the reader in a fictional world, but introduced and explored mathematical and scientific concepts.

With increasing interest within education in interdisciplinary studies, such courses are less and less surprising to students. At all levels of education, instructors are continuing to examine the benefits of connecting content from various disciplines. Some classes become interdisciplinary through the addition of presenters from other fields of study. As with the introductory literature course, a class devoted to the geography of the southwestern United States can become more interdisciplinary by interweaving presentations by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians on aspects of the core subject relevant to their fields. Interdisciplinary work sometimes takes the form of two or three courses taught separately but with the content carefully constructed by all instructors to highlight connections among the disciplines. A separate seminar can be offered to help students make those connections.

Alternatively, two or three classes can be team-taught in a learning-community format. Using longer blocks of time, instructors integrate courses on biology and anthropology, for example, focusing students on the study of humans from two different but related perspectives. Students might enroll in a learning community connecting music, literature, and history courses all focused on nineteenth-century America. In such learning communities, the focus becomes at once broader and narrower; while students may be examining an issue from two or more different angles, they are probing more deeply into one specific issue.

Many university students are already receptive to making connections between two disciplines because of similar interdisciplinary coursework at the elementary or high school level. High school math and science courses may include history, literature, and writing components to engage students and to demonstrate the breadth of their subjects. Foreign-language instructors bring in music, history, anthropology, and geography to teach students about culture and language simultaneously.

Many elementary school teachers teach any number of subjects, must work to stay current in all of them, and must strive to see interdisciplinary connections among them. Activities are carefully constructed to teach students the inherent connections that exist among all types of knowledge--the utility of drawing skills in geography or social studies, the narrative nature of history, or the relationship of arithmetic to music.

Although many instructors are interested in pursuing interdisciplinary studies options for their students, such courses present obstacles as well. They take a tremendous amount of preparation time as teachers must learn more about other disciplines during the design stages of any interdisciplinary course. They must learn to work together in the classroom and outside of it, merging various assessment techniques and diverse pedagogical practices. In the case of team-taught courses, they must often be willing to spend twice as much time in the classroom as they would normally.

At various levels, teachers also may be presented with even larger barriers such as time constraints and course-load requirements. High school and elementary school teachers engaging in interdisciplinary efforts of any kind must overcome inflexible schedules, limited textbook funding, and fixed curricular plans. …

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