We cannot paste a series of different classes together in a four-year plan and call that education “interdisciplinary,” argues Julie Van, a recent graduate of the University of Washington.
The summer between my junior and senior years of college, I took a chance.
Though I was a math major, and saw myself as anything but a writer, I decided to enroll in a study abroad program in Italy focused on creative writing.
Surrounded by an overwhelming number of English and creative writing majors, I immediately felt inferior. As we shared our writing in small groups each day, it felt as if everyone else had such mastery and control over language while I was still grappling with finding my voice. I couldn’t help but think: What meaningful contribution could I make as someone without a formal writing background?
That changed when I realized our instructors wanted us to incorporate our personal interests into our work. As a result, I spent a lot of time thinking and writing about the intersection of art and its underlying mathematical structure — from the use of vanishing points in Francesco Borromini’s architecture at Palazzo Spada to the optical illusions in the frescos of Sant’Ignazio Church.
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It was a summer marked by perpetually black-ink stained fingers, hastily penned words in my well-worn notebook, and poems scratched on napkins. I endured the blazing Roman sun and rough callouses from cobblestone roads, but writing proved to be a transformative learning experience — not only for my own sense of self-discovery, but for the opportunity to share my perspectives with my peers.
Such interdisciplinary experiences shouldn’t be so rare — and difficult for students to find. My experiences have shown me the disconnects in our education system. Too often, students box themselves into strict dichotomies. Either you are a “math person” or you are not. So you like writing papers? Therefore you must likely be a “humanities person.” But individuals are much more complex than that, and our world is full of nuanced problems that require an intricate interrelationship of knowledge.
Most schools, like the University of Washington, have general education requirements. They’re intended to ensure all students take some classes outside of their majors. While this is a necessary start, we cannot paste a series of different classes together into a four-year plan and call that education “interdisciplinary.”
To work, interdisciplinary education has to be created in a collaborative relationship between instructors and students. The instructors must create an environment where students have the ability to bring in experiences from other disciplines, and students must be active participants in their education and take advantage of what their professors and peers have to offer.
Educators should frame classes as an opportunity — through case studies and project-based learning — to address contemporary issues. Encouraging faculty to give lectures outside their own departments can provide students with another way to make connections between different fields. And incorporating peer-to-peer feedback also would allow students to build understanding and challenge each other’s thinking.
In my classes, some of the most enlightening and interesting insights come from classmates who aren’t majoring in the subject. They’ve challenged my thinking in ways that even my instructors have not. Given the dynamic nature of our political and social landscape, now is the time for thinking beyond prescribed boxes. Exploring the uncomfortable and unknown starts when we share our varied perspectives, and embrace learning as a collaborative effort.