Dr John Robert Clammer, a Professor at Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, Haryana, talks about the ins and outs of interdisciplinary education. He proposes a real danger where students end up selecting “fuzzy” courses that have no real defined content
Q. What do you think is the root-cause for introducing inter-disciplinary courses? Does education landscape really need it?
I think that the root cause is a combination of the way knowledge itself is changing – becoming more complex, more linkages being discovered and more awareness of holism – that in a way everything constitutes one big system. Many contemporary students are less attracted to the old single subject majors and look for more creative possibilities that will better relate to their probable career futures. For these reasons the education landscape does need them, but with a proviso – notably that the rigor of the older style single-majors is not lost in the process. There is a real danger of ending up with “fuzzy” courses that have no real defined content. So it is a matter of balance. Even the older universities now have interesting inter-disciplinary courses (for example Oxford, which has long had degrees in combinations such as Politics, Philosophy and Economics, now has many combining, for example economics and a language, theology and philosophy and so forth.
Q. What is the success rate of students when we compare generalized courses with interdisciplinary courses?
I think the success rate is the same. The key is motivation, and if a student is seriously committed to a course of study and genuinely interested in the subjects, then it doesn’t really matter if it is a single subject or a combination.
Q. How’s the trend of opting inter-disciplinary courses at foreign universities different from India?
I think that the main difference between foreign examples (of which there are many and variations between for example, the UK, Australia and the US) is that the concept is newer here and is more slowly catching on. Many US colleges for example have long had the “self-designed” major, which allows (only very good!) students the possibility of planning a course of study with faculty to come up with a well-defined but individual course of study. I don’t think things have gone that far yet, although in my school at JGU it is possible to take a combined major, say sociology and expressive arts.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The student must convince university that their selected combination is one that “works” and they both inform each other in creative ways[/perfectpullquote]
Q. O.P Jindal Global University allows students to self-design their courses such as Religious Studies with History, Art History with Literature, Sociology with Art, and many more. What parameters should a student keep in mind while combining two different disciplines?
When a student wants to take a self-designed major at JGU they still have to draw on the courses available in the existing majors, and don’t yet have the liberty of creating their own content. To take the self-designed option they have to have a high GPA, and be able to make a good case for the combination that they are proposing and to list the courses from both existing majors that will make up a coherent totality. In other words, it can’t just be a grab-bag of courses, but the student must convince us that the combination is one that “works” and that the two majors selected will inform each other in creative ways.
Q. From a student point of view, is it difficult for a student to navigate both the courses together? If yes, what learning methods should be adopted by a student to ease through the curriculum?
So far we have found that far from being difficult for a student to navigate both courses, they “speak” to each other and new linkages are found and new synergies created. We have tried to pioneer small classes, close mentor-mentee relationships, accessibility of faculty at all times, experiential learning involving fieldtrips, workshops and practical activities, and self-directed research. These feed just as well into the combined subjects as into single ones.
Q. “Interdisciplinary fields cross traditional boundaries between academic disciplines or schools of thought, as new needs and professions emerge.” Hence, can more colleges offering interdisciplinary courses be seen as a sign of advancement in culture and development of the country?
In a way, yes, provided as suggested above that those combinations are not just a way of avoiding rigorous contents and methods, and the acquisition of the skills in research, reading, writing, analyzing and synthesizing that a good liberal arts students ought to take away from her course.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to talk about that we didn’t cover in the questionnaire? Please feel free to talk about.
What is also important is local content! It is tempting to simply copy model from major foreign universities and replicate them here. To find a good balance between “universal” topics and local ones is also a skill that I see slowly developing. When this is done well, the result is really exciting – a course that both crosses traditional boundaries and has really relevant and culturally appropriate content really stimulates students, helps them find roots in their own culture and lives while still getting the skills that are always relevant. This is also a good way of creating a kind of “comparative” approach – knowing both your own culture and that of others. This too is exciting for exchange students – there is not much point in going abroad if you are only going to hear the same things as you would at home!