Every institution and every program require professors to take a unique approach to teaching and interacting with students. But when a course is taught as part of a broader interdisciplinary program, the instructor needs to take a firmer, constructive approach to designing and teaching the course. Students may wonder what an interdisciplinary program really means, and why many universities around the world have opted to offer them.
The popularity of interdisciplinary programs for advanced degrees came as a response to the changing nature of teaching and education. In the past, graduate programs were designed to advance the material offered in undergraduate programs, and to take those programs to a higher level of analysis and in-depth study. The first step toward interdisciplinarity was the introduction of cross-disciplinary programs, which tried to create new insights by sharing the perspectives that can cut across two disciplines. A more advanced step was the creation of fully integrated interdisciplinary programs that assemble the knowledge and viewpoints of multiple academic fields.
In the past, the main outcome of university programs was knowledgeable students. Today, creating knowledgeable students does not suffice in the professional world. Students need to be equipped with a number of skills, such as critical thinking and analysis, the ability to debate, the ability to work in teams, the ability to find and absorb newly created knowledge, and to see how different fields relate to each other. Physicians need to able to work with engineers. Architects need to work with environmental scientists. Corporate executives need to work with psychologists.
An Early Form of Interdisciplinarity
Historically, “area studies” programs offered a kind of interdisciplinary curriculum but were designed to investigate aspects of a chosen geographic region. These aspects were typically limited to the study of history, politics and culture. Today, a program such as a “Gulf studies program” ensures that students enroll in prerequisite courses that introduce them to history, politics, culture and the economics of the Gulf. These courses are then followed by electives that cover broader topics of energy, security, literature, media and so on. All these courses are designed in a way to eventually offer students a holistic approach to the area. Interdisciplinary programs take area studies a step further in offering the students wider dimensions for study and are equipping them with more advanced analytical skills.
An interdisciplinary program at a master’s degree or a doctoral level has three main advantages for students. The first is that students from a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds can benefit from interdisciplinary programs. For example, an introductory course on cultural studies allows students with backgrounds in political science, sociology, media or linguistics to choose it as part of their study plan.
The second benefit to an interdisciplinary program is that it gives students two options for their final degrees. In a program with courses from three disciplines, for example, students can either concentrate on all three majors and graduate with a holistic, interdisciplinary degree, or they can specialize in one or two of the three majors and choose a more specific concentration for their degree.
Finally, an interdisciplinary program can offer students a wide range of career options. For example, an engineering degree would most likely limit students to engineering-based careers, while an interdisciplinary degree can give high-performing students more career flexibility.
A New Teaching Style
Teaching in an interdisciplinary program can be both challenging and rewarding for professors. The rewards are from the additional acquired knowledge that comes from working in new disciplines and interacting with students from a diversity of nationalities and educational and professional backgrounds. The broader student base plays a significant role in upgrading the class experience, discussions and assignments produced.
However, for the instructor to be able to end the course with the majority of the students mastering the relevant material, the course needs to be designed differently from the usual undergraduate or single-discipline courses. An instructor needs to build the intellectual context for those students who already have knowledge of the topics taught in the class, while also creating a knowledge base for those who do not have previous experience with the topics introduced.
In addition to designing the course syllabus in a holistic manner, another challenge for professors comes from setting the course in the context of the interdisciplinary program. An instructor needs to be aware of the teaching plan in the broader program, as the courses need to have both a clear flow of information within each course and to connect knowledge among courses offered in the interdisciplinary program as a whole. The learning outcomes of each interdisciplinary course also need to work hand in hand with those of the other courses taught.
Overall, interdisciplinary programs broaden not only the knowledge of students, but also their approach to academia and to the professional world. Courses offered in such programs weave information together to help students to grasp the bigger picture. Students with these broader perspectives should become more insightful leaders and more creative managers.
Mahjoob Zweiri is an associate professor in the Contemporary History of Politics of the Gulf and director of the Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University. Farah Al Qawasmi is a research assistant at the Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University.