Interdisciplinarity, Sustainability, & Service Learning

A little while back, I was asked by some of my environmental studies colleagues outside of RU to briefly describe my take on interdisciplinary scholarship in under 200 words. Here’s what I came up with:

An interdisciplinary scholar can speak different disciplinary languages, recognize how they work together, and use that facility to say something unique in the process. Interdisciplinary scholarship is about integration: fitting things together in a complementary, cohesive, creative fashion so that the whole is niftier than the mere sum of its parts. I’ve sung in choirs where men and women blend the different pitches and timbres of their voices in 4, 6, even 8 part harmony. At its best, interdisciplinary work is like that: creating beautiful music from difference, even the occasional dissonance, such as in the give-and-take dialogue of interdisciplinary team-teaching. While most university landscapes remain dominated by disciplinary silos, interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship open up new ground for discovery and connect faculty and students working on problems of mutual interest. 

The last few years I’ve taught in and directed the Sustainability Studies program here at Roosevelt, the curriculum for which was designed in a consciously interdisciplinary fashion to integrate methods and insights from the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities. My own academic background in biology and literature, as well as my many years of working within a multidisciplinary faculty teaching general education to returning adult students in RU’s College of Professional Studies, means I have keen interest in integrating knowledge and research methods from the humanities and natural sciences — something that is an excellent fit within the inherently interdisciplinary endeavors of environmental studies and the newly emerging sustainability studies. In a previous post, I reflect on the relevance/importance of the arts and humanities to matters of environmental science and policy.

Another thought is that service learning provides a powerful vehicle for interdisciplinary teaching and learning — both within the context of a single (potentially interdisciplinary) class as well as in the collaboration of two or more courses from different academic departments. A fascinating model for this is the Sustainable City Year Program, pioneered recently by the University of Oregon and spun off in various ways by other US colleges and universities. This is an action-oriented and sustainability-directed approach to interdisciplinary learning and scholarship that can be tailored to the particular strengths and capacities of a given university.

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