Interdisciplinarity at X: Is the University committed or not?



Interdisciplinary programs give students the opportunity to receive a more holistic and multifaceted education that can be shaped and focused depending on their particular interests. Interdisciplinary programs work to teach core understandings of their specific programming while working alongside other departments to give students a wider understanding of the ways different disciplines interact, respond and build upon one another. In the last year, StFX has clearly shown it understands and appreciates what interdisciplinarity can bring to our education through the addition of the programs: Policy and Governance, Climate Change and the Environment and Bachelor of Arts and Science in Health, which are designed to enhance educational opportunities and bridge current gaps between sciences and arts to help these educational areas flourish. This is great news, but I do worry whether these new programs mean that resources that could have supported already existing interdisciplinary programs such as Aquatic Resources, Development Studies and Women and Gender Studies is instead, helping get the new programs get off the ground.

            I know the benefits of interdisciplinarity at X. As a student of two interdisciplinary programs: Women and Gender Studies and Development Studies, I have reaped the benefits of having an education that has both expanded my understanding of social sciences and the humanities in general and has enhanced my very specific interests and areas of research. On the flip side, I have also had the frustrating and tiresome experience of struggling to find enough courses that meet the needs of my degree year in and year out. These often small, but might programs, tend to only have very few tenured and contract professors and struggle to offer courses because of a lack of resources. And while some core courses in these programs are covered by staff from other departments, these bridges are far from stable as contributing departments also struggle to meet the needs of their programs in an environment of dwindling stable academic investment. When tenured professors are hired-on in interdisciplinary programs, it is clear that the numbers of students interested will go up. If resources are dwindling and classes cannot be offered, however, the student body will gravitate elsewhere. Unstable support for small programs is especially disruptive, as talented educators may join the program for a year or two, but then leave just as students have been able to connect with them. These realities are true of the already existing interdisciplinary programs at StFX. Adding new programs is only going to increase this unstable trend, unless the university makes it clear they are committed to stabilizing these programs across the board.

To put it frankly, because interdisciplinary programs are awesome, they attract students who want to do more than focus on just one discipline or want to have a more holistic understanding of the area they may end up working in one day. That being said, how do we know these new programs will be given the resources to flourish as years pass? By looking at the state of our current interdisciplinary programming is it not fair to assume that these new programs will face these same challenges in the future without a clear commitment to those programs already present? As each specific department and program continues to fight to meet the needs of its students with dwindling resources, the bridges between disciplines and interdisciplinary programs continue to unravel, undermining the whole system once built to promote interconnections across the campus. There are many wonderful professors who are dedicated to making interdisciplinary programs as fruitful and engaging as possible, but this an extremely difficult feat without more support and focus from the university.

However, I do not believe all is lost here, there are innovative ways to support bridge-building on campus, using our limited resources to foster connections, rather than protecting individual departments and programs. This is the beauty of interdisciplinary programs, they allow for the sharing of knowledge and joint learning of students from different areas. For example, instead of having to hire multiple professors for each department, educators could be hired and given the opportunities to teach in a department as well as an interdisciplinary program; thus, enhancing the departments and programs individually and together. This type of collaboration would bring to life the link between different parts of the university.

 As students, we feel the effects of these issues and begin to become frustrated with our own departments and programs, and the lack of opportunities to cross-disciplines and learn from different perspectives. Our frustration often happens without understanding the bigger picture. For instance, I am confused by the mixed signals the university is currently sending us students “interdisciplinarity is great, try it! But don’t get too committed to it, as the program you join today might not be supported tomorrow.” Maybe instead of this mixed signal, money should be allocated to supporting and enhancing the programs that already exist and strengthening the connections between programs and departments? Maybe we should look at the wonderful resources we already have and build from there instead of trying to incorporate brand new ways to attract students? Just a thought.