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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Interdisciplinary studies at Tufts on the rise

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year that "interdisciplinarity," which is an approach to learning, teaching and research that transcends and unites a variety of traditionally separate academic disciplines, was becoming increasingly agreed upon by the university community — a community, they added, which often tends to argue over its philosophy of learning.

A quick stroll through Tufts' academic buildings would easily reveal that Tufts falls in line with this trend.

Many of Tufts' specialized programs, from the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies to the Wright Center for Science Education to Fletcher's International Business Program, all boast an interdisciplinary approach.  

Undergraduates can choose from several interdisciplinary majors, and some of the university's most cutting-edge research is based on using an interdisciplinary approach — a concept that has broken academic barriers while creating points of tension recognizable to both faculty and students.

"There's a new vibrancy around interdisciplinary programs," Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser said. "Students are interested in programs that allow them to reach into different departments [to] make connections and have a holistic experience."
    The preeminence of interdisciplinarity at Tufts today is a result of a period of growth and development that stretches back at least 30 years.    

Glaser remembers when interdisciplinarity was in its early stages of development.

"A couple of years ago, we had a professor [Jesper Rosenmeier of the English Department] who retired, who spent his whole career talking about tearing down the walls between the disciplines," he said. "I think a lot of people didn't agree with him, but that idea has been around for quite a long time."

Rosenmeier was one of the founding members of the American Studies department, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Tufts' undergraduate International Relations (IR) program is a historically interdisciplinary major that typically graduates the most students of any major from the College of Arts and Sciences.

"While other IR programs have a range of disciplines comprising their majors, my impression is that the IR program at Tufts includes a greater [variety] of disciplines than many, with 19 programs and departments represented," Tufts IR Director and Associate Professor Malik Mufti said.

Mufti believes that the IR program's interdisciplinary nature gives it a special strength, one that is much needed in a discipline as complicated as IR.

"Without multi-disciplinarity, it would be difficult for us to treat some of the most critical concerns in international affairs today," he said. "Take our specialization in global health, nutrition and the environment. With participation from biology, civil and environmental engineering, economics and others, we can offer high quality training in issues ranging from sustainable development to global pandemics."

Mufti said he recognizes, however, that interdisciplinarity may also pose challenges to undergraduates engaging in the study of International Relations.

"Some students do not find focus early enough," he said. "They risk staying on the surface and not creating a coherent and rigorous program of study in which they can build knowledge on knowledge and gain mastery over specific knowledge sets."

Mufti explained that the International Relations program is working to address this problem.

"The curriculum reform process we went through recently was actually motivated by this concern," he said.

Glaser believes that, since the professors of interdisciplinary majors come from separate departments, the disciplines can be vulnerable to sudden changes. One, he said, is a "people problem" that occurs when many professors within a smaller major concurrently take sabbatical, for example.

Glaser said he knows that interdisciplinary study is subject to other obstacles, as well.

"Most of our professional lives happen in disciplines, our professional networks are in disciplines, our day-to-day contacts are within our departments," Glaser said.  "It's time-consuming and effortful to join other disciplines and networks."

Although he doesn't think many Tufts faculty are hostile to the idea of crossing disciplinary boundaries, he understands that it poses a challenge to all involved.

"In practical terms, it's harder to accomplish," he said.

Glaser pointed to Tufts' groundbreaking interdisciplinary research on soft robots as an example of the potential of this kind of study once these barriers can be broken down.

"The kinds of collaboration going on here are really amazing. That's a kind of thing that I think is part of the future," he said.

Edith Balbach, the director of the community health program, one of Tufts' fastest growing majors, believes that interdisciplinarity is crucial to a student's understanding of health.

"Think of ‘health' as meaning physical, mental and social well-being," Balbach said. "When you do that, it's clear that biology, anthropology, engineering, religion, history, etc. all provide powerful lenses for improving our understanding of health issues."

Balbach believes that an interdisciplinary approach to community health makes the discipline stronger.

"If you only look at health as a physical phenomenon, then you will be very limited in understanding what it means to be in good health," she said. "You will also miss pathways to prevention and health improvement."

Like the environmental science major, community health can only be pursued as a second major.

Balbach said that this restric- tion is in place not because the major is interdisciplinary, but rather because it is relatively new.

"At this point in time, we are concerned that people don't necessarily understand what an undergraduate major in community health means, in terms of what the students know and what they have studied," she said. "So if a student has studied biology/community health or anthropology/community health [etc.], then when they graduate, employers and graduate programs will have a better idea of their interests and abilities."


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