Undergraduate Journey’s toward Interdisciplinary Understanding: Interpreting and Reflection

Carolyn Haynes and Jeannie Brown Leonard are Interdisciplinary Professors and Administrators at a mid-sized college that has a unique Interdisciplinary program with a select 200 person student body. The college also teaches other disciplinary based majors, but the Interdisciplinary major requires first year students to live in the same residence halls to give them a sense of community people who share a disciplinary major have. The administrators set out with a qualitative researching approach to see how students developed in their four years in the Interdisciplinary program at their school .

To seperate themselves from the research and keep the project as unbiased as possible, “after one year of data collection, one author changed institutions and the other became an administrator in another program and did not participate in interdisciplinary program activities, thereby effectively removing any role conflict” (649 Interdisciplinary Understanding in Undergraduates). The two proceeded to interview a total of seven students for their four years at the institution, after starting with ten and three changing schools or majors after their first year. They conducted interviews with each student once a semester, until their senior year where they conducted more during their last year. The interviews were at the end of each semester about 60-90 minutes in length, and semi-structured using Baxter Magolda’s theory in mind to prompt self reflection about development and learning experiences. After the interviews, they were transcribed and read and analyzed for emerging themes.

Overall, the findings of longitudinal study were as followed:

In their first year, students were enthusiastic about learning and looked for faculty approval, while enjoying a close knit community of other interdisciplinary students. The first year students also looked to peers for validation of work and viewed professors as experts on interdisciplinarity, but also did not have a concrete definition of interdisciplinarity, and were uneasy about the loose and interpretive definitions and challenges presented to them. One student explained why she enjoyed her first year classes in the interdisciplinary program as follows; “In disciplinary courses, you learn the facts, and you’re expected to learn them and spit them back out at the teacher. But if someone were to ask me, ‘So what exactly did you learn in your interdisciplinary courses?’ I would not be able to tell them the actual facts I learned, but instead the processes [of questioning an discussion] that I gained throughout the course. I think those will stick with me” (651  Interdisciplinary Understanding in Undergraduates).

In the middle years of the students undergraduate career, the students became anxious and weary about making key decisions and exploring their major’s on their own, but they were also eager to apply knowledge in out-of-class experiences. The students found it hard to track their personal growth without other interdisciplinarians to compare to when they were taking classes in disciplines, and werent in the residence halls as interdisciplinary students anymore. One student complained “I dont have anymone to compare myself to in terms of progress or something”( 653 Interdisciplinary Understanding in Undergraduates).  These students also gained awareness of the limits of disciplines and the integration aspects of interdisciplinarity. The researchers and authors noted that “signs that students were beginning to establish their beliefs were evident in their capacity for critical analysis, particularly as related to disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity” (654 Interdisciplinary Understanding in Undergraduates).

The final years are the most inspiring to me personally, as I reflect on myself in those students position in some way, being on this journey somewhat by myself with limited people who understand my perspective and major. “All of students credited their interdisciplinary education with helping them become more open minded, inclusive, and tolerant of differences” (659 Interdisciplinary Understanding in Undergraduates). the final year students also gained a sense of agency over education and the integrative process, and really reflected on how interdisciplinarity is now integrated into one’s self and way of thinking, as well as how to learn more due to conflicting points of view and teamwork. Also at this stage in the research, the students had a more comprehensive interdisciplinary definition as being a process, encompassing greater number of disciplines and fields, that is dependent on disciplines. One student tells that “Having a self-designed major and having to reflect within yourself what’s important and critically think about ourself and your own passions and guide your own direction, that in and of itself is interdiciplinary” (659 Interdisciplinary Understanding in Undergraduates).

Each individual in the research had in depth answers about their learning and experience that helped the researchers develop a greater understanding about students journey of development in one undergraduate interdisciplinary studies program. As the researchers and authors put so perfectly, ” As students gained a sense of their own beliefs and way of knowing, their understandings of interdisciplinarity become more sophisticated” (655 Interdisciplinary Understanding in Undergraduates). Although I would like to say that I have a pretty defined answer to what Interdisciplinary studies is, based on my IDS2222 course, I am also willing to explore and try to expand my knowledge and comprehensive thought about what Interdisciplarity is and how it is applied in my studies and in the world, like a true interdisciplinarian would! This article helped me to feel certain in the uncertainty, as I reflect on how others such as these students, have gone through a similar process of finding themselves and their interdisciplinary interests, through an interdisciplinary program that promotes self help and individual learning processes.

Work Cited:

Haynes, C., & Leonard, J. B. (2010). From Surprise Parties to Mapmaking: Undergraduate Journeys toward Interdisciplinary Understanding. Journal Of Higher Education81(5), 645-666.


2 thoughts on “Undergraduate Journey’s toward Interdisciplinary Understanding: Interpreting and Reflection”

  1. I can’t remember having read this article before, so I will definitely be checking it out. I shared this with faculty on Yammer who are interested in the cluster-based initiative here at PSU, since it seems like there might be some lessons for us to learn from. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. I was particularly struck by this statement: “This article helped me to feel certain in the uncertainty” Really interesting thoughts!

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