New Directions for Interdisciplinary Education at Swarthmore

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Interdisciplinary education, a natural extension of the existingliberal arts model that characterizes Swarthmore’s educational experience, is undergoing crucial shifts that will dictate the future of education at the college.

Interdisciplinary programs are an educational cornerstone at Swarthmore, encouraging faculty and students to make connections between types of knowledge, widen diversity of ideas, and cross-apply disciplinary approaches.

According to Professor Sarah Willie-LeBreton, Sociology/Anthropology department chair and Black Studies coordinator, “I believe that many students come to Swarthmore not just because of the departments we have, but because of the programs we have.”

Both Professor Alan Baker, Philosophy professor and coordinator of the Cognitive Science program, and Professor William Gardner, Japanese professor and coordinator of the Asian Studies program, acknowledge that their work in interdisciplinary education has provided them with the opportunity to work with faculty and students across disciplines and departments.

“The culture of Swarthmore is such that faculty do want to collaborate and support each other, and a lot of that happens through the interdisciplinary programs. It’s been very positive to get to know different faculty and students,” Gardner said.

However, along with the excitement amongst faculty and students regarding interdisciplinary education come major obstacles due to Swarthmore’s priority on departmental education. Since professors are primarily responsible to their departments, involvement with interdisciplinary programs comes on top of regular obligations.

Because working with interdisciplinary programs is already an extra commitment, a major concern for interdisciplinary programs is finding faculty willing to coordinate them. Since faculty at Swarthmore teach five courses per year, coordinating an interdisciplinary program or teaching an interdisciplinary program-listed course requires they teach one fewer course in their department. Because of this, almost every interdisciplinary program struggles to find faculty members to coordinate and teach program-listed courses every year.

Willie-LeBreton has been on both sides of this dilemma. While she has had to solicit permission from departments for faculty to teach Black Studies courses, she was also approached this year to permit Professor Farha Ghannam, a popular Sociology/Anthropology professor, to coordinate the Islamic Studies program. Due to the amount of time and resources Ghannam had to commit to her coordinator position, according to Willie-LeBreton, Ghannam therefore had to teach fewer Sociology/Anthropology courses — highlighting a struggle between departments and interdisciplinary programs that repeats every year.

According to Professor Carol Nackenoff, Political Science and Environmental Studies professor, the new four course system that Swarthmore is implementing will only aggravate this concern. The four course system that Swarthmore is phasing into will restrict faculty to teaching four courses every year, as opposed to five.

Since departments will be offering fewer courses, they might be less likely to allow faculty members to teach cross-listed courses that are peripheral to the department they fall under, even though they may be crucial to the paired interdisciplinary program.

While Willie-LeBreton has faith that the college will replace the courses lost by hiring new faculty, Gardner is less certain.

“From what I can see, the new positions will not fully replace what [departments] have lost in terms of teaching load. So I still see potential for tension even if [Swarthmore] is expanding the faculty slightly,” Gardner said.

According to Baker, this tension between programs and departments is the impetus behind interdisciplinary programs’ push for tenure-track positions. At the moment, he argued, interdisciplinary programs do not have enough autonomy to defend their courses. The power to hire tenure-track professors, who bring a guarantee of program-specific courses every year, could give these programs more autonomy.

While the reaction to this proposal from interdisciplinary program coordinators was mostly positive –  Baker regarded this as “an important symbolic direction,” and Gardner called this “a helpful direction” – faculty members did express some concerns.

Baker highlighted the instability of interdisciplinary programs — unlike departments, programs can be dissolved at any point if faculty or student interest diminishes, according to him. While this prevents programs from having stable, long-term growth, Professor Baker suggested this instability may not be all bad. For Baker, interdisciplinary programs are more fluid and evolving than departments. If a program with a tenured professor became less relevant to the Swarthmore community, he said, it would prove difficult to dissolve.

Another criticism came from Willie-LeBreton, who approached the issue with a diversity lens. According to her, interdisciplinary programs generally attract more faculty from underrepresented groups than departments. For example, Gender and Sexuality Studies is more likely to hire queer faculty, and Black Studies is more likely to hire African American faculty.

While Willie-LeBreton argued that the college should hire more faculty from under-represented groups, she cautioned against “pigeon-holing these faculty.” If a professor from an underrepresented group is hired to coordinate a program for life, she aruged, that professor may not have the opportunity to move up into administrative roles open to other faculty members.

“Interdisciplinary programs are a great avenue for improving diversity, but they can also constrain where that diversity shows up,” Willie-LeBreton said.

Regardless of how Swarthmore chooses to address the administrative and bureaucratic obstacles to interdisciplinary programs here, faculty and administration agree that something should change.

According to Strategic Directions, the Swarthmore Campus Master Plan, “Some of today’s most intense academic experiences take place in interdisciplinary arenas… yet some of Swarthmore’s current structures are not flexible enough to work across the boundaries that define traditional academic communities. We need to develop flexible structures, creative networks, and innovative collaborations”.

This collective focus by the College on enhancing the interdisciplinary programs has faculty members looking forward to the future of Swarthmore’s intellectual community and opportunities.

“Swarthmore’s interdisciplinary programs are a fundamental part of our academic curriculum and that’s one of the reasons I am excited about the changes in policy happening.” Willie-LeBreton said.

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