Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Interdisciplinary Dilemma

Here's the latest dilemma, one that makes it clear that I'm glad I'm not one of the higher ups who has to actually make the big decisions around here.

We have a small major in Underwater Basketweaving, so small that it's served by one faculty member. Of late, the major has been housed in the Underwater Studies department, along with the broad array of underwater studies, from oceanography to submarine design. Students in the major take a number of basic courses in Underwater Studies, but far more in Basketweaving, and they have to demonstrate basic Basketweaving skills to get into the UWBW major. Of course, they then take specialized courses in underwater basketweaving.

But there are a couple problems with this arrangement. The Underwater Studies department recently reorganized, and they're really not a good place now to house the UWBW major. Depending on one faculty member to maintain a major or department is a weak strategy, especially since people age, get sick, and so forth.

The accrediting agency for Basketweaving has said that so long as we have a UWBW program, it needs to be located in the Basketweaving Department, AND it needs more faculty resources, at least one additional full time faculty member. But the Basketweaving department is already strapped for resources, and really needs another basic weaving skills faculty member, since so many students really need those skills. So a faculty line will have to come from another department at the university if we want to keep the program and the Basketweaving accreditation. Basketweaving is one of our really excellent, well-known departments, and serves many students in a couple majors. They'd probably be willing to take on two new faculty members, but not at the expense of their current resource allocations.

At this time, the UWBW faculty member teaches majors almost exclusively, and contributes minimally to the broader educational needs of the university (general education and so forth), though there is a shallow-water basketweaving class that carries general education credit. The UWBW major is fairly uncommon in the Northwoods, and there's a fair potential for graduates in the major to get good jobs in the Northwoods or elsewhere; it's a small but slightly growing field.

So that's the problem: do we move UWBW to the BW department and add at least one faculty member, or do we drop the program altogether, perhaps continuing to teach one or more shallow-water basketweaving classes of different sorts?

The pros if we move the program: a small number of students have a good major, with employment possibilities. It's an uncommon program, and thus serves our state by providing underwater basketweavers. It makes our Basketweaving department even stronger and more impressive, but the underwater basketweaver will have to carve out a new niche and have underwater facilities moved there for his/her work and teaching.

The cons if we move the program: resources, resources, resources. There's no department in the university that doesn't feel a pinch for faculty positions. We've lost tenure track lines in many departments in the past several years as the NW state budget has been balanced, in part, on the back of the NW university system. The program serves a relatively small number of students, and doesn't serve the broader programming much.

Things boil down to this: what do we value most? Do we want to hire or maintain a faculty member in some other department or field, or do we want to continue to support this program?

Unlike the recent Indiana State decision to drop the Physics and Philosophy majors, this decision is about an even more marginal program, one that doesn't serve to help outside students with pre-requisites, even. Most universities don't have UWBW at all, and probably for good reasons. If we all had these programs all over, there'd be a glut of graduates, and the job potential would go way down.

One of the aspects of this dilemma I find most compelling and interesting is the truly interdisciplinary nature of the major and field. You just can't do UWBW without working seriously in underwater studies, nor without lots of preparation and work in basketweaving. It brings together two fields that seem unrelated, and makes them matter in a really new way.

At NWU, we talk about valuing interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary work, but it's difficult to put into practice. Were I to want to teach an interdisciplinary course with someone in the theater department, we could probably arrange to teach a course together, but it would be an unpaid overload for one or both of us faculty members. This term, when I work with a theater department colleague to help students prepare for a Shakespeare production, I'll be doing it on top of my regular expectations, and without additional pay.

So, here's a program that's totally interdisciplinary, and it's lost between its two departments. It's totally doing what we ask on one level, providing a useful academic major and being fully interdisciplinary. BUT, when we talk about interdisciplinary studies, we usually talk about general education and broader goals for our students, and this program doesn't do that much.

The fact that most of our work happens within the scope of specific departments, each of which values specific methodologies and practices, means that really crossing departments is difficult and unusual. We have a few good interdisciplinary programs, but few: American Indian Studies, for example, which brings together faculty members in a variety of fields, but which asks faculty members to regularly teach overloads. If we really value interdisciplinarity, we need to put our resources behind that work, whether it's teaching, research, or advising.

In some ways, then, UWBW is a kind of test case for how we value truly interdisciplinary work and how we fit it into the sometimes arthritic university structures. But even saying that, it's also about how we value this individual area of study and how it fits into the university's goals and overarching purpose.


  1. You raise some interesting and important issues here--but mostly? I'm just giggling at the idea of Underwater Studies, home to both basketweaving and submarine design. Way to work that extended metaphor!

  2. Er, maybe not metaphor. Analogy? Pseudonym? Don't know what you'd call it, but it's damn funny.