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A new way to learn

By Menaka Fernando

Feb. 15, 2005 9:00 p.m.

For about 25 U.S. college students studying in Shanghai, China,
last summer, the term interdisciplinary study took on a whole new
meaning.

To study globalization in China’s booming economy, UCLA
anthropology Professor Yunxiang Yan took students on a five-week
travel study program in which they researched various topics
““ from the Starbucks phenomenon to workers’ rights.

And while American students (who Yan calls his “little
ambassadors of cultural exchange”) and the Chinese people
were mutually dispelling stereotypes they had about each other, Yan
said he realized that this was interdisciplinary education in its
broadest sense. “This is a very positive direction to go
in.”

The global studies major is the latest of the interdisciplinary
programs to begin at UCLA, many of which are housed in the UCLA
International Institute. The major will offer its first course in
the spring, focusing on globalization issues from immigration to
the worldwide economy. The field of study will use a team of UCLA
faculty from various departments, as well as guest lecturers like
former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and UCLA Chancellor
Albert Carnesale.

While UCLA increasingly incorporates interdepartmental programs
into its curriculum, some still question whether an
interdisciplinary and more liberal arts education is attainable at
UCLA, a university entrenched in research and often restricted by a
state budget crisis.

Interdisciplinary programs often take valuable resources, like
faculty time and funding, from a variety of departments on campus
when offering minors and majors in that field of study.

For some fields of study, an interdisciplinary approach is
essential, says Ali Behdad, an English professor who will chair the
global studies program in the spring.

For example, in global studies, “no one person can think
about it on their own,” Behdad said. “There has been a
paradigm shift in (academia) that has to do with the emergence of
different phenomena” such as globalization or race issues, he
said. This shift has resulted in the collaboration of faculty from
myriad disciplines.

In the global studies program, Behdad explains that faculty from
the English, comparative literature, sociology, geography,
economics, political science, French and Francophone studies
departments, among others, are contributing their expertise.

“For students, if they are interested in becoming global
leaders or trans-national scholars, they have to be trained in a
plurality of disciplines,” he said, adding that he has been
receiving numerous inquiries from students interested in the new
global studies program.

Interest in interdepartmental programs has increased steadily
for the last two decades, says Michael Ross, the chair of the
long-established international developmental studies program at
UCLA. While the program has been growing steadily since 1987, the
number of students majoring in IDS at UCLA has grown from 21 to
more than 300, in the last 10 years.

“I certainly think in the last three or four years, UCLA
has been supportive of IDS programs,” Ross said.

Still, there are those that would question whether UCLA is
heading in as much an interdisciplinary direction as it could
be.

When political science Professor Susanne Lohmann came to UCLA
from Stanford in 1993, a small group of faculty was attempting to
start a political economy field of study, to teach economic policy
in a political context.

She believed that a concentrated study in either economics or
political science alone often bored students.

And from a teaching perspective, merging the two fields made
sense, she says. But the idea never materialized, and the faculty
and administration were never able to see eye to eye.

Interdisciplinary study in political science and economics has
become all but moot at UCLA, while in universities like Princeton,
students can get a joint degree, Lohmann said.

Behdad agreed that some reluctance does exist within individual
departments. But the resistance is not about hindering
interdisciplinary education, he believes. Instead, department heads
are concerned that resources are being transferred out from their
departments. And in a time of severe university budget cuts, this
reluctance is understandable, Behdad said. Judi Smith, vice provost
of undergraduate education in the UCLA College, said its normal
that departments want to keep what they have during a budget
crunch.

But even within departments, officials are increasingly
branching out to faculty that are outside the discipline, said
Smith, who calls interdisciplinary studies one of UCLA’s
“hallmarks.”

Students who choose to study in interdisciplinary fields also
face the problem of limited class enrollment spots and departments
who offer their students priority.

Ross acknowledges that this is a problem for many IDS students
in departments like economics and sociology and said he has been
talking to department officials to work out a possible
solution.

Lohmann, currently on sabbatical, experienced some resistance
from the administration for a second time last year, when she and
other faculty wanted to establish a human complex systems
interdepartmental program.

Though some courses were eventually approved for the minor that
will be instituted next quarter, Lohmann believes that a voice
which represents a liberal arts education in academia is lacking,
especially at UCLA. In fact, Lohmann is writing a book on the
philosophy of higher education titled “How Universities
Think: The Hidden Work of a Complex Institution.”

“Universities are understudied,” Lohmann said,
adding that she began her study after realizing that studies of any
field can be related back to the nature of education at a
university. “If a university runs into problems, (then)
science runs into problems,” she said as an example.

From her research, Lohmann says she came to the conclusion that
there are three dominating philosophies in higher education: one
that emphasizes deeply specialized research, one that encourages
immediate utility upon completion and a third that prepares
primarily undergraduates for a more fulfilled life.

Lohmann believes there is room in academia for all three
philosophies, but says that staunch advocates for the latter one
are few and far between.

“In the future, universities must continue to support deep
specialization and discipline-bound forms of inquiry, as they mix
and match their specialized faculty into interdisciplinary teams
that study complex real-world problems in holistic ways,” she
writes in a draft of her book.

Most interdepartmental program faculty agree that
interdisciplinary study should only be viewed as a supplement for
specialized study and not as a replacement.

“Interdisciplinary study is not renouncing the importance
of specialization, it just offers a dialogue to understand complex
phenomena that require perspectives from these
specializations,” Behdad said.

Many faculty believe that UCLA perpetuates an environment that
encourages interdisciplinary dialogue. A newly instituted forum by
which different disciplines of faculty can collaborate, are the
general education cluster courses that were implemented under
Smith, who believes it is important for freshmen, who typically
take the courses, to learn how to solve problems from a variety of
perspectives. These courses “not only enable students to
understand an interdisciplinary perspective, but have helped create
a faculty community,” Behdad said.

Still, Lohmann believes that the interdisciplinary education
should be going from the bottom-up, rather than being implemented
from the administration.

Regardless of the politics behind interdisciplinary education,
Behdad believes there is no excuse for UCLA not to embrace it.
“L.A. is a global city; a microcosm for the world at large
(and) UCLA ought to accommodate this global city,” he
said.

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