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Interdisciplinary studies are needed to tackle today’s issues

By Daily Bruin Staff

April 6, 2011 11:59 p.m.

“Interdisciplinary” is a word that gets tossed around a lot on a college campus like UCLA, so it’s logical to assume that everyone knows exactly what it means.

While there is no doubt that advancement in interdisciplinary approaches has become a trend in modern academia, and I feel I should be a proponent of whatever it means, I could hardly form a stable definition of it.

It turns out, few can actually agree on what it means.

When I stopped and thought about it, the word “interdisciplinary,” is, in fact, absurdly vague. But maybe I shouldn’t feel too bad about not having a firm grasp on what “interdisciplinary” means. The term’s conflicting definitions come even from professors who participate in interdisciplinary studies.

According to Jeffrey Koseff, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, it is important to distinguish between “interdisciplinary” and “multidisciplinary,” concepts often confused with each other.

Experts who pool their knowledge in a multidisciplinary approach often don’t actually influence each other; in an interdisciplinary approach, multiple disciplines blend together to produce a new discipline aimed at solving an issue.

According to Koseff’s definition, the GE clusters that UCLA offers to freshmen would be multidisciplinary. But, Wolgang Buermann, a professor who instructs The Global Environment cluster said he doesn’t think there is a difference between “interdisciplinary” and “multidisciplinary.”

He said that while the cluster’s professors teach in separate blocks, they collaborate in order to address common themes applicable to the global environment.

Given this ambiguity, the question ultimately arises: Do our classes and textbooks need to be restructured to keep up with the prominent rise of interdisciplinary studies?

In such an evolving field of study, the term is progressing as well; the traditional model for departmental degrees is changing. This provides an opportunity for the university to develop interdisciplinary studies in a way that is most beneficial to students.

At UCLA, these studies (excluding some seminars and the GE clusters) include opportunities for students to take classes in departments other than the one they are majoring in.

The UCLA International Institute provides a chance for students to earn interdepartmental degrees, such as in global studies, international development studies and European studies.

Still, this approach relies on courses that are taught within a subject-specific field instead of departmental collaboration.

The university should promote classes not limited to a particular department but require instead collaboration between professors from different fields. This would allow students to take classes while fulfilling requirements for multiple degrees and gaining knowledge taught with the combination of multiple perspectives.

Despite the ambiguity of interdisciplinary studies, both Koseff and Buermann agreed that individual disciplines are no longer effective in providing solutions to the challenges we currently face. I can’t help but agree that the application of integrated knowledge is necessary to approach these challenges in a successful way.

I have a strong feeling this is eventually what academia will achieve.

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