Undergraduate perspective on interdisciplinarity

While I do not usually feel compelled to refer to myself as the college “undergraduate” I think, in this case, it emphasizes an important point. My point being that budding scientists, such as myself, are often very aware of the cultural differences that exist between academic disciplines. By cultural differences I mean the unique core of collective knowledge, assumptions, methodologies, and theories that form each disciplinary foundation and therefore necessarily condition the thought processes and research performed by each. Although the awareness of disciplinary divergence is high, concern often is not. Perhaps the lack of alarm is because, as academic newbies, undergraduates simply don’t know any better…yet anyway. It almost seems as if academia is structured in such a way as to perpetuate this cultural rift by subtly urging new graduate students to narrow their scope of study rather than building on the interdisciplinary mindset that becomes almost second nature to any motivated undergraduate.

During my first few years of undergraduate study I found myself concurrently taking classes that spanned vastly different scientific disciplines. A diverse study regime forced me to get comfortable with changing mental gears on a whim. In doing so, I quickly learned that my time spent studying could be more effective (and I could maintain my sanity) if I found ways to draw parallels and make connections whenever and wherever possible, even between anthropology and physics (have you ever considered human interaction and behavior in terms of Newton’s 3rd law of motion? Think about it…). In other words, the human brain is fully capable of interdisciplinary thinking we simply need to embrace the possibility. The social and ecological issues we face today are complex and therefore must be tackled with true interdisciplinary thinking that is integrative from conception to reflection. This is in contrast to what I consider pseudo-interdisciplinary thinking that simply smooshes single discipline solutions together and hurls them at complex problems with little consideration for the problem’s depth or magnitude.

As I stand at a fork in the road of knowledge with my undergraduate degree in my academic backpack prepared to journey towards an advanced degree, I feel compelled to choose one disciplinary path. In choosing only one (or perhaps two if they are related enough so as to not oppose one another too much) it seems as if I am essentially abandoning other disciplines I have come to love and appreciate as an undergrad. Why do I feel this way? I am aware of no explicit rule that says a graduate student can study only one discipline, but I feel as if it is culturally implied. Perhaps blame for the lack of true interdisciplinary work should not be placed on the structure of science or academia per se but should reside with us as scientists and global citizens for not questioning and challenging the accepted structure collectively.

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One Response to Undergraduate perspective on interdisciplinarity

  1. Greg L. Cox says:

    My own experience in 34 years of natural resource management mirrors your observations in the academic environment.

    Welcome to the western (USA, in particular) world of affluence (or maybe opulence) of specialization. Today, a general practice physician (primary-care physician), or a general practice lawyer are becoming a rare breed. Likewise, “general-practice” conversationalists/naturalists are not typical degree programs or occupations.

    Following the dust-bowl period (1934-1936), agricultural farmers were the “premiere” conservationists/naturalists (at least locally). They eventually learned how to produce commodities/produce with a vested interest in valuing/protecting the foundations (the soil/water/vegetation and nutrients) that were essential to their well-being. Similarly,foresters trained in western European (Germany, in particular) employed methods of replicating natural events on a small scale, and Extension Agents with the Soil Conservation Service brought the latest integrated science to lay-people who eked out a living on the land. American Indians were probably the earliest North American naturalists. They too, simply tried to replicate what they observed (sometimes catastrophically) in nature, on a small “controlled” scale to improve their sustenance.

    Were these the original/aboriginal integrated thinkers/practitioners? Have we learned so much about the individual sciences, that it is impossible for a single individual to be highly skilled in all the various disciplines and also understand/appreciate the significance and relationships between the various subject-matters? Or, is it affluence (special-interest money), the Congress, the highly-specialized legal profession, or just selfish ego that has led us to become so differentiated, and so dependent on subject-matter experts with specialized degrees are required to “prove” what is “right” approach?

    In today’s society, specialized (subject-matter specialists/experts) Physicians, Lawyers, and Scientists have become the norm. I’d like to think that the undergraduate curricula for any of these professional vocations is rich in interdisciplinary studies as a necessary foundation for a more specialized post-graduate education that apparently (for good or bad) has become a necessary condition for professional general-practitioners to support and/or defend their decisions from lawsuits from other subject-matter experts in the medical, legal, and natural resource arena.

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