Layering Perspectives: Inside Scripps College’s Uniquely Interdisciplinary Approach to Education

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By Kathryn Masterson 

To dancer and educator Mary Grimes Opel ’07, dance is more than a series of steps she teaches her elementary school students—it’s a way to instruct children on topics ranging from poetry to weather patterns to human anatomy.

Even more, dance can serve as a vehicle to help children understand human behavior. Grimes Opel recently created a performance piece about bullying that her dance company brought on tour throughout public schools in Colorado.

This approach is something Grimes Opel can trace directly to her time at Scripps College. Scripps’ focus on interdisciplinary learning—on bringing in multiple perspectives and making connections across areas of knowledge—showed her that movement could be used to express not just emotions but concepts and social issues, as well.

Grimes Opel recalls making that connection in a dance class taught by Scripps Lecturer in Dance Suchi Branfman, a performer known for her political works. The course focused on the portrayal of women in the news and media and expanded Grimes Opel’s ideas of what dance could do. “We used movement to not only respond to the news but to re-create it,” she says.

While working on her thesis about incarcerated women and their relationships with their children, Grimes Opel spent almost as much time in the women’s studies department as the dance department. Her thesis was stronger for its multiple perspectives, and Grimes Opel carried that appreciation for interdisciplinary work through to her post-college life.

“I absolutely use everything I learned at Scripps in my career,” Grimes Opel says. “I think many people would question a major in dance, wondering what someone could do with that in the real world. In my career, I have used dance daily as a tool to teach a multitude of other concepts.”

What are you going to do with that degree? Many liberal arts students and professors have heard some version of that well-worn question over the years. Universities are increasingly under pressure to show that their courses of study correlate to jobs for students after graduation.

Higher education research is showing a trend toward pragmatism. The most popular majors for students earning baccalaureate degrees in 2011-12 were business, social science and history, and health professions, with the health professions growing. According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal analysis of a dozen colleges in the U.S., students are now more likely to choose majors as first-years than they were before the recession, a trend driven by concerns about tuition cost and a weak job market. And in a University of California, Los Angeles, survey of college first-years from 2012, an overwhelming majority, when asked the reasons they chose to attend college, indicated that “to be able to get a better job” (87.9 percent) and “to make more money” (74.6 percent) were very important.

Liberal arts colleges have a different philosophy—that no matter the field of study, what helps graduates succeed in life is the ability to think critically and communicate effectively. At Scripps, an interdisciplinary approach to education means that students are not being trained for work in a particular profession per se. What they are learning is how to see issues from a multitude of perspectives, analyze information to connect the dots, and seek answers in new ways—that is, complex thinking for a complex world.

“Interdisciplinary is both an idea and a buzzword in higher education,” writes Scott Jaschik, editor of the online news site Inside Higher Ed, at the beginning of his article about Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century, a new book that examines the pros and cons of the interdisciplinary approach. Bringing together departments and disciplines to solve complex problems has become popular at institutions big and small, and many colleges promote themselves as working this way to both students and faculty.

But at Scripps, interdisciplinary learning is more than a buzzword; it has been a part of the College since its beginning. From its earliest years emphasizing a common study of the traditional humanities to the current Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities that links modern and historical issues around a common theme, Scripps has structured its requirements according to the idea of a broad humanities education for every student.

Examples of interdisciplinary collaboration abound at the College. All students must take the three Core Curriculum courses, taught by professors in every subject. In the sciences, the W.M. Keck Science Department offers first-year students the Accelerated Integrated Science Sequence, a team-taught, yearlong course sequence that combines introductory biology, chemistry, and physics. Students may also major in areas such as media; Africana; Asian American; feminist, gender, and sexuality; Middle East and North Africa (MENA); American; and Chicana/o-Latina/o studies. Each of these programs includes faculty and courses from disciplines that touch on different aspects of the topic, including art, religious studies, anthropology, literature, politics, and language.

That broad approach sets Scripps apart from its liberal arts peers as well as from larger institutions. In the MENA program, for example, faculty members represent the disciplines of anthropology, religious studies, politics, and history. By comparison, Middle Eastern studies departments at other universities tend to focus either on the region’s language and history or its politics and economics, says Professor of Religious Studies Andrew Jacobs, who holds the Mary W. and J. Stanley Johnson Professorship in Humanities and teaches in MENA as well as in feminist, gender, and sexuality studies (his most recent course is on feminist interpretations of the Bible).

For a number of faculty members, this interdisciplinary approach—the ability to conduct research and teach in more than one area—is part of what drew them to Scripps.

Mary Hatcher-Skeers is one such professor. The Sidney J. Weinberg, Jr. Chair in Natural Sciences and professor of chemistry is a biophysical chemist, a specialty that draws from physics, chemistry, and biology to explain how biological systems function, and her work does not fit neatly into one department. When she was considering where to teach, some universities weren’t sure what science department she belonged in. At Scripps, where the physical sciences are one department, she found a home that encourages crossover and blending.

Hatcher-Skeers welcomes the same cross-disciplinary inquiry in her lab. The Hatcher-­Skeers research group primarily studies DNA dynamics using multidimensional NMR spectroscopy and mathematical modeling that appeals mainly to chemistry and physics students. The participation of biology students has helped move the group toward more disease-specific projects, and has even encouraged the use of new techniques. For example, a biology major wanted to do something more biological with a project examining the structures of DNA binding sites, so the student developed her own protocol to test drug binding on those sites. When she presented a poster of her experimental approach at a conference, a researcher assumed she was a graduate student and offered her a postdoctoral fellowship, Hatcher-Skeers says. The student told the impressed researcher she was an undergraduate with plans to attend medical school. (That student is currently enrolled in a residency program, Hatcher-­Skeers says.)

Scripps’ interdisciplinary approach offers benefits beyond job offers.

Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Julie Liss says interdisciplinary learning fosters a “certain kind of creativity that allows for multiple perspectives.” Original thought is encouraged. And because all of the students and the majority of faculty are involved, there is a social benefit, as well.

“In a small residential liberal arts college, it is a particularly lively way that people can talk together across and between disciplines,” Liss says. “The Core Curriculum, because it starts in the first semester of a student’s education and includes most of the faculty, lays the groundwork for thinking in interdisciplinary ways and communicating as part of an intellectual community.”

Though the structure of the College’s humanities-based curriculum has changed over time, Scripps’ general approach to interdisciplinary inquiry has been constant, Liss says. “It’s very much part of the longer tradition of what a Scripps education is.”

Liss herself has always worked in an interdisciplinary way. In her other College role as a professor of history, she focuses her research on the history of anthropology, so her work crosses over into anthropology even though she is not an anthropologist.

The benefits of this kind of learning can be observed over time, as Scripps students begin the Core curriculum and work to deepen their learning as they progress toward their capstone theses. Liss sees students sharpen their critical thinking skills and question assumptions while not taking things for granted.

Scripps’ interdisciplinary academics push students, who do not always have perspective on the benefits until later, when they are able to reflect on what they learned at Scripps. Liss says she often hears from alumnae who share their appreciation for the extraordinary experience they had as students.

It’s a rigor some higher education critics say is missing from many American students’ college experiences. In their 2011 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa use student surveys to argue that swaths of college students are not making meaningful improvements in learning. The authors studied data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which is designed to measure improvements in higher-level critical thinking skills over time. They found that a third of students did not make significant learning improvements over four years, leading them to conclude that many students were drifting through college without taking courses that challenged them to complete large amounts of reading or that required them to write more than 20 pages a semester. Liberal arts students and students who had taken classes that required more reading and writing did better, showing higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills.

At Scripps, reading, writing, and discussions in and out of class push students to learn, right from their first semester on campus.

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The humanities are at the heart of Scripps’ interdisciplinary approach, and a three-course series, taught by a rotating set of professors in all departments, introduces students early to the fundamentals in these fields. “Very often their eyes are opened,” says YouYoung Kang, associate professor of music, who will become the next director of Core in fall 2016. “We’re giving them a lens they never had before.”

Scripps’ approach to teaching the humanities in an interdisciplinary way has evolved over the College’s history. The biggest shift came during the 1990s, when, according to former president Nancy Bekavac, the College was facing enrollment and financial troubles and was looking for a way to differentiate itself and increase its appeal, a move other liberal arts and women’s colleges are making now in the face of similar problems. Bekavac, the faculty, and the Board of Trustees developed a new strategic plan that included a shift from a three-course requirement in the humanities to the Core Curriculum.

The first Core classes were focused on exploring culture, knowledge, and representation, Kang says. Then, about seven years ago, the College faculty undertook a program review to see if Core could be improved. The result was a shift in focus to histories of the present, centered on an overarching theme that would carry through for three years. The first theme was human nature and human difference. The second, which is coming to the end of its cycle this academic year, is violence.

The violence examined has not typically been physical violence, but rather structural and symbolic violence, Kang says. In her Core I lecture, for example, she examined ways American composers appropriated Native American songs for use in their own music, and in the process replaced living American Indian cultures with representations of supposedly “vanished races” in the national imagination.

From the perspective of Andrew Jacobs, who taught in this Core cycle and has “re-upped” for the next three-year cycle, the theme of violence worked especially well in fostering students’ critical interdisciplinary thinking about, for example, current events on college campuses. This fall, his Core students had real-time discussions about the protests roiling American colleges over the environment for underrepresented students on campus (including protests at Claremont McKenna College that ended in the resignation of a dean). Students learned to look beyond the actions of individuals and examine structures and systems that on face value may seem neutral but can be structurally unjust.

“This approach calls for critically investigating what colleges and universities do and how they do it and why they do it and the way they do it,” Jacobs says. “My students were incredibly prepared for that discussion when it hit the ground because that’s how we’ve been talking all semester.”

Next fall, first-year students will tackle a different theme for their Core classes, and faculty who will be teaching the next series are beginning to meet to consider what that theme will be.

As the next director of the Core Curriculum, Kang will facilitate discussions that allow a diverse group of faculty members to agree on a single theme. It’s not an easy task. The negotiation process starts with faculty gathering and throwing out ideas that interest them. Then they give each other readings and reconvene weeks later for a vote. “I’m hoping this will be a collaborative process,” she says.

People have been suggesting topics to her already, and Kang says she is trying to keep it as open as possible. Of particular interest to Kang are questions of property and ownership (including intellectual property), civil discourse and public engagement, and questions of representation.

The benefits of the Core Curriculum approach extend beyond the classroom for both faculty and students.

Kang says her research, as well as the research of her colleagues, has been expanded by topics she has explored for her Core classes, and other faculty members concur. A lecture Kang gave about American composer Aaron Copland on “America in Music” led her to a librarian who suggested she look at an archival collection at the New York Public Library that Kang says she would not have found on her own. That then led her to learn about the WPA Federal Music Project, a New Deal program to employ out-of-work musicians that Kang is now researching.

There is a challenge in not going off in too many directions, Kang says. Researchers need to be deeply engaged in the areas they are studying while also remaining rooted in their discipline; hers is music theory and musicology. But the chance to branch out in one’s specialty is “the beauty of being at a liberal arts college,” Kang says.

For students, a shared curriculum gives them a common base of understanding and a bond that can continue after the course has ended.

Hatcher-Skeers, the chemistry professor, co-taught a Core II course with associate psychology professor Judith LeMaster on the misrepresentations of women by science and society. Soon after the course ended, Hatcher-Skeers followed up with her students by emailing them a handful of articles about Donna Freitas’s 2013 book The End of Sex, which deals with research into how people feel about hookup culture. The students got the idea to meet with Freitas and applied for grants to fund a luncheon with the author. At the lunch, they talked about sexuality. “It’s a touchy subject, but it does have real consequences in their lives,” Hatcher-Skeers says.

Hatcher-Skeers expects to bring that conversation and research into her future classes.

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Though the Core approach is relatively new, interdisciplinary learning—the need to look at something from many perspectives—is a hallmark of the Scripps education. Even for alumnae who have been gone from Scripps for a long time, the impact of a Scripps education remains.

Carrie Bolster ’76 has taught high school French for 33 years. At the boarding school in Massachusetts where she teaches now, she pushes students to think broadly and make connections to culture and history in the same way she remembers Scripps professors encouraging her to do 40 years ago.

She remembers the French professor who prepared her and other students for a junior year abroad in France by insisting that they learn about the country’s culture and history in addition to how to conjugate verbs.

Bolster, who majored in history, also recalls a medieval history class that examined, among other things, the inventions of the period, in an effort to examine the question, “Were the Dark Ages really dark?”

“They made us think,” Bolster says of these professors.

That sort of critical examination of assumptions is what Bolster now asks of her students. In her French classes, her high schoolers are discussing—en français—the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali and examining whether they have any similarities to past events in earlier times.

“As our world becomes smaller, so to speak, it’s important to make all these kinds of connections,” she says.

 

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