The Crossroads program has returned to the University of California, Santa Barbara. Founded in 2013 by Carol Genetti, Dean of the Graduate Division, the program is meant to engage graduate students in interdisciplinary studies that they never would have had the chance to participate in otherwise. A recent seminar saw several professors from different departments come together to explore the benefits of interdisciplinarity.
The purpose of the panel was to both review some of Crossroads’ past successes as well as talk about the future. While Crossroads will not resume in full until next year, interested students can peruse the website until such information has been posted.
Crossroads’ first incarnation in 2013 was meant as a three year trial run to evaluate graduate student and instructor response to interdisciplinarity. Now that Crossroads has been found to be a valuable program, the focus, psychology professor Mary Hegarty says, is to “provide activities that facilitate the process of developing a shared vision across disciplinary boundaries.”
But what has Crossroads done that cannot simply be achieved with the standard general education requirements? Crossroads offers special research projects that draw strength specifically from an interdisciplinary focus. Genetti stated that Crossroads applies a scientific style and focus to humanities-based problems. To test the skills they accumulate, students engage in a rigorous year-long case study.
Past programs have seen unlikely partnerships amongst different departments. While Crossroads was additionally envisioned as a humanities lab, efforts have also been made to promote cooperation amongst the various science, technology, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
One such example of the former was the Crossroads 2013 program that analyzed the intersection of psychology, environmental studies, and public policy. Students found that, with respect to environmental policy, reinvestigating information awareness strategies through a psychological (rather than a purely environmental science) factualness yielded new methods of persuasion to address the public.
With Materials, Mechanics, and Medicine, students and faculty sought to unite the different sciences. Bringing physics, biology, and chemistry together is no easy task. However, Hegarty pointed out that all sciences could understand things at the molecular level. By focusing on the relationship of the material sciences to the molecular, life science and physical science could reach greater insight as to how, say, physics influences medical technologies.
The beauty of interdisciplinary study is that it provides alternative experiences and viewpoints, which in turn allows for outside-of-the-box thinking that leads to new and creative solutions.
Admittedly, there have been some challenges. Part of the Crossroads program is learning how to disabuse oneself of the limitations of their fields of study. Hegarty said that many of the faculty at Crossroads “were surprised by how long it took (in the beginning) to understand each other’s disciplines.”
In order to explain the difficulty in seeing the commonalities, Writing Program Director Linda Adler-Kassner suggested that there is too much compartmentalization in the university.
“People think about the outsides of disciplines … of how resources are located, of where faculty love, and what constitutes the boundaries between what department,” Adler-Kassner said.
There are lingering assumptions about what one’s initial field of study expects from them. Going against the intellectual standards in one’s own discipline asks students to admit that the experts in their study are either wrong on some accounts, or at least less informed and therefore unable to offer more complete instruction. Students can cope with this by either turning to alternate sources of knowledge, or by redefining and essentializing their discipline.
Nevertheless, there was general agreement that efforts should be made to put the limitations of single fields of study behind them. The various professors that gathered reiterated their support for interdisciplinary programs like Crossroads because of the way they can influence not only fields of study, but means of instruction.
Instructors, who are experts in their respective fields, become so used to the rules and rigors of their own disciplines that they begin to internalize the concepts native to their field of interest. Concepts familiar to them may be unfamiliar to students who have not yet fully immersed themselves in study.
By engaging in and interacting with interdisciplinary pedagogy of their own, instructors learn how different perspectives approach their own subjects. They rediscover the ideas and themes that they once knew by heart, and relearn how to interpret and explain them.
“When certain concepts are more explicit, learners are more successful,” Adler-Kassner said.