New course clusters challenge boundaries

Non-traditional courses pepper this year’s coursebook. Included are courses with provocative titles, such as “Blinding Knowledge: The Humanities Reconsidered,” courses team-taught by faculty members from different disciplines, such as “The Philosophy and Politics of Higher Education,” or courses encompassing clusters, such as “Following the Leader: Charisma, Tradition, and Bureaucracy,” a course in leadership studies.

All these courses could be classified under the general rubric of non-traditional, in that they traverse the accustomed boundaries of disciplines. It is important to note the differences among them, though. While all these courses and others like them are interdisciplinary in nature, they emerge from a wide range of sources.

These courses stem from a long-standing commitment of the College to interdisciplinary studies. As Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Robert Jackall wrote in a report to the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) in 1994, “interdisciplinary work is a paramount intellectual goal for the College as a liberal arts institution.”

For years, programs such as African and Middle Eastern Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies have represented the most visible vehicle for this work. Yet these programs give rise to a host of logistical difficulties.

“The real conflict between departments and interdisciplinary programs is organizational and not intellectual,” said Jackall. For instance, maintaining such specific programs when professors teaching the introductory course or senior seminar go on leave becomes difficult. Once offered, though, the professors cannot rescind them.

Clusters are a logical solution to the need for an organized approach to interdisciplinary study. “Clusters encourage innovation without the bureaucracy involved with programs,” said Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Michael Brown, head of the CEP. According to Brown, clusters comprise courses from different disciplines brought together under a common theme.

They avoid complications by combining interested faculty and students, with no requirements and no serious bureaucratic commitments. “We are not trying to empire build,” said Jackall. “If students are not interested, then we move on.”

Faculty enjoy the flexibility allowed by these programs. “This makes the curriculum more nimble, agile and responsive to interests,” said Brown.

According to Brown, not only do clusters avoid bureaucratic strictures, but they also invite innovation and create a space for the imagination. Clusters mix courses normally offered and courses created specifically for them. Seeing a common theme addressed in courses in different disciplines, a professor may create a new course to tie them together in a neater package.

“They give faculty the impetus to think about making connections between departments and developing new courses. The two clusters, Leadership Studies and Jewish Studies, are both the product of individual faculty leadership and it is likely more will follow as others see the usefulness of this way of signaling foci of interests,” said Professor of Religion William Darrow, a member of the advisory committee for Jewish Studies.

Jackall’s course on leadership exemplifies this process, combining historical, psychological, literary and anthropological viewpoints. He described it as “looking at a problem from many, rather than one, viewpoint.”

John Putman ’99, a computer science and English major, is taking “Following the Leader: Charisma, Tradition, and Bureaucracy” “for variety.” He praises the new clusters, and hopes that more will be added in the future. He said the chance to think deeply about a certain topic in areas which he would not normally be exposed to in his majors is a very positive experience.

“One of the reasons I came to Williams was because I really wanted to avoid going to a place where if I got on a certain path I wouldn’t be able to get off of it until I finished,” he said. He believes that the clusters offer students a wonderful opportunity to concentrate on areas other than their major, especially since the College does not allow minors.

What clusters will mean for the future or establishment of programs is yet to be determined. “Clusters are meant to be like programs,” said Darrow, “but more easily established and disestablished.”

A debate revolves around official recognition – clusters are not being indicated on the diploma, yet programs are. According to Brown, such a change would necessarily increase the structure of the cluster, thus undermining its purpose.

Darrow, on the other hand, posed the question, “since clusters and programs could be argued to be like minors for students, do we want to reconsider the decision not to list clusters on the diploma?” Darrow said there is definitely a need for some wider discussion of their structure and character among faculty. “I don’t think they have entered faculty consciousness in any deep way,” he said.

At the same time, Jackall, Brown and Darrow all expressed great enthusiasm and excitement. According to Brown, the energy of these small groups exploring new areas of knowledge is amazing.

While new course offerings represent a rethinking of interdisciplinary programs, the experimental classes also encounter interdisciplinary thinking within their own bounds. These courses are team taught, a feature Darrow calls “a welcome opportunity.”

They are also, according to Brown, “license to cross boundaries.” One such experimental, team taught course is called “The Philosophy and Politics of Higher Education,” taught by Professor of English Karen Swann, Multicultural Center Director Alex Willingham and Professor of Philosophy Jana Sawicki.

Kristina Gerhman ’00, a student in the course, said “the professors participate in the discussion as three separate components,” bringing their own individual perspectives to the issue, and “combining authority with more vulnerable suggestions,” as they venture outside the confines of their field.

Gerhman really appreciated this loosely integrated approach, saying of courses within disciplines, “in so many ways they overlap with each other, and the only way to examine this is outside of the classroom. That can be frustrating. I want my professors to help.” By definition, such interconnection is the goal of interdisciplinary learning.

“I do think students are by definition already interdisciplinary,” said Darrow. They take four courses each term and find or should find all sorts of interesting connections and tensions between their courses. The two initiatives should complement this, but they are both minor in comparison with the interdisciplinary experience each student has every day.”

Brown highlighted this juxtaposition between the interdisciplinary nature of a liberal arts education in and of itself and the internally interdisciplinary initiatives of clusters and experimental courses. “Williams creates sites of individual excellence, rather than global,” he said.

According to Brown, while Williams allows great room for creativity, it also needs to pay more attention to the B.A. it bestows. The real problem lies in the possibility of graduating from Williams with a spotty education. “Do you organize the curriculum for the least motivated student? Or do you accommodate the most innovative?,” asked Brown. “There is a real trade-off here.”

Faculty agree that the potential for specificity in a liberal arts education, if taken to extremes, results in nebulous goals and lack of direction. They stress that interdisciplinary study bestows upon students the responsibil
ity of establishing continuity of curriculum for their own studies.

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