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Ph.D. Education -- Beyond Disciplines

April 14, 2005

A common criticism of Ph.D. education is that it's too narrow, encouraging doctoral students to focus on highly specialized knowledge within their disciplines -- even though much of the most exciting scholarly work these days is interdisciplinary.

Claremont Graduate University and Vanderbilt University are in the process of creating new courses designed to broaden the experience of their Ph.D. students. Claremont has instituted a new "transdisciplinary" course requirement for all doctoral students and is offering the first such courses now. Vanderbilt is offering new fellowships -- worth between $3,000 and $25,000 -- to participants in a new interdisciplinary graduate workshop.

"We want to change the professionalization of graduate students," said Vera Kutzinski, director of Vanderbilt's Center for the Americas, which will sponsor the new workshop, and the Martha Rivers Ingram Professor of English.

At Claremont, all Ph.D. students must now take a "T course" (for "transdisciplinary") sometime in the first two years of their program. The courses are team taught around a theme -- currently "poverty, capital and ethics." Each course must include students from a range of disciplines, and they are required to undertake different types of research for their requirements.

One of the debut courses is "Citizenship, Development, and Justice: A Global Perspective," and it features professors of philosophy, politics and education. Patricia Easton, the philosophy professor and also the dean of arts and humanities, said that religion students were taken aback by getting assignments that were heavily quantitative, but that's part of the idea.

"All of us have been asked to look outside our discipline and our discipline's tools," Easton said. "It's been uncomfortable at times."

Easton offers both a pragmatic and intellectual argument for the new requirement. From a practical perspective, she said, "a lot of the best funded projects these days -- whether from the NSF or the NEH -- are interdisciplinary, and they really are looking for interdisciplinary work to get to the top of the pile. And when students get out there to teach, they are going to be asked to teach outside of their discipline."

But perhaps more important, she said, is the "intellectual motivation," the idea that "the right research tools and methods aren't restricted to one field."

Like many universities, Claremont previously had requirements that Ph.D. students take a certain number of courses outside their fields. But Easton said that approach "doesn't work" because you end up with one person from another discipline in a class full of people from a single discipline. "It was just treated as a requirement -- by students and faculty."

Teresa Shaw, vice provost at Claremont, said that explains the emphasis on "transdisciplinary" work. Shaw did her Ph.D. dissertation on fasting in early Christianity and she had to study ancient medical texts and learn some modern medicine for her work in history. She said that the experience was valuable, but it was simply learning a small part of another discipline, not seeing how disciplines can truly relate to one another.

While Shaw stressed that Claremont Ph.D.'s will still graduate with a degree in a discipline, she said the new requirement reflected interest in "report after report that graduate students have been trained in a pretty narrow, disciplinary manner."

At Vanderbilt, there is no requirement for Ph.D. students to take interdisciplinary courses, but organizers of the new program in the Center for the Americas see their effort eventually being a model for all graduate education at the university.

Students who have received fellowships for the workshop have a wide range of interests, including Christian liturgy in British plantation colonies, Mexican cinema, transsexuality in the Western hemisphere, African society in Havana, francophone literature, and Latino parents and education. (Their fields include history, political science, urban planning, and English, among others.)

Kutzinski said that the workshop will force these students -- who might otherwise not have worked together -- to learn one another's fields. She said that some fields -- American studies, women's studies and ethnic studies -- have had success in helping graduate students see beyond their given field. But too often, additional fields "are tacked on" or "are treated as a minor," she said.

"We're not trying to be in competition with traditional disciplines," she said. "You can't just get rid of departments." But she said she hoped that by bringing these graduate students together, the program would "create a structure and an opportunity" for scholars to think more broadly, early in their academic careers.

We want people "to just consider the possibilities," she said.

 

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