Institutionalizing Interdisciplinary Study

Northwestern's graduate school considers how best to run a new program that creates a second academic home for some students.
January 30, 2007

As the Graduate School at Northwestern University launches an effort intended to formalize the way that interdisciplinary study takes place, Gary S. Morson, chair of the Slavic languages and literatures department, is shaping part of the program and eager to see the final results.

That's because Morson's department stands to gain from the Interdisciplinary Cluster Initiative, which beginning next fall would allow selected students to find homes in both traditional departments and newly formed groups of students and faculty with similar academic interests.

"We're a small department with a limited budget, and that's who the initiative is designed for," Morson said.

Under the controversial "dual-citizenship" arrangement, which some scholars have criticized as an assault on the autonomy of departments, programs such as Slavic studies could attract more students to courses taught by its faculty without having to dedicate additional slots for students. Applicants to Northwestern, who are still admitted into a department, will either be nominated or choose to join an interdisciplinary cluster such as Russian, East European and Jewish Studies, in which Morson is a participant. Students take multiple courses in the cluster, and attend seminars and conferences centered around the academic theme.

If the history department accepts a student with a distinct interest in Russian art, and that student is accepted into the above cluster, the art history department has, in essence, gained a student without a financial investment. Morson said the effort isn't simply intended to gather like-minded students for whom one department doesn't suffice; it also gives faculty from different areas of campus a reason to collaborate.

Andrew Wachtel, dean of Northwestern’s graduate school, has pitched the cluster initiative as a way to better utilize the university's academic strengths and give students more resources when writing their dissertations. His thesis: Departments aren't always the best ways to organize students.

“The boundaries are not clear anymore,” Wacthel said last spring. “Students of Asian literature have come to realize that they have more to do with those in the Asian studies department than [with their peers in the English department] studying Shakespeare.”

Wachtel, a professor in the Slavic languages and literatures department, introduced the idea to humanities and social science faculty in 2005, touching off a debate about what it takes to prepare graduate students, and how to provide them with adequate breadth and depth of study. Interdisciplinary programs are not a new phenomenon, but the idea of academic integration has provoked significant discussion during recent forums, including  last month’s Modern Language Association meeting.

Wachtel said that while he has sold many faculty members on the plan, "the level of resistance is high at this point." While it’s generally taboo to discourage work across academic disciplines, there’s a camp that questions whether these programs are inherently better than the alternative.

Some at Northwestern see Wachtel's plan as a top-down, corporate-style restructuring of graduate education. They argue that department chairs and professors -- not administrators -- know best what their students need to graduate. Wachtel is recommending that students take three courses in their cluster, which would decrease the number of courses a department has at its disposal.

Morson said the cluster initiative has pitted some smaller departments against larger ones, which have wide-ranging faculty expertise and financial resources. "To them, it's a matter of protecting their turf," Morson said.

Nancy MacLean, chair of the history department, declined to be interviewed for this article, saying in an e-mail message that there is "no longer a significant conflict to report." Wendy Wall, chair of the English department, said she couldn't comment on the cluster initiative because she is "not sure what the current proposal actually is."

Wachtel said he hopes to eventually have a dozen or more clusters. Thus far, in addition to Russian, East European, and Jewish Studies, four other groups have emerged: Critical theory, gender studies, rhetoric and public culture and Asian studies. Courses, which begin in the fall, are still being created by professors who have agreed to be a part of a cluster.  

The Graduate School is devoting discretionary money to the cluster programs, and while departments aren't forced to identify students for the new program, those that do will be compensated for their involvement. Northwestern plans to offer fellowships to students who are selected to the programs upon admission. Wachtel said the idea is for additional students to enter a cluster during their first year.

Tracy C. Davis, a professor of English and theater, said she is concerned that the first cohort that enters into the cluster program will receive a better financial package than students who enter at a later time. "What makes a good doctoral program is one in which students have the same [financial] deal -- that results in a cooperative, collegial support network," she said.

Davis, who heads an interdisciplinary program in theater and drama, said she agrees with the premise of the interdisciplinary program but still has questions about what it means for departments.

Some critics of the plan say the interdisciplinary approach doesn't make students any more marketable to employers, who look to hire Ph.D.'s in traditional subjects. That's why students will still be attached to departments and their transcripts will list recognizable degrees -- even if their concentration is a bit outside that area, Wachtel said.

“There’s a lot to be said for any student who has value added and is able to speak with knowledge to a number of constituencies," added Davis.  

Robert Hariman, a professor in Northwestern's communications studies department who is involved in the rhetoric and public culture cluster, said the arrangement is beneficial for departments such as his, which are interdisciplinary in nature. "Everyone in our area of study has multiple identities, and we're always looking for ways to participate in scholarly communities," he said.

And then there's the issue of degree completion. Wachtel acknowledges that the cluster plan might cause students to take extra time to graduate, because they are involved in a wider area of research. "This flies in the face of the fetishism with getting people through quickly," he said.

Wachtel admits that the initiative has involved a degree of trial and error in planning and has been "quite difficult to pull off." He doesn't know whether a large number of students applying to graduate school will find the arrangement attractive -- and the university probably won't know the answer to that key question until next winter, when the next cohort of students sends in applications.

“Students will vote with their feet," Wachtel said.


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