Pursuit of the Question: Interdisciplinarity and Higher Education, Then and Now

Elissa Tenny | September 25, 2015

Thanks very much, Anne for that kind introduction.

I’ve titled my talk, “Pursuit of the Question: Interdisciplinarity and Higher Education, Then and Now.” So, lets start with THEN.  THEN being 1975

Gerald Ford is president – love the suit

The Vietnam War ends

New York City just barely avoids bankruptcy

George Carlin hosts the debut of Saturday Night Live

ABC, CBS, and NBC agree to create a “family hour” in the early evening that is free of violence and sex

Taxi Driver is filmed in NYC

At CBGBs, Patti Smith debuts and the Talking Heads play their first gig opening for the Ramones

Bill Gates founds Microsoft

Steve Wozniak creates the first home computer

The VCR is developed in Japan

Motorola obtains a patent for the first portable mobile phone

And a motley crew of students begins their graduate work in the Media Studies Program

Quite a sight, clearly before I discovered eyebrow tweezers and hair highlighting

Today, I, too, am celebrating the fortieth anniversary of my entrance into the Media Studies Program.  Alas, that does make me forty years older too.  Forty years ago, I could not have imagined standing before you today. I am deeply honored and extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity to speak with you and to share with you my own personal and professional trajectory, informed as it’s been by my years in the program. You see, I grew-up at the New School; grew-up intellectually, creatively and professionally.

I had what I call a checkered undergraduate experience. Floating from school to school, unmoored with little direction. I truly believe that if it were not for the Media Studies program, my life might not have had its richness and its many rewards.

When I started the program, I actually was not aware that it was at the forefront of combining theory and practice. Taking classes in media theory, film criticism, and television history alongside video, photography, and sound production just made sense.

John Culkin, the founder of the program, called it “the liberal arts in a new key.” Meaning that even in 1975, to be an informed citizen in a technological society you had a responsibility to understand media message making and to do that you had to understand the theoretical, historical, political, sociological, and economic aspects of media making AND you had to be a maker or at least understand and engage with the basics, as I did. Meaning and making were inseparable.

The program’s distinctive pedagogical approach emerged at the same time that strong scholarly interest was developing in “interdisciplinarity.”  Interdisciplinarity has been described in many ways including:  the integration of existing disciplinary perspectives, the combination of disciplines, as well as critiquing and/or transcending disciplines (Lattuca, Voigt, Fath, fall 2004, Does Inter…).

Researchers argue that programs and courses grounded in interdisciplinarity develop higher order cognitive skills and that they increase students’ skills of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis.  Further, some scholars suggest that interdisciplinary study better prepares students for work and citizenship (Lattuca).

It seems to me that this is exactly what the Media Studies Program did for me in 1975. And as one of its graduates, I can assure you that this interdisciplinary approach has informed my career ever since. But I would also suggest that our system of higher education as a whole has much to learn, and stands to benefit, from embracing interdisciplinarity as well. Returning to the mid-seventies once again, just what was the larger academic landscape like?

Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California called the period of the 1970s “the great transformation in higher education.” Why?  Enrollments were at an all time high, almost 30,000 doctorates were awarded in 1970 compared to 6,000 in 1950. There was a proliferation of new degree programs, departments, and fields of study – among them the Media Studies Program.  Further, women and underrepresented groups were changing the face of higher education both as students and as faculty members.

Yet, as we approached the mid-seventies, enrollments started to decline due to changing demographics. Also, there was a heightened sensitivity to students having rights as consumers and as citizens of the campus community. On the surface, it would be hard to argue that such recognition and attention to students and families was not warranted. However, the form it took was in the rapid expansion of the whole new arena of student services.

Also for the first time, colleges and universities focused on areas such as retention and degree completion; the huge rise in the number of PhDs awarded led to a glut in the job market; and budget pressures in the late seventies gave rise to a marked reliance on adjunct faculty and a corresponding shift to greater influence of the administration.

The alarms were ringing at the federal government level as well. In 1971, a report was commissioned, and written by Frank Newman, a leading educational reformer, calling for radical changes in higher education. The report stated:

“…in the postwar period, we have seen disturbing trends toward uniformity in our institutions, growing bureaucracy, overemphasis on academic credentials, isolation of students and faculty from the world – a growing rigidity and uniformity that makes higher education reflect less and less the interests of society.”

So, the dominant issues were changing demographics, enrollment declines, retention, governance, expansion of student services and curricular relevance and rigidity.

Sound familiar?

Today, we still hear that many of our colleges and universities are mired in rigid majors, meaningless course pre-requisites, and mindless distribution requirements with far too many students complaining about what they need to “get through” in terms of coursework rather than being excited about their learning. In the 2011 book, Academically Adrift, the authors conclude that large numbers of undergraduates made no significant improvement in a whole range of skills during their time in college.

Students adrift is only one issue among many that are bandied about in terms of the current “crisis in higher education”—others are access, affordability, accountability, assessment, and the list goes on.

But, again, my question is: are these NEW issues?

Please do not interpret my comments as being cynical. I do not mean to suggest that nothing changed between 1975 and 2015, not the least of which is the price of private higher education.  Rather, my purpose in pointing out some of the challenges we DO share with 1975 is to bring into focus the importance of understanding our history as a way to know some of what we must work on together NOW.

When at every turn we are told by politicians and pundits that higher education is broken, and when the federal government is threatening to make uninformed, misguided, and even dangerous incursions into the institutions we care so much about, the burden is on us, all of us, to act together to make our colleges and universities better.

Well, then what do we DO?

As I mentioned before, I think that at least part of the answer lies in what I referred to earlier as the interdisciplinary approach, or method—what I acquired during my time as a student in the Media Studies Program and have learned to appreciate even more afterwards.

I have been fortunate in my career to work at three distinguished institutions whose commitment to interdisciplinarity is unparalleled—The New School, Bennington College, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Each, of course, has distinct characteristics as to the contours of its pedagogy and its curriculum, but I would argue they share a similarity in their steadfast commitment to interdisciplinarity, and to one aspect of it in particular—what I call THE PURSUIT OF THE QUESTION.

The pursuit of the question is analogous to what scholar Lisa Latucca identifies as “conceptual interdisciplinarity” –

  • where emphasis is placed on the importance of the question rather than the seamlessness of the answer;
  • where fostering students’ ability to integrate learning and make connections beyond academic boundaries takes precedence over predetermined notions of requirements;
  • where encouraging students to continually ask questions, to explore from different perspectives and angles, to seek larger meaning and synergy between and among their coursework prepares them for a life of learning and inquiry and also prepares them to undertake the challenges of an ever changing workplace.

As I reflect back on my career in higher education, it is the pursuit of the question more so than anything else that has been my guide these past forty years.

It has taught me that a curious mind is often more effective than an argumentative one; that in order to solve a problem, you need to seek out both its practical AND its theoretical underpinnings; and that, at both the individual and institutional level, leadership comes out of building consensus, out of finding the connections or common ground between sometimes-divergent points of view.

Let me suggest three possible solutions—out of many—to some of the current, and lasting, issues with which we are confronted in higher education.

1) First, we must reconsider the old models of vertical hierarchies and strict departmental boundaries. We need to be thinking across and often beyond our traditional structures. And we need to promote new ways for new voices to be part of the conversation. Yes, interdisciplinarity can work as an organizational construct, and one might argue this application is as important and compelling as its role in the curriculum.

How then do the porous boundaries of interdisciplinarity play out in an institutional context?

Let me give you a couple of examples–

Bennington College’s founding principles included the idea that there would be no curriculum.  Courses would be developed based on the interests of the student body.  Preposterous today, and I might add, it never actually happened but the very outrageousness of the idea paved the way for a college, that to this day, has absolutely no required courses, no majors, and a fierce dedication to students’ creating the path of their education.  And I can attest, it is not chaos, it is actually incredibly empowering. So, the founders -- founding faculty and administration -- started with a very, very radical idea that settled into an exemplar of interdisciplinarity.

Another example. When I was an Associate Dean at The New School, we had a Faculty Services Offices that was moderately dysfunctional and the prevailing attitude, including my own, was let’s work around it.  A young woman, working in the Dean’s Office as a co-op student from a New York City public high school, and it wasn’t Lab, or LaGuardia, or Stuyvesant, asked if she could speak with me.  She questioned me as to why this dysfunction was allowed to go on, very respectfully I might add, and she recommended to me a very simple re-organization of the office. She was right and we did exactly as she recommended.  A side note, we ended up hiring her for a full-time job and she completed her bachelor’s degree while working here at the New School.

So, what do the progressive education radicals have in common with the 17-year-old high school student working in a dean’s office? My answer is the pursuit of the question. One pursued a grand idea of what an education should be; the other, a brave, young, new voice questioned the status quo.

2) My second recommendation has to do with higher education’s shared governance model, which has been defined as “no one person making important decisions arbitrarily without the advice of key constituencies; nor is decision making simply a function of a group vote.” (Olson)

In a recent book by Bill Bowen, former president of Princeton, and Gene Tobin, former president of Hamilton College, entitled, The Locus of Authority, they say that our model of shared governance has drifted far away from its original intentions and is not relevant for our times. I agree—in particular, we need a shared governance model that is about more than representation on committees.

Almost ten years ago, when I returned to school for my doctorate, one of the first books we read was Tom Friedman’s, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, precursor to his popular, The World is Flat.  We discussed the work in relation to the basic concepts of shared governance in higher education.

To put it very simply, when the world is flat those at the top cannot always see omnipotently over the entire playing field.  Given our many challenges, responsibilities must be allocated differently and all the players need to be in the huddle. But, we also need different kinds of huddles.  The same old, same old, faculty committees and administrative structures yield predictable ideas and predictable responses from the respective camps.

Just one example:

When I served for three years as Acting Dean of The New School, one of my proudest accomplishments was the creation of what we called Core faculty in the degree programs.  Before then all faculty were part-time and contingent. Meager salaries, no benefits, no real commitment from the institution, and consequently, we had a structural and ethical deficit that not only affected the faculty but, of course, also affected students. Creating these positions was considered by some as A VERY BAD IDEA.

Yet, as the institution evolved it was clear the legacy of faculty structures upon which much The New School was built was no longer viable. Pursuing what was best for faculty AND students became the preeminent question rather than simply finding ways to make a broken system work.

Perhaps my decision all those years ago was easy compared to what we face today. Then again, perhaps not.

3) My third idea is that as part of a newly thought-out shared governance model, we need to think critically and collectively about the role technology plays in how we run our institutions. This is the very root of the Media Studies, which was founded to research the impact of media on society and institutions and to design innovative ways to engage people with technologies for positive cultural change.

I am not talking about media as delivery systems but, to borrow from Marshall McLuhan, I am talking about media as active processes that we need to control technically, creatively, and economically. Too often we think of technology as THE ANSWER rather than as part of the pursuit of the question.

Kevin Guthrie, the president of Ithaka, an organization at the forefront of digital technologies in higher education, says, “In the last decade, billions of people around the world have become connected.  They are connected to each other and to products, content, and services by a new network that is enabling new forms of communication, collaboration, and commerce.”

Then, why after twenty plus years of the internet, prodigious advances in technology and social media forms, at least two generations of technically experienced students passing through our doors, and much money invested, do our colleges and universities look remarkably the same?

There a many reasons for this but one is that these issues do not tend to be part of a shared governance model.  Often we see grandiose initiatives start from the top and go nowhere and instructor or departmental based initiatives that have great potential go unacknowledged.  Many schools simply expand technologically and physically without engaging the full constituency.

A final example –

Before I arrived at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as their first Provost, the School had undertaken a strategic plan that was created by a faculty, staff, and student steering committee.  The plan was an impressive document and included among others things, a call to explore revenue-producing opportunities using online education. This, at an institution that had no online courses whatsoever.

Fast-forward to today, we are in the second year of a highly selective and fiscally very attractive, I might add, interdisciplinary low residency MFA studio program. It is not based in any one department and utilizes resources and faculty from around the school.

This was no small feat of collaboration, of porous boundaries, and transcending disciplines. Of course, there were bumps in the road but the strategic plan provided an institutional framework – a huddle so to speak. A place where pursuing questions flourished and something entirely new to the institution was created.

As I think about the pursuit of the question, I feel a certain joy because, I for one, will never be finished with my education.  As New School founder John Dewey wrote, “Education is a process of living and not a preparation for living.” The New School was founded as an institution for life long learning, as a place of innovation long before the word became an academic cliché.

It’s been a place of experimentation with New York City and the world as its laboratories. It’s been a place where academic misfits and those intellectually adrift could find a mooring.  I know that it’s still such a place and what makes it so is each of you, faculty members, administrators, alumni and students, who come here in “pursuit of the question” and not to find expedient answers.

So what are the questions we should pursue? I do not have the answers.  Nor should I. Ultimately, that’s for us to work out together, understanding that the worst thing we can do is to think that a college or university is a place where the answer to, “Why are things done this way?” is “Because we’ve always done it this way.”

As I think back to the early years of the program, I am reminded of the words of writer Arthur C. Clarke who wrote: "New ideas pass through three periods: First, it can't be done; second, It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing; and third, I KNEW it was a good idea all along!"

If you think that it can be done, do it. If you work with people who say it’s not worth doing, find different people. And before long you’ll be hearing, “I KNEW that was a good idea all along!”

Thank you.