Forward thinking: Interdisciplinary programs and the adjacent possible

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Michael Ullyot, Associate Dean (Teaching and Learning), Faculty of Arts, University of Calgary

When I was an undergraduate, the recruiting poster for an interdisciplinary program in the humanities asked, "What do Leonardo da Vinci and Martha Stewart have in common?" The answer: "They're both generalists."

Whatever you think of its chosen exemplars, that program is no more. All interdisciplinary programs ebb and flow with intellectual currents, as they should -- but their common aim is to imagine future fields of study, emerging from the fields between the disciplinary borders of our imagined present. So computational linguistics, for instance, arose from exchanges between linguists and computer scientists. Often we don’t have a name (yet) for these fields, so we call them ‘general studies.’ Today’s most compelling fields, like quantum computing digital humanities, began as ill-defined exchanges between the social, applied, and human sciences.

So are interdisciplinary programs a good investment? Most of them, yes; like any investment, we only learn in retrospect which ones were forward-looking and timely. So how can you tell if a program is worth promoting? If:

  • it concerns the intellectual problems and opportunities that we're only starting to grasp; and
  • it graduates students who are future-ready — ready to take up the jobs that haven’t been invented yet.

Students looking for interdisciplinary programs at Canadian universities have no shortage of options. A recent article offers this list:

cognitive science (Carleton University in Ottawa), peace and justice (University of Toronto), food systems (Trent University) and community engagement (Emily Carr University of Art and Design).

To which I would add Indigenous Studies, Urban Studies, and Museum and Heritage Studies -- just three of the twelve interdisciplinary programs in the University of Calgary's Faculty of Arts.

Some of these programs are majors, requiring a full-on commitment to their core courses and electives. Some are minors, which can be combined with other majors in novel and inventive ways. A biology major, for instance, can minor in Latin American Studies. That's how, in 20 years, she'll revolutionize our thinking about the Amazon rainforest's pharmaceutical potential. Or how today's African Studies minor will someday head the Aga Khan Foundation.

Interdisciplinary programs foster "adaptable habits of mind" like lateral thinking. Their students see the sociological dimensions of a humanities text, or the political context of a scientific question. Will we feed ten billion people without urban agriculture? Will we mitigate global climate change without political scientists trained in indigenous studies or international relations? Will Canada get its first visible-minority Prime Minister without educating him in both political substance and rhetorical style?

In other words, students in interdisciplinary programs are future-ready, prepared to address tomorrow's problems. Their solutions will come from the realm of the "adjacent possible," a term coined by the biologist Stuart Kauffman and expanded in Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (book; TedTalk; article):

[It's] a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

Breakthroughs emerge from the intellectual environments that cross disciplinary borders, Johnson argues; like Johannes Gutenberg repurposing a wine-press to print books, or John Snow mapping cholera outbreaks around water pumps. The Protestant Reformation and the germ theory of disease both originated from adjacent disciplines.

I'm not eschewing majors or advocating a departmentless structure like Quest University’s; there are benefits to disciplinary focus, like depth of expertise. But our disciplines should not be narrowly focused on skills training for today's job vacancies. Future-proofing our students gives them "renewable competencies," like agile thinking about problems that are both particular and abstract.

Those are my arguments — but I want to close with another, about the return-on-investment in the social sciences and humanities. These faculties teach skills as much as domain-specific knowledge. They impart future-proofed skills of agile, critical thinking and writing. When students read Shakespeare's plays in my classes they sometimes wonder how the scribblings of a writer 400 years ago can resonate with us today; and people make lavish claims about their modern legacies. Whatever you think of those claims, if you can read Shakespeare then you can read anything with exacting intellect. You can look past the surface of any text you encounter (editorials, press releases, cell phone contracts) and read between the lines, to "understand what people mean rather than what they say."

That’s what the former CEO Edgar Bronfman wrote recently — so you don’t have to take my word for it; I'm just a humanities professor and higher-ed administrator protecting my turf. If you learn how verbal power works, you can wield the same power to influence others. And verbal power combined with forward thinking makes you a "master-mistress" of the universe.


Michael Ullyot is an Associate Dean (Teaching and Learning) in the University of Calgary's Faculty of Arts, with responsibility for interdisciplinary programs, among other things. He is also an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in early modern literature and the digital humanities. His current projects include a monograph on the rhetoric of exemplarity, and an algorithm ("The Zeugmatic") to detect rhetorical figures in early modern English texts.  — Follow him on his blog and Twitter @artsadtl.


Posts on this site are the opinion of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Federation, its staff or its board of directors.


SSH news