Reverence In the Face of Complexity

An interdisciplinary approach forges intellectual/practical solutions that exist outside any one disciplinary perspective

Kevin FoskinWe sat down with the director of the Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts major, one of the two interdepartmental majors offered by the College of Liberal Arts to talk about this popular build-it-yourself major. Special Assistant Professor Kevin Foskin has been teaching in the College of Liberal Arts since 1991 and was appointed director of the Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts program in the summer of 2014.  Although creative writing, Anglo-Irish literature, narratology, and film studies are his main academic interests, interdisciplinarity is the other side of his academic coin.

Foskin’s office is adorned with large abstract paintings done by his twin brother hanging on his walls, books scattered about the room, loads of fiction and documentary DVDs on his bookcases, a number of framed photographs in the corner waiting to be hung, and a miniature Godzilla on his window shelf, which he has inherited from a former student.

CLA Magazine: What is this thing called interdisciplinarity? It seems to have appeared suddenly and everybody seems to be singing its praise.

Kevin Foskin: You’re partly correct. Our renewed interest in interdisciplinarity is relatively recent but some semblance of Interdisciplinarity has been around for a very long time. There equally seems to be a good number of other labels that appear—on the surface—to be interchangeable with Interdisciplinarity, such as ‘cross-disciplinarity’, ‘ multi-disciplinarity’ or ‘transdisciplinarity.’ There is some crossover in all these terms, but Interdisciplinarity means something specific, and a number of key figures within the field of Interdisciplinarity Studies, such as Klein, Newell, and Repko, have helped forged a consensus in how we define Interdisciplinarity as a research process that involves an integration of insights from two or more disciplines that address a complex problem so as to come to a broader understanding than what a single disciplinary perspective might give us.

Most human situations or endeavors are complex problems. For example, building a bridge is a complex human problem. Certainly, it involves engineering but it also involves economics and environmental impact studies. And it doesn’t stop there. We also have to consider issues regarding cultural displacement and urban planning, traffic patterns, perhaps even, depending on where the bridge is—disaster planning.

While interdisciplinarity applies multiple disciplines to a problem, one needs to keep in mind that Interdisciplinarity is not intended to contest or dismiss academic disciplines. Nor does it question the value of disciplinary knowledge. In fact, it needs disciplines in order to function correctly.

CLA Magazine: So, it is not about throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Of getting rid of disciplines completely?

Kevin Foskin: On the contrary. Disciplinary knowledge is essential to the Interdisciplinary approach.

The idea of Interdisciplinarity resurfaced after 1945, and then intensified in the 1960s and 1970s—somewhat as a political and cultural response to what was then seen as the ‘narrowing views’ of existing academic disciplines. As a result, many new ‘combined fields’ emerged, such as women’s studies, environmental studies, ethnic studies, international studies, even urban studies.

What’s equally interesting, I’d argue, is the way the existing academic disciplines at the time responded in kind by incorporating many aspects of these new fields and topics into their own curricula.

CLA Magazine: But Interdisciplinarity sounds different than, say, International Studies. Is it?

Kevin Foskin: Well, yes and no. Yes, it is different because Interdisciplinarity is understood today less as a specialized topic and more so as a practice or a specific approach. However, it’s not different from International Studies in the sense that both fields utilize teaching and classroom approaches that are similar in design and purpose, such as integrative thinking, multi-disciplinary understanding, and successful intelligence, which has three modes, creative, analytical, and practical.

CLA Magazine: Can you say a bit more about what is meant by ‘a broader understanding’?

Kevin Foskin: Of course. But first let me back track a moment and talk about four theories that are important to how Interdisciplinarity is now being conceived within the field. When we talk about broadening our understanding, there are a number of ways, or rather, tools, we prioritize in our curriculum. In general terms, we work with (1) complexity, (2) perspective, (3) common ground, and (4) integration.

You may notice there is something of an order here, and it wouldn’t be wrong to see these four tools as progressive steps towards the creation of a broader understanding of some larger issue or concern. Again, it’s important to realize we see interdisciplinarity more about an involved practice than either a theory or a specific topic.

CLA Magazine: I am curious about this idea of complex problems, and how they seem to be a starting point for an interdisciplinary approach. But don’t academic disciplines also work with complex problems?

Kevin Foskin:  Again, I am going to give you somewhat a yes and no answer. Yes, disciplines work with increasingly complex problems. In fact, one of the values of disciplinary knowledge is its ability to address increasing complexities that ultimately lead to major new discoveries and understandings. Complexity in this sense helps a discipline to focus and specialize in knowledge. Both are vitally important.

But the complexity we work with in Interdisciplinarity takes a different direction. We first identify a complex problem or issue that requires a broader understanding or solution than what any one discipline can provide or attain for us. Rather than vehicles for greater specialization, we see complex problems as vehicles—or, better still, bridges—that allow us to forge intellectual/practical solutions that exist outside any one disciplinary perspective.

CLA Magazine: Well, it certainly sounds practical. What do students learn when they choose the Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts major?

Kevin Foskin: Students will learn many of the things that students in other majors learn. The content of their education doesn’t change. What changes is the larger focus of the classes they take and topics they learn about in these classes. For example, history majors, among other things, learn what it means to be an historian or why history is a vital tool for better understanding the present moment. I-LA majors who take history classes will learn this too, but they will also learn how to equally see history as one valuable part of a larger puzzle alongside other liberal arts disciplines. And, hopefully, they will learn why putting historians and anthropologists and sociologists and musicians in the same room might be a rewarding and potentially life-changing experience.

We also work with the idea of problem-based learning. In short, this kind of learning shifts the focus from a lecture-based learning environment to group-based situations where students are assigned a problem issue that demands they find the gaps in their knowledge and skills, and requires them to decide on the information they need so as to resolve their given problem. Now, from my point of view, problems comes in all sorts of sizes and kinds. For example, let’s say I’m teaching a class on the conflict in Northern Ireland known there as the Troubles. Working together to interpret a Seamus Heaney poem is as much a problem to be solved as trying to decide how the Good Friday Agreement came about from a historical perspective. And perhaps an even more interesting problem might be trying to figure out how the former may help us better understand the latter.

A recent article by P. Sven Arvidson talks about the virtue of reverence in Interdisciplinary Studies. He writes that “successful interdisciplinary research is intrinsically related to the human capacity for reverence in the face of complexity.” I do like the sound of that, and the key, I think, is to think of reverence more as a role rather than a concept. Or, better still, it is more an attitude that carries with it a deep respect for knowledge but also a respect for perspective and a trust in knowledge as a participation rather than a competition.