Design of an Individualized Major Interdisciplinary Gateway Course

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1 Design of an Individualized Major Interdisciplinary Gateway Course Ken Fuchsman, Faculty, Individualized Major Program, University of Connecticut, LuAnn Saunders-Kanabay, Academic Advisor, Individualized Major Program, University of Connecticut, Monica van Beusekom, Assistant Director, Individualized Major Program, University of Connecticut, The University of Connecticut s Individualized Major Program exists to allow students to design an interdisciplinary major drawing from at least two and typically three or four departments. Consisting of at least 36 credits at the upper-level, an individualized major plan of study includes a course (or courses) that addresses research methodology in a relevant discipline and concludes with a research project, either in the form of a research paper in the program s capstone course or a thesis. Many individualized majors also include an internship, study abroad, and/or independent study. One of the key challenges the program faces is developing students understanding of disciplines, interdisciplinarity, and integration both at the time of application and when they pursue research projects as they conclude their majors. Through the development of a one-credit hybrid (online and in-person) gateway course, we are seeking to introduce students, within a structured setting, to the disciplines and research methodologies most relevant to their proposed major and thus prepare them to develop their disciplinary and interdisciplinary understanding in subsequent courses for their major. The rationale for the new gateway course can be explained by reference to the model of the interdisciplinary process refined by William H. Newell (2007), specifically Part A, Drawing on Disciplinary Perspectives. This initial stage identifies the critical tasks, namely: define the problem determine the relevant disciplines develop a working command of the relevant concepts, theories, and methods of each discipline gather all relevant disciplinary knowledge study the problem from the perspective of each discipline and generate disciplinary insights into the problem The third step, develop a working command of the relevant concepts, theories, and methods of each discipline, is central to the structure of the course. In preparing a plan of study and major proposal, students need to know what kinds of questions their disciplines ask (conceptual foundation), the rules of evidence employed (methodology) and how the discipline is organized. The general objectives of the gateway course are to prepare students to think critically about and acquire the conceptual tools for engaging in the interdisciplinary process. Moving through the steps of identifying disciplines and courses, defining the concerns and methodologies of the relevant disciplines, defining interdisciplinary studies, and developing a research question will enable the students to prepare a more coherent and conceptually grounded plan of study and statement of purpose for their individualized major application. With better grounded plans of study and statements of purpose, we expect that many individualized majors will achieve a richer, deeper, and more complete study of their chosen theme in an interdisciplinary manner. Newell, W.H., The Role of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Liberal Arts, LiberalArtsOnline, January

2 Outline of a New Gateway Course for the Individualized Major The University of Connecticut s Individualized Major Program allows students to design their own interdisciplinary major. Students wishing to pursue this program must prepare a proposal consisting of a statement of purpose and a plan of study for consideration by a faculty committee which makes admissions decisions. This course is intended for students who wish to apply for admission to the program. It seeks to introduce students to the concepts of disciplines and interdisciplinarity so that students have the tools to prepare an individualized major proposal that effectively explains the relevance of particular disciplines and interdisciplinary approaches to the student s area of interest. This is a one-credit course with both online and in-person elements. The learning outcomes are defined as follows: The student will be able to: o Design a coherent and rigorous major plan of study o Explain in a written essay how the disciplines and courses in that plan of study each contribute to developing the student s understanding of his/her field of study o Define what a discipline is and have a basic understanding of the disciplines relevant to his/her field of study o Define interdisciplinary studies and describe the origins, strengths, and limitations of this approach o Describe differences in the methodological approaches of the sciences, social sciences and humanities and the key strengths and limitations of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies o Identify an issue or question within his/her field of study and discuss how various disciplines might contribute to the analysis of the issue or question Course Outline 1) Student introductions, including a brief statement of area of interest Students outline their interest and, in a preliminary fashion, identify relevant disciplines and courses and explain their rationale. 2) Examine how different disciplines might approach a problem through case study/ies The first part of the course presents students with several different problems that can be addressed from a number of disciplinary perspectives. These problems are in thematic areas that are regularly pursued by individualized majors at UConn, for example, international studies, health studies, and criminal studies. Using TedTalks and/or University Podcasts as starting points, students will explore the disciplinary and interdisciplinary nature of these issues. Students will identify key questions they want to ask about the problem and what disciplines they think have the best tools to answer those questions. 2

3 3) Overview of the origins and nature of disciplines In order to understand why there are such things as disciplines and why some advocate for interdisciplinarity, we need to explore briefly how disciplines emerged and the ways in which intellectuals and others have critiqued the splintering of knowledge and advocated for integration and interdisciplinarity. Using the problems addressed in part 2, the students would examine how different disciplines define their domain of inquiry, what assumptions each discipline holds, and how that shapes the questions it asks and the methodologies it deploys. The students would also explore examples of cross-cutting theoretical debates that are not located in any single discipline. Reading: Joe Moran, The Rise of Disciplines, Interdisciplinarity, pp Other Resources: Websites of the professional associations of the major disciplines, many of which have a section for students with titles such as What is Economics? Dictionary of the Social Sciences Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002 Access Science at: an online encyclopedia (McGraw Hill) 4) Overview of research methodologies Both among and within disciplines there are often deep divisions regarding research methodologies. In this section of the course, students examine these debates surrounding experimental, quantitative and qualitative methods. Again reference would be made to the problems examined in part 2 to explore differing research methodologies, their underlying assumptions, and their strengths and limitations. We plan to develop a lecture on research methodologies. 5) Interdisciplinarity What does it mean to take an interdisciplinary approach? What have been the critiques of interdisciplinarity? Reading: Thomas Benson, Five Arguments Against Interdisciplinary Studies and William Newell, The Case for Interdisciplinary Studies in William Newell, Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the Literature. 6) Identification of student interest and exploration of relevant disciplines In part 6, students would define their area of interest, identify relevant disciplines, and deepen their understanding of these disciplines through research and consultation with faculty. Background provided earlier in the course would help students structure their conversations with faculty more effectively as they prepare a plan of study and statement of purpose. Students will prepare a statement of purpose and a plan of study for their proposed major. An initial draft will be critiqued by a peer, the instructor, and the faculty advisors working with the student. 3

4 7) Prepare a research proposal In part 7, students consider a topic on which they might like to conduct research. Using their knowledge of disciplines, interdisciplinarity, and research methodologies, they discuss how one might go about researching this question in an interdisciplinary manner. Plan for the assessment of student learning: Student learning will be assessed in both formative and summative ways. Formative assessment tools: o Contributions to discussion board regarding assigned reading o Analysis of case studies that exemplify interdisciplinarity presented in course materials o Preliminary report on disciplines and methodologies relevant to the student s proposed major based on the student s research and consultation with faculty o Draft plan of study and statement of purpose Summative assessment tools: o Plan of study and statement of purpose o Written essay presenting how disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives would shape research on an issue/question within student s area of interest. The statement of purpose and the essay outlining a research question produced in this gateway course will be used as a measure of student skills and knowledge at the start of the major. Similar written work produced at the end of the major, during the required capstone course a statement of achievements, a research paper, and a reflection paper serves as a measure of student skills and knowledge at the conclusion of the major. 4

5 New Gateway Course for the Individualized Major Draft Assignment #1 - Disciplines Watch the Ted Talks, Solving Social Problems with a Nudge by Sendil Mulainathan and Sex, Drugs and HIV Let s Get Rational by Elizabeth Pisani. Choose one of these talks and answer the following questions. 1. What is the key issue that each speaker is addressing? What questions is the speaker trying to answer? 2. What does the speaker think has been overlooked in past efforts to address this issue? Where does the speaker think the answer(s) lies? 3. Identify three disciplines that you think would be primary contributors to addressing the issue this speaker discusses. Why? What other disciplines might also contribute in a secondary way? Why? Use these sources to help develop your understanding of disciplines: Social Sciences: Anthropology: What is Anthropology American Anthropological Association: Economics: American Economics Association: What is Economics-- History (see Humanities) Political Science: What is Political Science Psychology: Sociology: See also Dictionary of the Social Sciences, Craig Calhoun, ed. (Oxford University Press, available through the UConn library online) Natural Sciences: See Access Science at: an online encyclopedia (McGraw Hill) with general entries for Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics as well as entries for the many subfields of these disciplines. Humanities: History: Why Study History American Historical Association Languages & Literature: Modern Languages Association: Philosophy: Guide to Philosophy, American Philosophical Association: 5

6 Draft Assignment #2 Methodologies Part A: Listen again to the talk you focused on for Assignment 1. What does the speaker reveal about the research methodologies that have been used to study the issue? What have been the strengths and weaknesses of these methodologies? What have researchers been able to learn using these methodologies and what has been obscured? Part B: Referring to the three disciplines you identified in Assignment #1, discuss the research methodologies (experimental, quantitative, or qualitative) associated with each discipline and how these might be used to research the issue. What would be the strengths and limitations of these methodologies when applied to this particular issue? Draft Assignment #3 Interdisciplinarity Choose one of the issues highlighted in either Mullainathan s or Pisani s TED Talk and, utilizing the three disciplines you ve identified, discuss how the resources of these disciplines might work together to develop answers to these questions. 6

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