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Careers Café

Interdisciplinary university programs: Part 2


Last time I blogged, I wrote about the proliferation of interdisciplinary units and departments at universities across the globe. This week I’m going to write about what it’s like to be a professor in one of these research units.

First, let me paint a picture for you of entering the Natural Resources Institute. First, walk up the stairs, under the bison head mounted on the wall, and around all the tropical plants. Reflect on the debates regarding sustainable use of wildlife and cultural symbolism of the bison. Then enter the main office area. To the left, students stream out of a class on food security and sustainability. They chat with their guest speaker, a First Nations elder. In the nearest office, you hear students debating about risk assessment in Bengali (ok, ok, so you can’t understand Bengali… just work with me here…). Ahead, a student with earrings, tattoos, and carrying a bike helmet nods and smiles at a professor wearing a suit and talking on his cell phone. As you pass the coffee table, you notice a pile of reading materials ranging from Alternatives to Bird Life International. As you approach your office, you hear students chatting and laughing in Spanish. You nod encouragingly to the student waiting by your door, who carries a statistics textbook and wears a slightly desperate expression, and enter your office, beginning your day.

What does that picture look like to you? To me it is diverse, colourful, passionate. Teaching in a classroom full of these students can be a humbling experience. As I stand at the front of the class, I know that many of the students in front of me know far more about other disciplines than I ever will. Many have been places I’ll never go. They will have career trajectories different from mine. This is exciting because they are not just learning from me; I learn from them, too. They are able to put the ecological course materials in the context of management and social perspectives that are different from mine. This means that the more I teach, the more I learn more about my own subject matter; it also means that other students in the class benefit from their peers’ knowledge as well as my own.

Of course, the environment needs to be designed to allow that to happen. Open discussions during class time allow not just for the development of critical thinking skills, but for the transfer of knowledge among peers, and for allowing students to explore links in the content across numerous courses.

The research environment in an interdisciplinary unit is also different from a disciplinary one. Happily, I find that there is little competition among faculty members. Our research approaches are so disparate that there is little opportunity for the development of the disagreements in research philosophies that can sour academic relationships within departments. In our unit, at least, we have a genuine respect for other’s research approaches — because of, rather than despite, our different approaches and interests.

While this also means that we are less likely to work directly with our neighbouring colleagues, as faculty members we are immersed in our own disciplines sufficiently that creating opportunities for collaboration outside of our department has been easy. We can traipse across campus with our students for relevant academic presentations, and then head home to an environment in which we know we will be challenged by and learn from students and colleagues with different perspectives, educations, and experience from our own. This opportunity provides daily opportunities for learning; and of course, that is what the academic lifestyle is all about.

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