III. Expanding Our Reach in Ideas

3.2 New Interdisciplinary Ventures

Academic disciplines, useful as they may be for ordering experience and providing tools for inquiry, should not encapsulate. It is important for students to understand this as early as possible in their education, since the structures of the academy tend to channel our imaginations and construct all too easily the image of a world that fits our inherited categories. The liberally-educated person should be alert to the opportunities that exist at the fault lines between traditional disciplines, confident in his or her ability to follow questions across boundaries and alive to the implications of what is done in one field for the development of others. These are among the reasons that Amherst has historically stressed interdisciplinarity in its First-Year Seminars, collaborative teaching across disciplines in its colloquia, and joint appointments of faculty who bridge two or more fields. They have also been motives in selectively developing formal programs and departments with interdisciplinary charters.

Amherst’s record as an incubator of interdisciplinary programs is remarkable. It showed imagination and leadership in creating programs in such fields as American Studies; Black Studies; Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought; Neuroscience; and Women’s and Gender Studies – all much admired pioneers. Currently one-fifth of the faculty hold appointments in two departments. But the most recent programmatic initiatives of this sort date to the early 1990s; over the past decade or two Amherst has lagged behind many of its peer institutions in providing students with opportunities in fields such as environmental studies, biochemistry, film studies, and the interface between digital electronics and the arts.

Both the broad response to the President’s Initiative Fund and the departmental reports prepared for the CAP testify to the faculty’s pent-up ambitions in such areas. We are encouraged by the PIF-funded progress toward curricular innovations in environmental studies, public education, and human rights, as well as in other areas where classroom teaching is reinforced by experiential learning through service or internships. In some cases, the College is very close to being able to mount effective programs, up to and including a major. Where faculty already are on the ground, all that may be necessary is provision of modest support services and release from departmental commitments to ensure appropriate coverage and continuity in course offerings. In other cases, on-site constellations of faculty may require a full-time linchpin appointment or one or two new part-time collaborators to bring a well-shaped program into being. Recommending these choices remains within the purview of the CEP.

Where programs already exist and where one or two individuals with joint appointments represent entire areas of interdisciplinary study, planning for the future would be much eased should resources be available to reduce the penalties paid by departments for inter-departmental cooperation.

6. We recommend that 5 new FTEs be devoted to new interdisciplinary ventures and the support of other forms of cross-departmental collaboration.