A new way to learn

A new way to learn

Anthropology Professor Yunxiang Yan teaches Tuesday. Yan is involved in a new UCLA interdisciplinary program. Photo by TAYLOR LANDON/daily bruin

Global studies takes a holistic approach to education.

"For students, if they are interested in becoming global leaders or trans-national scholars, they have to be trained in a plurality of disciplines," Ali Behdad, an English professor who will chair the global studies program in the spring


For about 25 U.S. college students studying in Shanghai, China, last summer, the term interdisciplinary study took on a whole new meaning.

To study globalization in China's booming economy, UCLA anthropology Professor Yunxiang Yan took students on a five-week travel study program in which they researched various topics – from the Starbucks phenomenon to workers' rights.

And while American students (who Yan calls his "little ambassadors of cultural exchange") and the Chinese people were mutually dispelling stereotypes they had about each other, Yan said he realized that this was interdisciplinary education in its broadest sense. "This is a very positive direction to go in."

The global studies major is the latest of the interdisciplinary programs to begin at UCLA, many of which are housed in the UCLA International Institute. The major will offer its first course in the spring, focusing on globalization issues from immigration to the worldwide economy. The field of study will use a team of UCLA faculty from various departments, as well as guest lecturers like former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale.

While UCLA increasingly incorporates interdepartmental programs into its curriculum, some still question whether an interdisciplinary and more liberal arts education is attainable at UCLA, a university entrenched in research and often restricted by a state budget crisis.

Interdisciplinary programs often take valuable resources, like faculty time and funding, from a variety of departments on campus when offering minors and majors in that field of study.

For some fields of study, an interdisciplinary approach is essential, says Ali Behdad, an English professor who will chair the global studies program in the spring.

For example, in global studies, "no one person can think about it on their own," Behdad said. "There has been a paradigm shift in (academia) that has to do with the emergence of different phenomena" such as globalization or race issues, he said. This shift has resulted in the collaboration of faculty from myriad disciplines.

In the global studies program, Behdad explains that faculty from the English, comparative literature, sociology, geography, economics, political science, French and Francophone studies departments, among others, are contributing their expertise.

"For students, if they are interested in becoming global leaders or trans-national scholars, they have to be trained in a plurality of disciplines," he said, adding that he has been receiving numerous inquiries from students interested in the new global studies program.

A Developing Interest

Interest in interdepartmental programs has increased steadily for the last two decades, says Michael Ross, the chair of the long-established international developmental studies program at UCLA. While the program has been growing steadily since 1987, the number of students majoring in IDS at UCLA has grown from 21 to more than 300, in the last 10 years.

"I certainly think in the last three or four years, UCLA has been supportive of IDS programs," Ross said.

Still, there are those that would question whether UCLA is heading in as much an interdisciplinary direction as it could be.

When political science Professor Susanne Lohmann came to UCLA from Stanford in 1993, a small group of faculty was attempting to start a political economy field of study, to teach economic policy in a political context.

She believed that a concentrated study in either economics or political science alone often bored students.

And from a teaching perspective, merging the two fields made sense, she says. But the idea never materialized, and the faculty and administration were never able to see eye to eye.

Interdisciplinary study in political science and economics has become all but moot at UCLA, while in universities like Princeton, students can get a joint degree, Lohmann said.

Behdad agreed that some reluctance does exist within individual departments. But the resistance is not about hindering interdisciplinary education, he believes. Instead, department heads are concerned that resources are being transferred out from their departments. And in a time of severe university budget cuts, this reluctance is understandable, Behdad said. Judi Smith, vice provost of undergraduate education in the UCLA College, said its normal that departments want to keep what they have during a budget crunch.

But even within departments, officials are increasingly branching out to faculty that are outside the discipline, said Smith, who calls interdisciplinary studies one of UCLA's "hallmarks."

Students who choose to study in interdisciplinary fields also face the problem of limited class enrollment spots and departments who offer their students priority.

Ross acknowledges that this is a problem for many IDS students in departments like economics and sociology and said he has been talking to department officials to work out a possible solution.

Lohmann, currently on sabbatical, experienced some resistance from the administration for a second time last year, when she and other faculty wanted to establish a human complex systems interdepartmental program.

Though some courses were eventually approved for the minor that will be instituted next quarter, Lohmann believes that a voice which represents a liberal arts education in academia is lacking, especially at UCLA. In fact, Lohmann is writing a book on the philosophy of higher education titled "How Universities Think: The Hidden Work of a Complex Institution."

"Universities are understudied," Lohmann said, adding that she began her study after realizing that studies of any field can be related back to the nature of education at a university. "If a university runs into problems, (then) science runs into problems," she said as an example.

From her research, Lohmann says she came to the conclusion that there are three dominating philosophies in higher education: one that emphasizes deeply specialized research, one that encourages immediate utility upon completion and a third that prepares primarily undergraduates for a more fulfilled life.

Lohmann believes there is room in academia for all three philosophies, but says that staunch advocates for the latter one are few and far between.

"In the future, universities must continue to support deep specialization and discipline-bound forms of inquiry, as they mix and match their specialized faculty into interdisciplinary teams that study complex real-world problems in holistic ways," she writes in a draft of her book.

Most interdepartmental program faculty agree that interdisciplinary study should only be viewed as a supplement for specialized study and not as a replacement.

"Interdisciplinary study is not renouncing the importance of specialization, it just offers a dialogue to understand complex phenomena that require perspectives from these specializations," Behdad said.

Many faculty believe that UCLA perpetuates an environment that encourages interdisciplinary dialogue. A newly instituted forum by which different disciplines of faculty can collaborate, are the general education cluster courses that were implemented under Smith, who believes it is important for freshmen, who typically take the courses, to learn how to solve problems from a variety of perspectives. These courses "not only enable students to understand an interdisciplinary perspective, but have helped create a faculty community," Behdad said.

Still, Lohmann believes that the interdisciplinary education should be going from the bottom-up, rather than being implemented from the administration.

Regardless of the politics behind interdisciplinary education, Behdad believes there is no excuse for UCLA not to embrace it. "L.A. is a global city; a microcosm for the world at large (and) UCLA ought to accommodate this global city," he said.

Originally published in the UCLA Daily Bruin Feb 16, 2005

Published: Thursday, February 17, 2005