A New Marker of Interdisciplinarity

There are buzz words in academia – and if you’ve been around long enough, you’ve grown tired of many of them. “Collaborative Research” – “Student Focused Learning” – “Experiential Learning” – and, among them, “Interdisciplinarity.” OK, I’ll admit, I really love most of these things – even if they may be cliches. But in the past few years, I’ve become hugely impressed with the pedagogical benefits of interdisciplinarity in particular.

In a (hopefully) forthcoming article* titled “The Interdisciplnary Context of Evolutionary Psychology: A Key to Survival in the Ivory Archipelago,” Justin Garcia, Ben Crosier, Gad Saad, Dan Gambacorta, Laura Johnsen, Elissa Pranckitas, and I explored (a) just how interdisciplinary evolutionary psychology (EP) is relative to other fields in the discipline, and (b) the issue of positive effects of interdisciplinary scholarship. In a nutshell, by systematically content coding the departmental affiliations of authors of major journals in EP along with several other important perspective-based areas of psych (e.g., cognitive neuroscience and the psychodynamic perspective), we were able to document that EP journals (specifically, Evolution and Human Behavior along with Evolutionary Psychology) were much more likely to include first authors from outside psychology departments, including scholars as first authors from such diverse academic disciplines as biology, anthropology, philosophy, and literature, among others. Further, the total number of non-psychology disciplines ran deeper for the EP journals, including a broader assortment of academic fields.

So in that article, we argue that EP’s interdisciplinary nature has, in fact, come of age – and that fostering this interdisciplinary identity will help the field connect with academic areas in the broadest sense, allowing its seeds to disseminate widely. In a world that is hostile to evolutionary psychology (See Geher, 2006), anything that can effectively disseminate EP should be taken seriously. Interdisciplinary scholarship is the kind of thing needed to facilitate this process.

Sometimes, my teaching and my scholarship match perfectly – and such an instance is upon me now. I’m glad to say that, for the third straight year in a row, I’ll be teaching a section of Evolutionary Studies Seminar as part of our school’s Evolutionary Studies Seminar Series. This speaker series, currently funded by the NSF and hosting such biggies as Niles Eldredge, Richard Wrangham, and Marlene Zuk, is the centerpiece of the work I do at New Paltz. It’s the centerpiece of the EvoS program – and it’s exactly what gets people so excited about the program.

Each year, the interest in the program increases – this year, we’re offering 4 sections of this course – each of which seems to be filling up without a problem during pre-registration. There will be a lot of students taking this course in spring – and we’re lucky to have such stellar instructors, Alice Andrews, Alex Bartholomew, and Mike Camargo, teach sections concurrent with my own.

During many course meetings, all the sections get together – along with others in the community, and we attend free lectures given by our speakers. We then continue the conversation with the speakers at a pizza reception. It’s the kind of education that immediately goes well beyond the textbook (in many cases, it’s “that person who WROTE the textbook”) and goes way beyond typical undergraduate education. This simply is the most dynamic and intrinsically motivated class that’s, in my opinion, offered at our fine school.

And interdsiciplinarity raises its head more than once regarding this class. First, consider the various academic fields represented by our speakers: http://www.newpaltz.edu/evos/seminar.html

We have geologists, anthropologists, biologists, and psychologists – spanning topics as disparate as epi-genetics to Darwin’s insights about botanical adaptations to the origins of sexual reproduction in garlic. The series is beautiful – and it tells the story of Darwin’s ideas applied across various academic disciplines remarkably well. The EvoS Seminar Series has the capacity to build those needed bridges across the islands of the academic archipelago.

In looking at my roster for next semester, I’m excited to say that EvoS is hitting us with another blast of interdisciplinarity. This time, it comes from the students. When I first started teaching this course in Fall 2007, my students were mostly psychology or biology majors with a few anthropology majors thrown in for some fun and giggles. No more. EvoS is truly taking on the interdiscinplinary form it was meant to take. My current roster of 20 includes students from the following majors:

Cell Biology
Theatre Arts
Undeclared
Psychology
Childhood Education
Psychobiology
Philosophy
Adolescent Education: Social Studies
Organismic Biology
Computer Science
Anthropology

Diversity of the majors of students interested in EvoS strikes me as a great marker of interdisciplinarity.

Note that this class is not a lower level general education course – it’s an upper level course that fills no general education requirement, other than the “writing intensive” requirement, which is met by courses within most majors.

Then who are these students – and what do they want? If It’s anything like last year, I think I have a good sense. About half these students are likely already enrolled in the EvoS minor on campus. These tend to be bright, hard-working students who care about learning more than about things like grades or future job prospects. These are the intrinsically motivated students who are on a journey for self-knowledge – and with its focus on human affairs, self-knowledge comes to all EvoS students in many different ways. The other students are just downright interested – interested in evolution – interested in who people are – interested in what life is – and interested in why things are the way they are. I’ve never had a class bring out such genuine learning desires on the part of college students – there’s something special to this course.

And the fact that students represent all these different academic fields is HUGE. Learning increases as a result. As the instructor of the course, I learn so much by being surrounded by these bright young and motivated students. When anthropology students chime in on a topic about a particular tool used by a particular hominid – or when a biology student chimes in with a comment about new molecular dating technique to provide an index of phylogenetic overlap between species, etc., I LEARN! I learn just as much from the students in this class each year as I do from the world-renowned speakers we bring in.

Along with our respected speakers (http://www.newpaltz.edu/evos/seminar.html), a great group of collegial faculty, a supportive administration, and students that impress the heck out of me every time I turn around, I think I’m ready for the 2010 EvoS Seminar Series course – bring it on!

References

*manuscript still under review

Geher, G. (2006). Evolutionary psychology is not evil! … and here’s why … Psihologijske Teme (Psychological Topics); Special Issue on Evolutionary Psychology, 15, 181-202.

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
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One Response to A New Marker of Interdisciplinarity

  1. Evan Pilnick says:

    Niles Eldredge! wow talk about a big name. Cant wait for him

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