Jadavpur University shows how to make a success of interdisciplinary studies

Managing 21 schools used to functioning independently can be an ordeal. Find out the strategies that JU is using to make it a cake-walk

Since 1987, Jadavpur University has created 21 schools of interdisciplinary studies including the Schools for Water Resources Engineering, Biomedical Science & Engineering, and Education Technology. The university set up these schools to develop in students what American development psychologist Howard Gardner calls a synthesising mind. Interdisciplinary studies can foster in students creativity, adaptability, critical reasoning, collaboration, etc.skills to negotiate todays complex, information-rich, dynamically-interconnected world. Through exposing students to two or more inter-related disciplines, they can better comprehend the complex interconnectedness playing out in real life. Also, they learn how best to negotiate and contribute to a vibrant global economy.

Professor Asis Mazumdar, Dean, Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies, Law & Management, and Director, School of Water Resources Engineering, Jadavpur University, says such learning caters to the inquisitiveness of students of modern times. Interdisciplinary studies are important because various important problems, phenomena and concepts resist understanding or resolution when approached from single disciplines. Professor Mazumdar cites climate change and world poverty as clear examples. But equally, a full understanding of identity, public health, human rights, or knowledge can only be constructed by applying multiple perspectives and ways of thinking. Interdisciplinary education is essential to develop research trajectories that do not conform to standard disciplinary path, he says.


Resolving a governance nightmare

Managing schools of interdisciplinary studies is tricky because they function independently of the three well established faculties of the university Arts, Science and Engineering & Technology. One of the major issues emanating from the lack of a parent governing faculty is fixing responsibility for building a high quality teaching team. Some interdisciplinary subjects develop organically out of the shared interest of several lecturers, others are deliberately created. In both cases, the careful choice of additional members of the teaching team is essential, explains Professor Mazumdar.

Also, there is lack of clarity about who will administer the independent schools to ensure they follow similar policies and who will steer forward faculty interaction? Of particular concern for interdisciplinary subjects is that the teaching team includes expert academic teachers and interdisciplinary researchers. Faculty interaction becomes important in building up the team, points out Professor Mazumdar.


Institutionalising interdisciplinary studies

An umbrella body could best govern its 21 schools for interdisciplinary studies so Jadavpur University created Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies, Law and Management, in 2012. Its aim is to institutionalise the subject and thereby cater to complex issues facing broader society such as societal issues involving women, nuclear studies, water resource problems, and cognitive sciences research, to quote Professor Mazumdar. It is the fourth faculty in the University, after the Faculties of Arts, Science and Engineering & Technology.

At the top of the agenda for the new faculty are:

TEAM BUILDING: At the outset, Jadavpur University allocated budgetary resources for the new department. But even with sufficient resources, finding the right teaching team for these interdisciplinary subjects proved to be challenging. Professor Mazumdar explains whyExpert academic teachers and interdisciplinary researchers may be hidden in any faculty, or even based outside in some other university. To find and create an effective teaching team, he is focusing on cultivating a broad network of contacts.


IMPROVING COORDINATION: Administering interdisciplinary schools is more challenging vis--vis non-integrated schools. Special attention is paid to coordinating timetables for meetings and scheduled classes, policies on such things as presentation and grading of student work and hiring and payment practices for sessional staff.


ENCOURAGING DIALOGUE: Unlike single disciplines, interdisciplinary subjects present multiple, and often conflicting perspectives and ways of knowing. These need to be coordinated in some way so the students have a coherent and rewarding teaching experience, and so that subjects do not become a confused muddle. For this, Professor Mazumdar is prioritising an ongoing dialogue amongst the teaching team. We are allowing more time than would be required in a subject where everyone involved in the teaching is from the same discipline and shares basic assumptions and a common language to evolve to a shared vision. Workshops, seminars, brainstorming sessions on various interdisciplinary topics and the approach itself are most useful, he explains.


Helping schools collaborate and grow

An early outcome of starting Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies, Law and Management is about 50 new faculty positions have already been sanctioned and are being filled. Also, qualitative outcomes are already visible. Professor Mazumdar envisages that the new faculty will help involved faculty and students to feel responsible for others, develop skills in critical thinking and problem-solving and establishing linkages, develop respect for other disciplines through interdisciplinary research, develop the ability to change thinking and approach patterns, inculcate the desire and ability for lifelong learning and gain an understanding of how to work within complex systems and with diverse groups.

Additionally, students will learn to demonstrate intellectual agility and the ability to manage change, learn how to transform information into knowledge and knowledge into judgment and action, gain a better understanding of the interrelations within and among global and cross-cultural communities, develop the means of modeling the natural, social and technical worlds and develop intellectual capital which would challenge dynamic socioeconomic, environmental and cultural perspectives. Changes that Professor Mazumdar is personally fostering include inculcating intellectual honesty, being responsible for societys moral health and for social justice, actively participating as a citizen of a diverse democracy, discerning the ethical consequences of decisions and actions and gaining a deep understanding of ones self and respect for the others complex identities their histories and their cultures

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