UBC Mix’s Panel on Interdisciplinarity and Student Involvement

When UBC undergraduate Geoff Costeloe gave a Tedx Terry Talk in 2008 about his experience as a double major in biology and political science he could have hardly have predicted its impact. The fairly anecdotal and autobiographical talk, which Costeloe titled “How Would Darwin Vote,” argued that science students should learn to think politically and arts students should learn to think scientifically in order to avoid dogmatic thinking. In the talk Costeloe candidly admits that while this approach had led to some pretty interesting papers theses, it did not yet led to Dean’s-list-quality grades. It did, however, lead to the creation of UBC Mix, a TLEF-funded organization at UBC that partners faculty members and students from across the disciplines and is a major player in the interdisciplinarity game.

Four years after Geoff’s talk, Mix has grown into a pretty formidable amalgamation of educational projects: from faculty mixers to joint papers between statistics students and science students, from guest lectures by Vancouver’s homeless to economics classes to a community of practice that explores interdisciplinary pedagogy, Mix is doing more and more to challenge the “siloization” of post-secondary education. There is only one problem: while all of this was developed in response to a single student’s Terry Talk, almost all of the organization has taken place at the faculty level so far. Moreover, it is not clear at all that UBC students, more busy, pragmatic and career-focused than ever, actually want to get involved in extra work—multidisciplinary or not.

That’s why UBC Mix hired me to support student-led interdisciplinary projects on campus. In order to assess student interest we held a Panel on Interdisciplinarity and Student Involvement and invited as many students to participate as we could find kicking around campus in the summer. Somewhat surprisingly, several highly motivated and frankly pretty impressive people—studying as diverse subjects as  geography, history, applied sciences and economics—decided to get out of the sun and share their ideas about teaching and learning with me.

While their ideas were invaluable, the most salient take away from the conference, for me, was that there really is a constituency of UBC students (let’s call them keeners) who are thinking pretty deeply about the nuts and bolts of how their disciplines actually produce knowledge. What sort of questions are economists asking and why do they ask them? In fact—not to toot are own horns here—the keeners expressed a number of the core convictions of UBC Mix as reasons to pursue more interdisciplinarity here at UBC: they insisted that extracurricular initiatives could be as valuable as curricular ones; that connections with students from other departments can reveal the implicit assumptions behind disciplinary teaching and learning; and most importantly that the really pressing global issues—sustainable development, human rights, poverty, biomedical ethics, privacy, women rights, and so on—are actually not the property of one single discipline—they  require collaboration between economists, political scientists, biologists, poets and historians in order to achieve any meaningful change.

The student panelists recommended several new projects that had not previously occurred to me. In particular, a number of students recommended that we hold symposiums on education and academic ethics. Other students suggested that we develop pragmatic partnerships with the Vancouver business community in order to give students some valuable experience at implementing their ideas in the private sector. Other students recommended that we develop more panels (preferably not in the height of summer) as well as roundtables on sustainability and ethics.

Perhaps more importantly, the students who suggested the idea all voiced a willingness to spearhead these projects themselves. They are, as I said, keeners.

There were also some pessimists in attendance. A number of the panelists spoke about the need for broader cultural change in academia. They cataloged their experiences dealing with particularly obstinate departments that refuse to allow students with other backgrounds to take their courses (economics was singled out as a particular egregious offender). More generally, they talked about professors and heads of departments that were married to their style of inquiry and a student body that seems more interested in learning “the facts” than critically exploring the construction of those facts. The problem that those of us who advocate interdisciplinarity face, one panelist argued is a culture of complacency. More than one student also mentioned that, while helpful, these sorts of meetings have a preaching-to-the-choir element to them: the only people who attend are those who already want the university experience to become more polyphonic.

There is a serious debate to have, I suppose, as to how much top-down systemic UBC Mix should be involved in, but I think that student organizing can do as much to impact the culture and structure of a university as anything. The tremendous impact of Geoff Coestele’s talk is just one example: UBC Mix takes student generated ideas very seriously.

If you would like to contribute to UBC Mix or you are curious about how you can get involved please send me an email at sam.fenn@ubc.ca.

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Sam Fenn is the Executive Producer and Host of The Terry Project on CiTR. You can follow Sam on twitter (https://www.twitter.com/Samadeus), check out his instagram (http://www.instagram.com/rsamfenn) and read more of his writing at www.samfenn.com.