Beyond Interdisciplinary

For a long time Olin has used the word “interdisciplinary” to describe our curriculum, but I think it’s time to stop. Being interdisciplinary was new and exciting for schools 20 years ago, but now it is routine. Olin should be one step ahead while everyone else is catching up – we should be working on the next thing. And the next thing is “postdisciplinary.”

To explain what that means, I’ll use the analogy of racial integration. In an integrated society, people from different racial groups live together peacefully. In a postracial society, the fact that different types of people live together doesn’t even have a name; that is just how it is, and how it always should have been.

Similarly, in an integrated curriculum, there are novel classes that combine topics from more than one discipline. In a postdisciplinary curriculum, classes are designed to meet the needs of students without regard to discipline, and they include the topics necessary to serve those needs. The crossing of those topics cross with what used to be “disciplinary boundaries” doesn’t bear comment, because that’s just how it is, and how it always should have been.

Modeling and Simulation is a good example (chosen because of my familiarity with it, not because it is uniquely postdisciplinary). The goal of ModSim is for students to use models to predict, explain, and design. Toward that end, students learn programming skills, as well as topics in mathematics, science, and communication (both oral and written).

Does that mean that ModSim “integrates” Computer Science, Math, Science, Engineering, and AHS? You could say that, but by framing it that way, you are betraying the lingering preconceptions of a disciplinary mindset. It would a simpler, better representation of the class, to say that it teaches such a variety of skills because they are what students need to build and use models.
If this kind of integration is noteworthy, it’s only because so many traditional classes are designed to satisfy constraints that are accidents of history, not the needs of current students.

One of the biggest barriers to a postdisciplinary curriculum is the faculty. We were trained in a disciplinary world, and many of us attach a large part of our personal identity to our disciplines. My title is “Professor of Computer Science,” and for a long time my professional identity was “computer scientist.” Now I’m not so sure.

Olin does not have colleges, schools or departments. We offer only one curriculum – an engineering curriculum. Every student is a student of engineering, and every professor who teaches part of our curriculum is a professor of engineering.
Part of the problem is that we can’t hire postdisciplinary professors; we have to grow them. When we hire new members of the faculty, we give them a title based on their degree, research area, and teaching responsibilities. But when they come to Olin, they should co-teach existing classes and co-develop new ones, gradually expanding their repertoire and expertise. When they have taught and created some substantial part of the curriculum, we should take away their disciplinary title and rebrand them as Professor of Engineering, or Professor of Olin, or maybe just Professor.

Over the last few weeks, I have had a chance to talk about these ideas with a few professors and students. The reaction of many faculty has been skeptical and often negative. The reaction of students, most of the time, goes something like this: “Well, duh.”

A postdisciplinary curriculum is like a postracial society. It’s not an invention; it’s just how things should be, and always should have been.