(Opinions) Burruss Hall

Burruss Hall, Jan. 31, 2018.

One of the most important things that college students take into consideration when choosing majors, minors and courses is finding something that interests them. Some students like math and science, so they go into engineering. Others like to read, so they study English or history. This scheme of classification challenged me a lot my first semester of college. I enjoyed nearly every class I took in high school, from physics to psychology. I worried that there was no place for students who had varied or seemingly dissimilar interests — the students such as myself who like math and science, but also crave elements of education in the humanities like intensive reading, writing and discussion.

Eventually, I found a home in geography, an interdisciplinary subject that allows me to take humanities-based courses and courses dealing with information systems and computer software. Along the way, I realized that a great alternative for students with eclectic interests are interdisciplinary subjects and courses from departments like that of science, technology and society. Last semester, I took a class through this department, STS/HIST/PHIL 2604: Introduction to Data in a Social Context, which focused on the way that categorization and analysis of data shape our daily lives. This course was a helpful way for me to combine my interest in math and technical thinking with history skills and discussion.

The university should place more emphasis on courses in interdisciplinary fields, as they allow students to pursue multiple interests and prepare us for future careers in an increasingly integrated world. It is becoming more uncommon for people to work in just one field for their entire lives, and even when they do, it is likely that they will have to use lots of different skills and interact with lots of different people to accomplish their goals. Meeting and working with students from various backgrounds through interdisciplinary courses, majors and minors is a great way to prepare students for this kind of collaboration.

Furthermore, there should be more of a focus on these kinds of courses because they combine many different skills and allow students to learn things they wouldn’t in traditional subjects. For instance, Introduction to Data in a Social Context combines philosophical readings with basic statistical analysis in Python (for some sections — there is a great deal of variation between individual sections and instructors). Had it not been for that class, I don’t think I ever would have gone near coding, but now I know more about it and what kind of thinking it requires.

What’s more, in this particular instance, the addition of technical skills to a class which otherwise focused on reading and writing allowed students to dive into material and better understand what exactly they were talking about. It was much easier to discuss computer algorithms that carefully select different data points after using Python to organize and analyze data ourselves. A final important benefit of combining varying skills into one course is that it gives students more confidence when embarking on careers that require skills they haven’t necessarily studied comprehensively. To go back to the Intro to Data example, I would be more confident doing some kind of digital data analysis after taking that course than I was beforehand, even though I haven’t taken any classes in the statistics or computer science departments.

I don’t mean to say that only courses like Intro to Data or other STS courses can be interdisciplinary and enjoyed by students with varying interests — I myself am not an STS major. However, looking for classes within your major or which count for general education requirements can be worthwhile. Courses that combine approaches from multiple fields can be interesting and lead students to new and creative ways of thinking.

It’s great to take classes in engineering, math and science — we definitely need people who can lead those fields and develop new technologies to improve the world. It is important, however, to not get stuck on just completing degree requirements rather than exploring courses which combine different ways of thinking and approaching a subject. I do not blame students for not taking classes like this — in a lot of ways, expectations, pressures and limited opportunities mean that there is not always space in a schedule or degree path to take them. The issue, then, is that certain majors and the university at large focus too much on zeroing in on just one thing. The university as a whole should acknowledge this kind of academic environment, as moving beyond it can provide a more enriching and satisfying educational experience.

In a very important way, interdisciplinary courses and degree tracks represent part of why many students choose to attend colleges and universities in the first place. They allow us to learn about interesting subjects and see the world from others’ points of view. They help us to become better critical thinkers for a quickly changing world. They help us to become better global citizens, eventually reaching out to serve others.

Of course, Virginia Tech does have requirements for students to explore beyond their majors, specifically through the Curriculum for Liberal Education and the new Pathways courses. These requirements, while disliked by many students, can be beneficial to an educational experience and represent a method of helping students to think across disciplines. The issue with these requirements, however, is that many students come in with so many Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate credits to really experience them at the college level. Furthermore, interdisciplinary courses create the opportunity to apply the potentially disparate skills of CLE or Pathways courses to interesting topics. In other words, while it’s great to learn several skills through CLEs and Pathways, deliberately interdisciplinary courses force students to combine their skill sets in novel ways. 

In order for Virginia Tech to provide a well-rounded education for its students, interdisciplinary studies cannot be ignored; they must be expanded and emphasized. Of course, it’s important to focus on engineering, the sciences and the humanities individually, but there is a lot to be gained from combining the work, developments and viewpoints of multiple disciplines.