There is a compelling connection between international learning and interdisciplinarity. There is also a compelling rationale for approaching such learning in terms of themes and topics that cross disciplines. Some of the most innovative programs emerging from U.S.-Japanese partnerships do one of these; some do both together.
Interdisciplinarity brings two or more academic disciplines together in ways that integrate and synthesize knowledge from both. It can be distinguished from multidisciplinarity in which different disciplines work alongside each other without much interaction.
By changing positions and perspectives, faculty impart and students gain the creative knowledge and power to process information at a high level. In addition, students leave their studies with more integrated knowledge, and are prepared for the multi-faceted and ambiguous challenges they will face in a rapidly-changing, inter-connected world.
Because faculty normally work within disciplinary structures, interdisciplinarity works best when there are programs that provide the resources and organization to work across boundaries. These can take many forms: interdisciplinary research centers, a single class team-taught by faculty from different fields, two or more courses coordinated so as to cover the same topic from different perspectives, a common reading or experience that is discussed in multiple courses, double-degree programs, and so forth.
Such efforts have particular value for international learning because:
- international learning must enable students to make sense of and navigate the multiple, complexly intertwined forces of globalization;
- no single discipline can accomplish this goal;
- focusing different disciplines toward a particular theme gives students and faculty a structure for bringing different perspectives into conversation with each other;
- such approaches can be tied directly to the issues that students are encountering beyond the classroom;
- such approaches model and invoke the power of dialogue and interaction in a globalized world;
- such approaches enable faculty who are already engaged with a country or topic to work with faculty new to such subjects, enhancing the knowledge and capacity of the latter.
Such thematic, interdisciplinary approaches are made doubly powerful when faculty and students from different nations engage in them, thereby adding different national perspectives to both the disciplines and the topic under examination. Once again, strategic partnerships provide an excellent matrix for such programs.
When embedded in strategic partnerships, such programs can also draw in students who may not have considered studying abroad but who are interested in the issue being pursued. And they can intensify and focus the learning accomplished on short-term programs.
In many ways the Global Leadership Fellows Program at Waseda University is such an interdisciplinary thematic endeavor, focusing, as it does, on leadership development. Another is found just to the left on this page.