Dean of Faculty Affirms Report on Interdisciplinary Higher Education
story | Ryan Ma, Staff Writer
photo | Ryan Ma
A broad-based education that cultivates skills such as writing and critical thinking would better prepare graduates for rapid technological changes ahead, said Jeannette Ickovics, Yale-NUS College Dean of Faculty, at a panel discussion on Oct. 23, 2019. The discussion, titled “Branches from the Same Tree”, was held at the ArtScience Museum Singapore, and explored a 2018 report of the same name by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in the US calling for higher education institutions to integrate the arts, humanities, and STEM disciplines.
Joining the discussion were Dean and Professor Gunalan Nadarajan from the University of Michigan, who co-authored the report, and Dr. Venka Purushothaman, Vice-President of Academic and Provost at LASALLE College of the Arts Singapore.
The report highlighted several benefits of an interdisciplinary higher education, including better communication skills, improved ethical decision-making, and higher scientific literacy. This, Mr. Nadarajan stressed, applies to both science students exposed to the arts and humanities, and vice versa.
Ms. Ickovics concurred with the report, drawing from her extensive professional experience at Yale University, especially as a social and behavioral scientist at the Yale School of Public Health. “Imagine…a physician who is also trained in the arts and humanities, and has better diagnostic skills because they’re more observant to the color of the skin and the swelling or contraction of the organ. So we actually see that the arts, integrated with science, does result in better outcomes,” she said.
“We’ve [also] had the pleasure and privilege of curating the museum exhibition…[on] science education, particularly around obesity and chronic disease at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, and then using the arts to really bring the science to the public. And then also some work in theatre, where we used theatre as a mechanism for expressing human vulnerability,” she added.
Ms. Ickovics proceeded to explain how Yale-NUS has been fostering the space for interdisciplinary learning. One key feature, she noted, was not segregating faculty members into departments. “When I give [visitors] tours on campus, I sometimes walk them through an office suite, because I have a literature professor sitting next to an environmental scientist sitting next to a historian,” she said. She also gave an overview of the Common Curriculum and how it exposes students to a diverse range of disciplines.
However, the path to more interdisciplinary higher education programs is not as easy as one might hope, whether in the United States or Singapore. One of the challenges facing integration involves how faculty members within each discipline would be evaluated. As a young institution with relatively young faculty, Yale-NUS is no exception to this challenge, said Ms. Ickovics, as successful promotion and tenure are the focus for many young faculty.
“The challenge is that there is a much longer tradition of work within disciplines rather than across disciplines. Many of us are trained to conduct teaching and research within a single discipline. Therefore, it is sometimes harder to judge work that is interdisciplinary,” said Ms. Ickovics in a later interview.
She added that faculty may prioritize either disciplinary or interdisciplinary scholarship at different stages of their careers. “For those who engage in interdisciplinary research, we select reviewers [for promotion and tenure] who understand the challenges and opportunities of such work. We always want to support faculty to do their very best and most innovative work.”
Another challenge raised at the discussion concerned how students are often limited by conventional career ambitions at the end of university. This problem is compounded by what Mr. Nadarajan calls “disciplinary hangover”, where students are raised with fixed preconceptions of disciplines and professions, and fail to anticipate the rapid changes that these fields will undergo.
So whose responsibility is it to change this situation — should students proactively seek out non-conventional career paths at the risk of stability, or is it up to industries and policymakers to open up more diverse opportunities for graduates?
Mr. Nadarajan said that this change has to occur “at multiple levels”. On one hand, university students need to be aware of the range of possibilities available to them out there. He cited a survey by market research firm YouGov, which showed that 50% of Singaporean graduates are working in jobs unrelated to what they studied. “If you think that education is strictly about [getting] a job, then perhaps you will be disappointed. But if you think that education, broadly speaking, is for you to become prepared for a whole range of things, [if you] learn to learn…you won’t be disappointed.”
Yet, institutions also have a role in changing higher education, added Mr. Nadarajan. While students’ career ambitions can sometimes fit neatly with programs offered by departments, often, institutions are merely offering what they think students want, he said.
These challenges, however, have not dampened the education sector’s optimism in interdisciplinary learning at the highest levels of policymaking. Amid the ongoing debate on academic freedom in Singapore, Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, has asserted in Parliament on Oct. 7 that “a liberal arts school like [Yale-NUS] will have a place in Singapore’s education landscape,” and that “in all our [autonomous universities], there is an increasing focus on interdisciplinary learning and development of critical thinking skills in our students.”
Charles Loy, who will be matriculating at Yale-NUS in 2020, said that this panel discussion affirmed his decision to attend the College. “I am sure there are a number of students who can relate to having pressure from family regarding making the most practical choice possible when it comes to university, but my decision to join Yale-NUS was on the basis that there is huge value to integration of the arts and science,” he said. “In this respect, coming to Yale-NUS is the most practical choice I can make.”
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