Tale of Two Programs

Posted on Jan 16, 2017 in Selected Articles | 0 comments

(This article was originally published in the summer 2006 edition of FOCUS, Boise State University’s alumni magazine.)

After a 13-year hiatus, the author discovers the true meaning of interdisciplinary academics

By Bob Evancho

As the product of both baccalaureate and graduate interdisciplinary studies programs, I know a thing or two about these academic hybrids.

I know at one time they were denounced in some university circles as unstructured, watered-down versions of bona fide majors, bereft of meaningful scholarship and job-market potential. I also know years ago they were looked upon disdainfully by some purists, viewed as a hodgepodge of classes thrown together by
directionless students who lacked a sense of intellectual purpose and personal focus.

I know because some 30 years ago I was one of those aimless undergraduates.

My venture into “integrative learning” began my junior year at Grand Valley State College in my native Michigan. That was the year I transferred from GVSC’s traditional College of Arts and Sciences to the school’s ultraprogressive William James College, which espoused an interdisciplinary approach to learning and a commitment to “responding to the personal needs and desires of its students.”

The reason for my internal transfer was valid enough: I developed a serious interest in writing and wanted to add a journalism major to my sociology major; at the time the arts and media curriculum at WJC was the closest thing Grand Valley had to a journalism program.

Although I was chided by some friends and classmates for switching to Grand Valley’s “hippie” college, it was a wise move in the long run.

Because my career goals were uncertain at the time, WJC’s arts and media courses and independent studies — with their cross-disciplinary emphasis
and flexibility—gave me broad-based exposure to the various aspects of print and broadcast journalism and kept me on track to graduate, which I did in 1975.
My time at William James College was worthwhile; the interdisciplinary

programs and initiatives allowed me to shape my own learning experience and get a feel for writing and reporting in both the classroom and the real world. But I must admit, there was a certain latitude within the school that lacked the sense of urgency I usually associated with the pursuit of a degree.
Moreover, I found WJC’s credit/no credit grading system to be less grueling and nerve-racking than what I was used to. I wouldn’t say William James College fostered a laissez-faire approach to learning, but it wasn’t exactly The Paper Chase, either.
Fast-forward 13 years. I’m a seasoned journalist, a writer for Boise State’s news bureau and among the first group of students to seek admission into the university’s new interdisciplinary studies (IDS) program. I wonder if my re-entry into the realm of integrative learning will be anything like my first go-round. I quickly discover the answer is no.

Instituted in 1988, BSU’s interdisciplinary bachelor’s and master’s programs are designed to emphasize “continued intellectual and cultural development in a constantly changing society” for students “whose career goals do not match fully with a single identifiable academic unit or department.”
Hey, that’s me, I thought when Boise State first announced it would start its IDS program. My proposed “social affairs writing” master’s program — a combination of graduate-level English, history and sociology classes — would help me hone my writing and research skills as a journalist and broaden my intellectual perspective. It all made perfect sense. I figured I was good to go.

But my entry into the program was anything but automatic.

“One of the reasons we started the interdisciplinary studies program was to maximize the productivity of our programs and make efficient use of what we did offer back then,” says IDS director Daryl Jones, who initiated the program when he was Boise State’s arts and sciences dean. “But we do not allow these programs to become diluted substitutes for other degree programs. We are vigilant in ensuring that we have the faculty expertise and the rigorous coursework to justify the programs. We have requirements built into the program to protect those things from happening. We work to make sure that our interdisciplinary programs are genuinely rigorous and genuinely interdisciplinary in nature.”

I can vouch for that. Our inaugural group of IDS candidates — and the more than 100 graduate students and approximately 40 undergrads who have followed us since ’88 — were required to jump through numerous hoops before we ever set foot in a classroom.

First, we not only had to assemble our respective programs in their entirety, but we also had to justify how each and every class merged with all the others to form a single body of academic work. Second, we had to form an advisory committee that included a faculty member from each discipline in our respective programs. Third, we had to present our specialized/individualized programs to a universitywide Interdisciplinary Studies Committee for approval.

Although both groups approved my coursework and Boise State’s IDS program started that fall, I still had some colleagues who looked askance at the whole interdisciplinary studies thing — at least initially. One skeptic was political science professor John Freemuth.

“The one danger I saw, at least at the beginning, was attempts by students who couldn’t get into a regular academic master’s program and would cobble together
some kind of program to try to get into graduate school that way,” Freemuth says. “There was a concern that these would be some kind of amorphous, sloppy programs without the academic rigor. I’m all for diverse intellectual inquiry, but I also think that interdisciplinary programs should be for students with specific and unique objectives. We need to be good gatekeepers to make sure such programs don’t compromise Boise State’s academic integrity; I think Daryl has done a good job in that regard. But we need to remain watchful.”

Based on my graduate experience at Boise State, I’ve got two words for my friend Dr. Freemuth: Don’t worry … at least about me. Given the opportunity to design my own course of study, I made discoveries and connections that may not have been possible within the narrow confines of a single-subject program. The flexibility inherent in Boise State’s interdisciplinary studies program furnished me with a broader, more encompassing perspective that was invigorating, enriching and relevant — and an understanding of the true meaning of interdisciplinary academics.

FOCUS editor Bob Evancho earned his MA in social affairs writing through Boise State’s interdisciplinary studies program in 1993.

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