A COPLACDigital reflection by James Welch IV

I approached the COPLACDigital program with a great deal of enthusiasm, eager to learn the digital skills involved and to explore technological avenues for enhancing collaboration and team teaching, as well as expanding potential audiences for interdisciplinary research. In all these respects, the COPLACDigital program exceeded my expectations, and I found the experience both rewarding and enlightening.

“Interdisciplinary Studies” is a widely used and abused concept, often “retrofitted” to accommodate immediate needs for institutional organization, curriculum, research or grant applications. Interdisciplinarity is utilized in countless contexts to describe such things as: collaboration and teamwork, projects requiring multiple fields of expertise, issues involving diverse stakeholders, multimedia creative works, etc. Klein and Newell (1998) offer the following widely-quoted definition:

“Interdisciplinary Studies is a process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline or profession… [It] draws on disciplinary perspectives and integrates their insights through construction of a more comprehensive perspective.” (p. 393-4)

Szostak compares several definitions on his  "About Interdisciplinarity" website.

What characterizes all the different incarnations of interdisciplinary studies is a shared concern with complex problem-solving, whether theoretical or practical. The interdisciplinary approach to complexity involves some form and degree of the synthesis of diverse ideas, viewpoints, schools of thought and so on. Fields of knowledge have traditionally been separated into disciplines with their own conceptual languages and domains of study, creating obstacles for cross disciplinary communication. From my point of view, the COPLACDigital program showed promise as a real-life experiment in interdisciplinary synthesis.

This experiment began with a collaboration ritual I like to call “academic speed dating.” Of course this was a bit awkward, we academics are not known for our social skills, but nonetheless my partner, Dr. Wallace, and I developed a quick rapport. The spirit of collaboration was bolstered by the beautiful setting of the Asheville campus. Also, our COPLAC guides set up an atmosphere that encouraged camaraderie and facilitated the exchange of ideas in person and through technology.

Dr. Wallace and I arrived upon a course theme centered upon conflict resolution, which students would research at a local or regional level. In the subsequent workshop, we developed the idea into “Conflict in America—Case Studies in Peace Making,” which we felt was topical and would be highly engaging for our students. We had both encountered a spirit of frustration in many of our undergraduate students concerning the divisiveness of our current political climate. The class explored several sources of these frustrations and took advantage of the unique nature of the COPLACdigital experience to develop strategies for addressing them.

Poster with Helen Red Feather of the Lakota raising her fist, along with the words "We The Resilient Have Been Here Before."
“We the Resilient”, by Ernesto Yerena (amplifier.org)

Problem: The scope of “Conflict in America.” The dysfunctional state of the American political climate, on a national level, seems too pervasive and widespread to be approached by individuals in any productive way.
Strategy: Students have a habit of focusing on the big picture, and trying to attack issues beyond their present abilities and resources. We addressed this by directing the students to focus on local and regional examples of conflict resolution, historical or contemporary. This move had the benefits of providing students with readily accessible resources for their projects and encouraging their engagement with surrounding communities. Check out examples of their case studies below!

I felt more connected to my community than I have ever felt before. Reading the thoughts and opinions of individuals within our community, finding new documents, scribbling down dates and times and locations, all of it was so fulfilling and interesting. It was like striking gold when I would find an opinion that I hadn’t read before, or an article that was more detailed than the last. —Lillian Rouse

Problem: The complexity of conflict. The causes of and solutions to social or political conflict are highly complex, requiring understanding from a variety of fields, along with the coordination of diverse experts and stakeholders.
Strategy: Fortunately, this is a perfect example of the kind of complex, real world problem that benefits from an interdisciplinary approach. We laid out a broad theoretical foundation for the students by investigating conflict and conflict resolution from the perspectives of psychology, sociology, history and political science. Dr. Wallace and I both presented our own case studies. This scaffolding gave our students the conceptual grounding they needed to feel confident exploring such a complex subject.

  • Psychology. Conflict is created and reinforced through psychic mechanisms like confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.
  • Sociology. Sociocentric dynamics such as groupthink, conformity/obedience, xenophobia amplify conflict.
  • History. Historical investigations are often focused on conflict, but sometimes neglect to inform. Dr. Wallace presented a case study on native American and U.S. military interaction at Ft. Loudoun, Tennessee. Students from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts studied Shays Rebellion and the way it facilitated the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Political science. Power imbalances are foundational causes of all forms of conflict. Politics are a way of analyzing power relations and negotiating among competing groups. Dr. Welch’s case study about an urban planning conflict illustrated this (see Welch & Clark, 2015), as did the student project from SUNY-Geneseo on a regional labor dispute. Both provided cautionary tales of conflict resolutions that were less than successful.

Problem: Human conflict in our current political climate seems inevitable and intractable.
Strategy: By exposing students to methods of conflict resolution, and allowing them to discover case studies of conflict resolution in their own backyard, hopefully they came away with the idea that divisiveness is not a permanent human condition, and that their efforts can have a positive impact on their communities.

...the focus of the course on conflict resolution did feel novel and interesting. As a history major I spend a lot of time looking into conflict. A whole lot of time. Trying to focus in on a conflict that was successfully resolved, and trying to think about why it had been resolved, was both interesting and rewarding. —Ben Allen

Team teaching has always had a central place in interdisciplinary pedagogy. The pairing of professors with different areas of expertise enhances the educational experience for students and instructors alike (Klein, 1999). Team teaching encourages everyone involved in the course to reach outside their disciplinary comfort zones, exposing them to unfamiliar ideas, and stimulating dialogue. Our students represented several majors across the spectrum—history, biology, political science, sociology—and most of them enjoyed our class discussion and the opportunity to expand their disciplinary horizons. Despite our physical distance, we were able to achieve class chemistry and interact meaningfully with the telecommunication tools provided.

What I learned exceeded my expectations. Not only did I learn more about how school desegregation occurred in Fredericksburg, but also I was able to learn about the stories of those who walked through it and even about events that occurred in the county I have lived my entire life in….The knowledge and skills developed while in this experience also broadened my perspectives on the world by allowing us to connect with classmates around the country and see diverse range of topics that were found in each state. This expanded my knowledge on what conflict and conflict resolution can look like and what lessons we can all draw from historical and current examples of conflict. —Kailee Adkins

Dr. Wallace and I developed a true partnership, establishing roles that allowed our different academic experiences and interests to complement each other. It was as productive and rewarding as any team-teaching experience I have had in person. We were able to use a variety of communication and document tools to develop all the nuts and bolts of the course materials, and assist each other in mastering the software involved. At one point, we were speaking to each other on Zoom while simultaneously editing our syllabus in Google Docs. I knew at that point—this was going to work.

I am convinced that the array of technologies made available to us have the potential to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and presentation of research projects, community engagement and complex problem solving. The COPLACDigital Liberal Arts at a Distance program demonstrated, above all, that through technology meaningful and productive academic relationships happen.

Klein, J., and Newell, W. (1997). Advancing interdisciplinary studies. In J. Gaff and J. Ratcliffe (Eds.), Handbook of the undergraduate curriculum: A comprehensive guide to purposes, structures, practices, and changes (pp. 393-415). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Klein, J. (1999). Mapping interdisciplinary studies: The academy in transition. Association of American Colleges and Universities.. Washington, D.C.: AACU. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED430437.pdf.

Welch, James and Clark, Nita (2014). The Problematic Nature of Civic Participation in Sustainability Initiatives: The Case of the Arlington, Texas Hike and Bike Master Plan. Public Integrity, 17(1), 37-54.

Headshot of Dr. James Welch IV

James Welch IV is President of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies and holds a PhD in the history of ideas. He taught "Conflict in America: Case Studies in Peace-Making" for COPLACDigital in the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2019.