Integrative Studies and Complex Systems

I have been involved in several conversations in the past week related to cross-disciplinary scholarship. Some online, including “Lit vs. Comm”collected by @adelinekoh, and some at the College as we continue to try to articulate the most effective capstone experience for our undergraduate seniors.

As an academic administrator and professor at one of the smallest liberal arts colleges in the U.S., I am perhaps uniquely positioned to support both curricular and institutional initiatives that cross disciplinary boundaries. We are fortunate to have no defined departments, to meet as a whole faculty twice monthly, and to have fully half of our students designing their own majors, many of which capitalize on the breadth of institutional expertise rather than in a narrow and focused research area. Clearly, this kind of undergraduate liberal arts education is only one piece of the post-secondary system, but I think it’s an essential one–and one that could serve as something of a model.

In, Complexity as Practice: A Reflection on the Creative Outcomes of a Sustained Engagement with Complexity (in the most recent issue of Leonardo), Tom Davis introduces complex systems as

resistant to reductive analysis; an examination of a single entity in isolation does not reveal the true nature of its role in the construction of the whole. Complex systems support a worldview very different from that proposed by the reductive Newtonian theories of classical science. In contrast, they offer a more holistic view of the world, a world containing systems that can create new structures and forms on an epistemic or even an ontological basis. They possess the ability to outperform their designers, promise the allure of perpetual novelty and can possibly be deemed creative entities in their own right.

Complex systems, then, are themselves a performative act; if they are irreducible, continually dynamic and developing new structures, then they are similarly generative and effectively greater than the sum of their parts (the “room” that is smarter than the people in it).

A university or college is just such a complex system.

Nearly all of the tools and frameworks that are used to articulate links between technology and learning–  Open Courseware / Open Educational ResourcesNetworked Learning, Collaborative Learning, Hybrid Learning, etc.–underscore the rich collaborative, integrative possibilities of cross-disciplinary scholarship and teaching.

This aspirational rhetoric (as is, I will readily admit, ecologies of knowledge) gives us–and often enacts, to be sure–many models of integrative learning and scholarship whose champions nonetheless continue to negotiate with more traditional institutional infrastructures. Part of the evolutionary process in which many scholars (and many academic publishers) are in the midst of continues to draw attention to the still extant, long-standing concepts of academic disciplines and intra-institutional divisions.

Over the past decade, I’ve organized several conferences whose main purpose has been to take a broad interdisciplinary look at intersections of people and place. From such a regional studies perspective, there is no other way to look at scholarship except from an integrative perspective. When biologists, artists, literary theorists, ecocritics, historians, economists, and ecologists all get together to talk about place, the result is nearly always wonderful…and sometimes revolutionary.

I believe that more coordinated integrative conversations and projects in which we can actively take part, the more we will be able to recognize that the complex knowledge systems in which we work can empower entirely new modes of thinking and learning.

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