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Professorial perspectives on integrative learning

SOME ENDOWED FACULTY CHAIRS at Skidmore have the express purpose of supporting experts in integrative extradisci- plinary thinking and teaching. Scope recently spoke with three of them: German studies specialist Mary Beth O’Brien, the Courtney and Steven Ross Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies; American studies scholar Greg Pfitzer, the Douglas Family Pro- fessor in American Culture, History, Literary and Interdiscipli- nary Studies; and business scholar Pushi Prasad, the Zankel Professor of Management for Liberal Arts Students.

How do your chairs help focus or shape your work?

Greg Pfitzer—The Douglas Chair reaffirms what I do on a daily basis. In a typical American studies course we cut across art, liter- ature, history, and other disciplines. I like to think that Ameri- can studies graduates are able to cross over disciplines with rela- tive ease. But in fact I think most Skidmore students take courses that push them outside disciplinary boundaries and help them find methodological and subject-area overlaps.

Mary Beth O’Brien—I’m in German studies, but my specialty has been film studies, which is by definition interdisciplinary, bridging texts as well as visuals, sound, and other areas. I’m par- ticularly interested in the way art and politics interact—for ex- ample, the way cinema as an art form presents stories about World War II history that German people may adopt, or reject, in building their sense of national or cultural identity. I like to work with not just the subjects but also the methods and debates of different fields. Interdisciplinarity is not just multiple disciplines; it’s taking insights from one and applying them to another. You need to integrate the knowledge to reach truly comprehensive understandings.

Pushi Prasad—The vision of my chair’s donor, Arthur Zankel, was to bridge management and the liberal arts, taking manage- ment studies to liberal arts students as well as having manage- ment majors benefit from broad perspectives. Business education has always been quite multidiscipli-

nary, spanning areas like finance, accounting, and market- ing. But recently it’s becoming more interdisciplinary. Take the recent financial meltdown: to understand it fully, you need some knowledge of mob psychol- ogy, risk-taking behavior, economic history, and so on. My own field is organizational studies, which integrates economic history and corporate anthro- pology. My focus on the failures of modern Euro-

pean society and institutions to integrate immigrants, especially from Islamic cultures, draws on sociology, ethnography, public policy, history...

How did you first venture across disciplinary boundaries in your own education?

Pfitzer—When I was a freshman, I heard a speaker who linked three disparate events that occurred within six months of each other in 1893–94: the murder trial of Lizzie Borden, a perform- ance of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and a college foot- ball game in which several players died. I was fascinated as the speaker demonstrated how these events revealed striking com- monalities with respect to concerns about violence during the “Gay Nineties.” From that moment on, I was committed to find- ing connections through interdisciplinary approaches.

O’Brien—My doctorate is in German literature, but I was an early convert to German studies, an interdisciplinary field like American studies. We start with textual analysis—the text is im- portant for structuring our knowledge—but when you place a text in a wider environment, you often find other factors play- ing a role as well. In studying home-grown terrorism, for in- stance, I can look at history and politics, but I can also see what film studies has to say about the role of emotions in terrorists’ longing for a higher purpose or an ecstatic group experience. I like finding the various strings that can really pull the discourse together more comprehensively.



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