Exploring the connections

A new NEH grant supports Mount Holyoke in expanding its interdisciplinary courses in unusual and exciting ways for both students and faculty.

By Jo Ellen Warner 

Julia Kellerbauer ’18 is one of countless students at Mount Holyoke College to have taken part in the College’s interdisciplinary learning initiatives, which meld seemingly disparate fields to illuminate the connections between them. 

In Kellerbauer’s case, she took a class this winter called Global-Local Inequalities: Social Understanding Change for Sustainable Communities, a course organized by the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives

The course was team-taught by faculty from environmental studies, entrepreneurship, economics, architectural studies, history and politics. Students grappled with the growing inequalities at the global and local level, analyzing how institutions, policies and the distribution of power shape access to resources and opportunities. 

The course culminated in the McCulloch Center’s biannual Global Challenges Conference. This year the theme was strategies for social change, and featured several alumnae as speakers.

The experience had a significant and inspiring impact on her, said Kellerbauer, who an international relations and economics double major, is preparing for a career in peace, development and security. 

“I realized that large-scale change can even come from local initiatives, from the ground up, by individuals like you and me,” she said. “It’s not only through traditional vehicles like the United Nations or the World Bank.” 

Shining light from many angles 

Mount Holyoke College’s recent grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities supports these efforts by incorporating a humanities perspective. Now in its first year, the pilot program links four courses that examine the historical context of inequality in different disciplinary contexts. 

The results of connecting courses are exciting, said Jon Western, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. 

“When faculty and students explore connections between fields of knowledge, the classroom ignites,” Western said, noting that the diversity of Mount Holyoke’s student body serves to enhance the experience. Twenty-seven percent of students hold citizenship from countries other than the United States and 26 percent are domestic students of color, providing perspectives that shine numerous lights from a variety of angles on a broad range of subjects. 

In a recent example, professors Kavita Khory and Nieves Romero-Díaz guided their students along a rich multimedia and bilingual journey to explore critical connections between national identity, integration and citizenship. 

Khory, the chair of politics and international relations, and Romero-Díaz, the chair of Spanish, Latina/o, and Latin American studies, linked their courses — International Migration, taught by Khory in English, and Spain and Islam, taught by Romero-Díaz in Spanish. The classes came together to view and discuss “Poniente,” a Spanish language film with English subtitles about intergenerational and cultural conflicts in a small Andalusian town, marked by violent attacks on migrant workers from North Africa. 

The film’s representation of ethnic and racial intolerance in Europe exposed students in the Spanish class to the forces of discrimination, displacement and economic inequality driving contemporary labor migrations across Europe, the West and the world at large. 

In turn, the students in the politics class learned about the film’s cultural subtleties and nuances, which the subtitles failed to convey. The bilingual discussions enabled them to read between the lines. 

The result was powerful, said Margaret Murdock ’18, who participated in the class. 

“Combining the study of political conflicts and history with students who could speak to the cultural significance made for a deeper multidimensional conversation,” she said. 

Expanding comfort zones 

Faculty at Mount Holyoke have long taught interdisciplinary courses, but now they are interconnecting their classes across a broad range of subject areas in new ways. Class combinations include human rights and media, computer science and studio art, and German studies and anthropology. 

“By fusing knowledge and insights from multiples disciplines, interdisciplinary studies foster a more inclusive means of examining complex issues,” said Western, who is also the Carol Hoffman ’63 Professor of International Relations. “When we explore the connections, all of us stretch beyond our intellectual comfort zones. And that’s when things get interesting.” 

Combining disciplines at Mount Holyoke takes a variety of forms. Sometimes, faculty connect two courses to discuss overlapping content. Sometimes they team-teach a course through an entire semester. Still others link multiple disciplines to create a campus community focused on a single problem, such as alleviating poverty through a kaleidoscope of environmental sustainability, education, gender equality and economics. 

An inclusive view 

One of the exciting interdisciplinary opportunities the College has offered explored the controversy over the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba in Spain, also taught in courses by Khory and Romero-Díaz. 

A contested symbol of Spain’s past and present, the spectacular building was once a mosque, the spiritual heart of Muslim Iberia, signifying peace and tolerance throughout Europe. After the Reconquista in the 13th century, however, the Roman Catholic Church converted the building. Renamed the Great Cathedral of Córdoba, Muslims could no longer worship there. Today the mosque-cathedral remains a culturally and politically disputed heritage site. 

“Our two classes unpacked the controversy together,” said Upasana Sharma ’18. “I ended up exploring the Córdoba issues further and wrote my final project on it.” 

In another example, Western and Rogelio Miñana, a former professor of Spanish, Latina/o, Latin American studies, linked Western’s International Human Rights Advocacy in Theory and Practice class with Miñana’s course, The Other in the Media: New Media and Otherness in the Americas. 

Students broke into small groups to examine the roles non-governmental organizations play in promoting social and political change by creating fictitious organizations and then launching complementary human rights campaigns. Each group built a bilingual website promoting its cause and created culturally attuned messages to compel diverse audiences to action. 

At the end of the semester, the groups presented their projects to two sets of experts. A technical group evaluated the websites and campaigns, and a panel of human rights scholars, and the content was reviewed by leaders that included a member of the U.S. Department of State and members of the College’s Board of Trustees. 

“An outstanding liberal arts education provides a multi-faceted understanding of the world and embraces new styles of learning,” said Western. “At Mount Holyoke, connecting disciplines in these kinds of ways prepares and empowers our students to think more imaginatively, insightfully and creatively. It helps prepare them to face the complex global and local challenges of the 21st century.”