Harvard College promises its undergraduates a liberal arts education. Students are expected to leave campus after four years with a broad understanding of the social sciences, the natural sciences, and the humanities. This mission is, of course, what drives the Program in General Education. But what of students who are interested in studies that fall between the demarcation of disciplines? Can a siloed style of academics still prepare students effectively for entering a modern workforce?
Within Harvard’s online course catalog, undergraduate departmental classes are categorized under four distinct headings: Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, Sciences, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The widespread ingrained sense of division between the arts and sciences traces back to popular ideas about brain lateralization: The left hemisphere processes logical information, and the right hemisphere, creative. Undergraduates searching for courses can seem to be in a similar world of intellectual hemispheres, and the College may have room to grow in cultivating more opportunities for academic overlap between the arts and sciences.
David A. Edwards, a professor of the practice of biomedical engineering, sees an inherent intellectual link between the arts and sciences. “When it comes to doing traditional science, we rely on certainty of conditions and constraints so we can solve problems and produce results, whereas famously art flourishes in ambiguity and uncertainty,” Edwards says. “It turns out that when it comes to science, going to frontiers and exploring and discovering, there are no constraints, and the role of ambiguity and uncertainty is critical. Frontiers are places where ambiguity and uncertainty flourish.”
Andrew P. Warren, an associate professor in Harvard’s English Department, agrees with this view of the disciplines naturally intersecting. And he’s found a history in the notion: “There’s a big book called the ‘Age of Wonder’ by Richard Holmes, which is about how the Romantic poets were reading a lot of science, thinking about science, and were actually deeply interested— in changing the way in which science was done.”
'Frontiers are places where ambiguity and uncertainty flourish,' says David A. Edwards
But something is inherently contemporary about an academic melding of the disciplines, Warren acknowledges. “People in English are actually studying science more than they used to, meaning professors [and] graduate students are writing about the relationship between science and literature. I study Romantic literature, and that has often been seen as an era that has been anti-science. In the last 10 years, science has been one of the biggest approaches to that sort of literature,” he says.
Edwards also notes the relatively recent change in academic mindsets and sees it as reflecting broader societal shifts. “We are today in an era where we’re kind of all living in the frontier, because of sustainability issues relating to both to the environment and to new levels of human interaction. There’s all sorts of newness everyone is waking up to, that breeds some angst, but for those who thrive in an frontier, it’s an amazing moment, where everyone’s invited to discover,” he says.
Harvard University—with a $35.7 billion endowment—does not lack capital for academic discourse. Naturally, many have been able to mine the resources on campus to pursue interdisciplinary approaches to the arts and sciences. Robin Kelsey, dean of arts and humanities at Harvard, expresses the University’s openness to experimentation. “I think we’re at an exciting moment when it comes to crossing these boundaries and bringing the arts and sciences together,” he says. “I think now is the moment to bake these initiatives and these aims into the curriculum and structure of Harvard more deeply.”
'Beauty, health, and science are all linked together,' says Rebecca A. Greenberg '18
Inactive Crimson arts writer Rebecca A. Greenberg ’18 founded Ecdysis, a magazine showcasing different forms of art that celebrate a scientific concept, last year. She was largely inspired by her organismic and evolutionary biology 10 class with professor Brian D. Farrell, who now serves as the magazine’s academic adviser: “It’s already been known that there are health benefits to going outside, like for prison inmates or elderly. But professor Farrell is actually proposing that knowing more of the biology behind the nature you are seeing helps make you more familiar with where you are and gives you more appreciation of where you are— an aesthetic appreciation. So in that way, beauty, health, and science are all linked together,” she says.
When she began advertising for submissions to the magazine on campus, she had been expecting about 40 pieces for the first issue—and received 84 submissions. The works in the most recent issue of Ecdysis are a collection of artistic depictions of scientific concepts, in the form of photos, drawings, or literary work meant to be thought-provoking or aesthetically pleasing. “It’s not really even creating, it’s more like bringing awareness to what’s already there. So for example, this is a cicada [on the cover of the most recent Ecdysis issue]… a very realist drawing of a cicada that Dennis, one of my classmates [Dennis Zhang ’18], made, but the idea is that it’s also beautiful in that you can break down every analytical point, and in that way it’s also scientific. So the art and the science—you can’t really separate one from the other,” Greenberg says.
In the realm of academics, students have also been able to find ways to blend the disciplines. Yi Jean Chow ’13, for example, a joint concentrator in English and chemistry and physics, wrote her thesis on the role of science in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” “The major component was to try and make the case of reading Ulysses as we would read perhaps a scientific textbook, insofar as scientific textbooks are not meant to be read linearly; they have puzzles or questions; they’re not the traditional literature in the way we would think of literature. But in a way, neither is Ulysses or any of the modernist works of literature at the time,” Chow says.
Her novel approach to her studies did not go unnoticed—her thesis was awarded a Hoopes Prize—and she was happy with her decision to go down a new path. ”Something that really strikes me is this sort of education where you are doing different things and you are picking up things from different majors and mixing and matching things. I think it really is a new way of learning, and it is the future model for how to educate college students,” she says.
Hana Bajramovic ’13 was also awarded a Hoopes Prize the same year for her thesis on the cognitive effects of unreliable narrators on readers. She was similarly pleased that she was able to bridge certain fields of science and arts in doing so. “Any time you take two things that are not meant to be combined and find an interesting and creative way to link them, you’re developing a skill that’s more broadly applicable. The ability to bridge gaps between disciplines is a creative and mental exercise that has much broader applicability outside of writing a thesis,” Bajramovic says.
Another student who found opportunity to blend the arts and sciences beyond his time at Harvard is Benjamin Lopez Barba ’15. He was one of the first people to go through the architectural studies track of the history of art and architecture concentration and now works as a video game designer at Rockstar San Diego, a video game development studio. “To get your foot in the door, those hard skills like knowing how to code and program are really essential; those are like the bare minimum. Then once you have those skills set, anything you can bring to the table—which would be my design background—helps you stand out,” Lopez Barba says. “I think it’s definitely about balancing your desire to pursue more creative aspects of a given medium with concrete hard skills that you can show to your employer and prove to him that you can get the work done.”
'The ability to bridge gaps between disciplines is a creative and mental exercise,' says Hana Bajramovic '13
In fact, the skills gained from interdisciplinary studies have real-world benefits that go far beyond the classroom. “I think that Harvard has always been providing students the most relevant and timely information they needed to enter the workforce, but in an age where information is a commodity, we need to be training individuals for a jobless future—one where you create your own job,” Edwards says. Harvard, he adds, is not quite yet serving as the ideal environment for crossing disciplines. “But the rapidity of change at a University with such a long tradition makes it hard to react in the same moment,” he says.
Kelsey acknowledges the academic ramifications of Harvard’s legacy. “I think it is true that these changes are hard to make because of how deeply rooted the disciplines are here, but at the same time, the best interdisciplinary work draws upon a deep understanding of individual disciplines,” he says. “So although it may be harder here, I think our ceiling is higher.”
In November 2007, University President Drew Faust initiated a Harvard-wide Task Force on the Arts, which eventually issued a report that stated: “To allow innovation and imagination to thrive on our campus, to educate and empower creative minds across all disciplines, to help shape the twenty-first century, Harvard must make the arts an integral part of the cognitive life of the university.” The task force said that physical spaces, structural elements, and undergraduate curriculum all merited improvement. But the task force released its report at the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, and in light of budget constraints, recommendations have been slow to reach actualization.
For example, the Theater, Dance, and Media concentration did not receive the necessary funding and curriculum restructuring to come into being until fall 2015. “At a place like Harvard, everyone engages in the arts, but it’s more along the line of arts appreciation, more along the line of hobbies, less a discipline one studies seriously and writes about academically. Harvard has this setup—which we have only just started to break away from with TDM—where the arts are extracurricular,” says Bess Paupeck, the program manager of Arts @ 29 Garden, Harvard’s initiative that provides academic and extracurricular endeavors the space and resources for further integration of artistic components.
A small number of classes that academically engage with both the arts and sciences in a reasonably equal way are actually offered to Harvard undergrads. Some courses, like Computer Science 50, allow students to bring in some artistic flavoring for a final project. But the sense of a real academic union between the two disciplines is still nascent. “To me, the danger is the suggestion that the arts are just there to support and enhance the sciences, and not the other way around,” Paupeck says.
Michael C. Kennedy-Yoon ’17 is a pre-medical student but is concentrating in visual and environmental studies. He’s enjoyed the intellectual advantages of an appreciation for uncertainty—common in visual arts—that strengthens him against the potential for being paralyzed by the unknown, a pitfall for many science students. “But in terms of actual academic intersections, for me, there have been basically none,” he says. “I would have loved classes like that.”
College spokesperson Rachael Dane noted in an email that the Program in General Education offers a number of interdisciplinary courses that fall outside the divisions of Harvard’s online course catalog. On the whole, however, it seems that Harvard would encourage students to take interdisciplinary work into their own hands when it comes to blending arts and sciences. “A student interested in integrating two areas of study may apply to pursue a joint concentration. Students may even choose to design their own customized field of study—and their advisers can help them craft a plan that best accords with their personal academic goals,” Dane wrote.
In contrast, some other universities have already started to implement this kind of curricular blending into their formal academic structures. Carnegie Mellon University is one of a few schools that has started to offer interdisciplinary undergraduate degrees, such as a Bachelor of Design. The University of Utah, similarly, has an Entertainment, Arts, and Engineering graduate program—one of the top in the country—through which it also offers undergraduate emphasis tracks. The Entertainment, Arts, and Engineering program started in 2006 and allows computer science or film majors the opportunity to choose an academic path that focuses on aspects of the digital entertainment industry.
Dr. Roger A. Altizer Jr., co-founder and associate director of the program, is a strong supporter of bringing interdisciplinary style learning to higher education. “I think the key to success for the combination of the sciences and the arts on a campus is taking interdisciplinary seriously, as its own discipline,” he says. “This is not what universities were designed to do. Universities were designed to be very siloed—to go very deep in particular forms of knowledge.”
'But in terms of actual academic intersections [between the arts and sciences], for me, there have been basically none,' says Michael C. Kennedy-Yoon '17
“If you don’t have a banner to march under, the bureaucracies will destroy any interdisciplinary effort. Just the sheer overhead of managing budgets between departments, or who gives credit for students or what conferences papers should be submitted to or even what counts as a project, becomes extraordinarily difficult for students and junior faculty on a campus,” he says.
At Columbia University, administrators are in the process of creating an interdisciplinary program called the Collaboratory. “Generally speaking there is a data science silo and other parts of our lives, other disciplines, business, history humanities, biology, science, those tend to be separate, so if one were to decide to use the tools of data science, for example, in a history context… the historian would have to work with a technical expert who is educated in data science. What would happen if you taught data science and computational science in the context of history?” asks Christopher N. McGarry, the director for Entrepreneurship at Columbia’s Office of Alumni and Development. The Collaboratory addresses this by having classes taught by experts from two different fields. “You need a program like the Collaboratory to give permission for interdisciplinary combination… to shake things up a bit and encourage more interdisciplinary curricular development,” McGarry says.
Stanford, like Harvard, launched a university-wide Arts Initiative (though in 2006), pushing for new faculty positions and graduate fellowships, three new buildings, and new programs for Stanford students. “A major priority has been supporting interdisciplinary approaches in the arts, including intersections with the sciences,” says Matthew Tiews, Stanford's associate dean for the advancement of the arts. “A few examples: the ongoing artsCatalyst grant fosters interdisciplinary arts experiences in the classroom, the Senior Reflection is a capstone courses series for students in Biology pursuing creative projects, and the new interdisciplinary honors program in the arts is open to students of any major.”
On the whole, undergraduate-level studies at Harvard are more compartmentalized by department when compared to graduate school counterparts. One answer to this problem may be rooted in intra-university interactions.
“The engineering school and the architecture school, they could totally be buddy-buddy. Then, in that way, architecture would blend more into the engineering undergrad. And we don’t have enough graduate-undergraduate collaboration. How valuable would that be, in terms of thinking and engineering? Across-university integration would be a place to start. I can imagine all kinds of things, like the dance department and physics department. Things like this are happening down the street and across the river. They’re just not happening here as directly as other places,” Paupeck says.
This is certainly a possibility as the school of engineering and applied sciences expands to a new campus at Allston. “[The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences] views the school’s expansion to new facilities at Allston as a magnificent opportunity to do this in a much more proactive way. A lot of the kinds of things one might imagine require space and that’s something we simply don’t have today,” says Paul C. Karoff, the assistant dean for communications at SEAS. While it will be some time before the Allston campus is completed, the attitude at SEAS is hopeful for those wishing to combine engineering or applied sciences with the arts. “There is a lot of open-mindedness, interest, and enthusiasm on the part of the dean and faculty at SEAS to explore opportunities to bring together the aesthetic and artistic with the technical and scientific realms,” Karoff says.
Lopez Barba seemed to see the limits of traditional undergraduate-style education during his time at Harvard: “The Graduate School of Design had some courses that were not offered at the undergraduate level… When you’re in between fields, as I ended up being at the end of my four years, it’s hard to find someone who specializes in those in-between areas.”
Altizer provides an explanation for possible shortages of guidance in the interdisciplinary spaces. “The systems of a university are designed to reward you for disciplinary behavior. If you are a new faculty member, if you don’t show disciplinary confidence or publishing in particular journals or going to specific conferences, you won’t get tenure in your discipline. With tenure it’s really easy to be interdisciplinary, but when you’re new to the university, you really have to step the way they tell you to step,” he says.
Will Harvard ever be able to bridge that gap? Edwards sees a good start on Harvard’s campus in the realm of making. “Harvard has come a long way since I came here in 2001,” Edwards says. “For one thing there are a lot more ‘making’ classes, in film, Science of Cooking, etc. And that’s really a new area.”
One of the best opportunities for interdisciplinary ‘making’ at Harvard right now may lie in the dance program. Jill Johnson, dance director at Harvard’s Office for the Arts and a senior lecturer in TDM, says that her work engages substantially with the sciences. The research and creation of new dance pieces for performance on campus have used, for example, the study of ether during the Civil War, the pendulum wave effect, and the physics theory of beat behavior. “All kinds of dance companies are endeavoring to create multidisciplinary works. And that’s really reflected in the culture, not just the arts, just because the arts are now so interdisciplinary,” she says.
Johnson also references a yearly collaboration she engages in with Harvard Graduate School of Education’s professor, Gigi Luk. The two work together to teach a gross motor skills and cognition workshop as part of the Education School’s course H-112: Cognitive Neuroscience and Education.
Altizer, interestingly, also cites dance as a source for artistic influence in a scientific endeavor. “I’m working with a professor of dance and psychologists and game developers to create a virtual reality experience to help children with autism learn to self-soothe. The idea is teaching them choreographic thinking using virtual reality, bringing order to chaos,” he says.
Students at Harvard themselves have taken advantage of the robust dance department and movement resources at Harvard. Physics concentrator Mariel Pettee ’14 received high honors for her work on her thesis—an interdisciplinary dance installation on the Higgs boson performed on five floors at Farkas Hall.
“Part of this is creating the conditions for this kind of collaboration to happen, and literally I think for us that means spaces that provide different levels of advancing that,” Johnson says. “I see it across everything from courses to extracurricular to even just discussions. So I have no reason to believe that that won’t continue to flourish.”
Kelsey echoes her sentiments. “I also see this developing with respect to spaces devoted to making activity. There are a lot of students and postdocs and faculty members who have a newly keen interest in ‘making’ activity, and those activities, to date, have been too siloed,” he says. “My hope is that the institution will begin to develop spaces where students and faculty across these boundaries can come together and learn from one another. I believe that people are envisioning these kinds of spaces and that this goal has the backing of the administration, at every level.”
—Staff writer Rebecca H. Dolan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Marianne T. Aguilar can be reached at email@example.com