By Angela María Aristizábal
Here´s a case that might sound familiar to many of you: Louise, a young bright student, enthusiastically starts an undergraduate program and rapidly becomes interested in pursuing research. How would she be able to do this at your university? In Universidad de los Andes the options, are, unfortunately, not that clear. Here, Louise has some cool but limited options: she might embark on dual degree (spending more time and money than she and her parents originally intended), or she could sacrifice some spare time and join a research group that might demand even more time and effort. That keen student would sadly find her interest stifled by a system that requires an investment that is unrealistic unless she counts with a large supply of money or time (or both!).
We are used to seeing that our universities are proud of promoting interdisciplinarity and research. All of our institutions will surely sell this idea in their web pages and orientation talks. It is only by entering our programs and assimilating into our classes that we realize that research and interdisciplinarity run parallel and not diagonal in our undergraduate programs. Maybe, just like Louise, we have infinite opportunities for researching with the best teachers and investigators through research groups. Perhaps, if our universities are flexible enough, we’ll have the opportunity to take classes that are outside our curriculum and share space with students from other faculties. Some universities offer minors and dual degrees that allow us to learn how other disciplines can strengthen ours. The problem is that these opportunities involve extra time and extra work from us. Getting involved in a research group or complementing our studies with content from other degrees is an optional choice that we make by realizing at the same time that we will have to sacrifice something from our own main program.
The problem with this is that research and interdisciplinarity should not be a privilege exclusively for good students that know how to manage their time in spite of the – sometimes excessive – academic load that main programs already imply. Research should not be owned by students like Louise that got extra time or extra interest in a specific subject. Interdisciplinarity shouldn’t depend on students´ economic capacity for staying additional semesters in the university and paying extra fees. Research and interdisciplinarity should be a necessary component of undergraduate programs.
While there is no silver bullet to solve this issue, I want to share some experiences that have taken place in my university because I consider them important steps towards strengthening research and interdisciplinarity in undergraduate programs. There is still a long way to go but these experiences show that universities can minimize the cost for students by implementing new ways of learning.
The first effort that Los Andes has made has been to redefine and flexibilize the meaning of research. Academic institutions in Colombia are used to understanding research necessarily as a process that has to conclude in an academic paper published in an indexed journal. Research is mostly seen as the process of answering questions, but that is not the complete picture. Perhaps research involves answering questions, but research is not only about answering questions. That description forgets that research is also about formulating questions and creating new methods that can lead to an answer. In fact, sometimes the result of research can be itself a creation. Our way of understanding research constantly ignores artistic and creative disciplines that do not rely on academic papers. But mostly, it ignores that all the other disciplines (the ones that we do not see as artistic or creative) are also creative and inventive. Our understanding of research reduces most disciplines to a limited ‘high-impact-published-paper world’ when the best researchers could also be creating products with direct impact for our communities. Taking into account that creation (of a book, a musical piece, an artwork, a communication technique or even a building or a bridge) is also a possible final product of research, Universidad de los Andes has changed the discussion of research to a discussion of “research and creation”. This simple change in language has helped us gain a flexible understanding of research by valuing new ways of producing knowledge. This vision also strengthens interdisciplinarity, because it widens what we understand as products of research in all disciplines, removing the borders and prejudices that exist about the quality of materials that different disciplines produce.
Another effort that has taken place in our university to promote both research and interdisciplinarity for students like Louise was the student initiative for creating the figure of “Course Credits for Research and Creation”. This allows a student from any faculty to formulate a research or creation project with other students (preferably from other disciplines) and permits him/her to validate that project as a course credit from the main undergraduate program. In that way, students across disciplines come together to investigate a specific topic, seeing how different disciplines can bring new and creative approaches to the same question. By validating those credits, research and interdisciplinarity stops depending on Louise´s extra time and extra money. Thanks to this, research and interdisciplinarity are becoming less parallel and more diagonal to undergraduate programs.
These efforts might as well be drops in the ocean if they are not adequately complemented with more creative ideas towards implementing research and interdisciplinarity in our core studies. One of the main obstacles is that we do not see research or interdisciplinarity as a way of learning. Research is mostly seen as the result of knowledge, and that explains why only postgraduate (and not undergraduate) students are considered suitable for research. Interdisciplinarity, for its part, is an extra bonus for a graduate but not a requirement. Nonetheless, it is only through interdisciplinarity that students learn how to face real life problems, taking into account that those problems graduates face in their working lives are rarely career-specific. The second obstacle is that we do not see the relation between interdisciplinarity and research, so our research groups rarely involve students from different faculties. Since research is still seen as only an answer to a question, possible alternative answers (that could come from students from different programs) are not as valued as we would like. Seeing research as a process of formulating questions and creating alternative products can promote interdisciplinarity, because if the results of research are seen as limitless, the resources and people needed for investigating will require diversity and creativity from different fields of knowledge.
About the Author
From Colombia, a Psychology student (with two minors in law and art history) in Los Andes University. Interested in education.