As a media artist and educator, I am a great advocate for interdisciplinary and cross-departmental projects. My creative work spans multiple modes of address (fiction, documentary, avant-garde) and media (film and video, web, interactive multimedia, live theatre, photography and writing) as well as academic pursuits (film history, Irish studies, intercultural communication, to name but a few). I am a natural-born student, curious about nearly everything.
My great love for interdisciplinary work took root when I was graduate student at the University of Iowa. I staged several massive interdisciplinary projects with the Theatre Arts Department (including live, multimedia theatrical performances and experiments in theatrical and film acting), and with the American Studies program (multimedia research projects exploring Midwestern iconography on film and the politics of representation in documentary photography). At Monmouth College, where I taught before moving to Temple University, I arranged transdisciplinary projects with the Art Department, and at Temple I created projects for my production students with faculty in the Departments of Music, Theater, Journalism, and Medicine.
My interest in interdisciplinary study is well-known at the schools where I have worked. One of the reasons that I came to Portland State University was the opportunity to work in a school that housed programs in both film and theatre. For me, these are two naturally intersecting disciplines, and as a filmmaker I’ve always been an active collaborator with theatre artists. It has been rewarding to bring the theatre students (actors, lighting designers, costume designers, etc.) in to collaborate with my film students (directors, cinematographer, editors, etc.) at Portland State.
At Temple University I was invited to join the Provost’s Commission on the Arts as my department’s representative. In addition to promoting the arts on campus and in the city, its mission is to develop new interdisciplinary opportunities for students across the university. I also served as my department’s representative on a committee to establish a new interdisciplinary MFA in Dramatic Writing, which incorporated aspects of playwriting, screenwriting, essay-based and nonfiction writing. My passion for interdisciplinary work has also been influential to my endeavors as a board member of the Arts and the Quality of Life Research Center and my positions as the director of the Greenfield Youth Film Festival, one of the nation’s largest youth-based film education programs, and the Portland Music Video Festival, one of the only festivals in the world to focus on the art and craft of music video production.
Understandably, all of the institutions I’ve taught at limit the number of credit hours that students can take in their major. And every year, I see a number of students petition the department to take courses over the limit. Students have often complained, “I want to take this course next term, but I can’t because I am at my credit hour limit. It’s not fair – studying media production is why I’m here. If I wanted to study something else, I would have majored in something else. I don’t want all these electives.”
I don’t get it.
When I was a college student, I relished the opportunity to take elective courses, to experience things outside my core field of study, to meet scholars in other disciplines, to “broaden my horizons.” That’s why I went to a large Research institution and not a technical college or an arts college. I remember taking courses in world religions, photography, astronomy, debate, music, acting, and graphic design. I knew, going into college, that I wanted to do these things, and that’s why a large, respected liberal arts institution was the only viable option for me. An effective liberal arts curriculum is about opportunity and freedom. It facilitates the complementing of core studies with courses that will influence and even interact with those disciplines.
I attempt to instill this idea in students early, in my introductory-level courses. The first question I ask my production students is not, “What do you want to do in production?” but “What else do you like to do?” In other words, I know they have a passion for production and they will use their studies in part to figure out if they’d like to be directors, editors, artists, or writers, but they should also ask themselves what they are interested in outside of production. They should use college to explore their other interests and to discover new passions, and investigate how those passions might dovetail with their art and production work. Three recent examples of how these questions directed students in their careers beyond graduation: I had a student whose heart’s desire was to travel the world, and she landed a job in the on-board closed-circuit television station on a massive cruise ship; another student who was very into her religion took a position in the AV office of one of those cavernous mega-churches in Texas; and another student who seemed to eat, sleep and breathe sports now produces packages for ESPN.
In the international programs that I have directed, my courses have been built upon the understanding of intercultural communication and competence through interdisciplinary work. We live in a global community, as modern media and information technology have made the world very small. The value of a multifaceted, interdisciplinary educational background has never been more important. The students who understand this early in their college careers will graduate with an edge in today’s evolving and increasingly competitive job markets.
In fact, I firmly believe that interdisciplinary study is the key to effective intercultural education. As new technologies have expanded and complicated the lines of communication between nations, an understanding of a new global language has become a necessary part of any student’s course of study. And the key to that dialogue lies in the ability to understand multiple disciplinary perspectives, to effectively process and combine different schools of thought. The challenges of the modern world, crossing numerous cultures and technologies as they do, will require interdisciplinary problem-solving techniques. This development of the ability to think laterally, to comprehend how various disciplines can interact, will mold students into effective global citizens and communicators.
Interdisciplinary inquiry is, for me, the best approach to creating, to teaching, and to learning about the world and our place in it.