By Guest Blogger and Three Degrees Graduate Student Fellow, Jesse Burns. Jesse is currently examining the individual, team, and organizational learning challenges inherent in public-private partnerships as a part-time MPA candidate at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.
The Three Degrees Climate Justice Seminar focuses upon connecting students from across disciplines to build their disciplinary “toolkits”. While this approach to learning resonates with the core values of Three Degrees, we wanted to take a closer look to better understand the barriers and opportunities for creating a multidisciplinary seminar at a rigorous research institution.
And there are no other students better suited than the participants of this year’s Climate Justice Seminar to share their perspectives, interests, perceptions, barriers, and desires for multidisciplinary graduate learning opportunities. Over the course of a month, we asked the seminar students to share their thoughts in focus groups and interviews about:
1. Their interest in taking a multidisciplinary class at the UW School of Law;
2. unmet needs in their current graduate (or senior level) studies;
3. desires for learning from the seminar; and
4. the influence of law as a touchstone for the seminar.
A few consistent and clear themes arose out of this inquiry.
1st—The multidisciplinary aspect of the class interested all the students.
All the students commented to some degree about the need to learn via multidisciplinary methods as a way to contextualize their knowledge, learn from colleagues on campus with whom they’ve never interacted, and practice addressing problems as they occur in the world outside the silo of academia. Students felt they had a great depth of knowledge within their disciplinary area of focus, yet they were simultaneously seeking opportunities while in graduate school to complement their focused learning by integrating their knowledge with other viewpoints.
2nd—Framing problems in a different manner was important to most students.
Most students said that they wanted to understand an issue from different disciplinary “lenses”. Additionally, students wanted to use new insights to redefine the problems and the solutions.
3rd—Developing more effective communication skills is critical working in diverse groups.
Furthermore, most students said they wanted to translate a deeper understanding of complex global issues into how they approached their professional work. By working with a wide variety of perspectives, students thought that by joining the Climate Justice Seminar, they would both deepen their understanding of complex issuesas well as enhance their ability to communicate about topics outside the core of their current studies. For example, students spoke about their desire to practice integrating science with humanities as way to communicate scientific information in more meaningful ways.
4th—Students’ individual backgrounds and home departments seemed to have little influence upon their comments.
Whether the students came from a background in science, humanities, professional degrees, or research programs, the above perspectives were widely shared.
An important goal for Three Degrees—given that our home is at the University of Washington School of Law—is to provide the space and opportunity for current and future law students to fulfill their learning and development desires while in law school. Narrowed disciplines, rigorous course requirements, and limited opportunities to collaborate can leave law students thinking narrowly about real-world problem solving and can lead to narrowed perceptions about possibilities for making change after graduation.
Although no small task, Three Degrees engages law and other graduate and professional students in the practice of real-world, complex-problem solving on one of the most important issues of our time. Climate justice is a young, novel, and expanding area in which graduate students who are well-schooled in multidisciplinary learning can make an impressionable impact in the field—both as students and hopefully as young professionals as well.
There are many barriers to achieving quality multidisciplinary work (quality is the operative word here), including physical barriers, institutional barriers, and less obvious epistemological barriers about what types of information and knowledge are valuable. As the Climate Justice Seminar and Three Degrees continue learning, we’ll be sharing our experiences, successes, and challenges to help further the emerging field of climate justice education.
Based upon your own experiences, what do you think are the most important things to consider for emerging professionals and leaders who want to be engaged in multidisciplinary work, whether for climate justice or any other pressing global problem?