February 2016 Features

President’s Column

Cassidy_webDear Friends:

If you asked a friend or colleague to name the advantages of a small residential liberal arts college, they would likely talk about small classes, close faculty-student relationships, a strong sense of community, and, at a place like Bryn Mawr, the opportunity for students to do research independently or with a professor. I suspect that their list would rarely include rich opportunities for multidisciplinary collaboration and learning, or bringing varied specialties within a discipline to developing and pursuing research. Multi- and interdisciplinary pursuits are usually assumed to be distinctive advantages of a large research university. But as several experiences this fall have reminded me, great, small liberal arts colleges such as Bryn Mawr in fact offer exceptional and unexpected opportunities to faculty and students to explore new questions and to build new knowledge across fields of study.

Our graduate students, for example, necessarily draw on faculty from outside their immediate field of specialization to form their dissertation committees. In developing their research, they thus benefit from questions and perspectives from multiple sub-disciplines in their field. I currently sit on a dissertation committee in which I (a developmental psychologist), a social psychologist, a clinical psychologist, and a cognitive psychologist join together in advising an investigation of positive biases in the cognitive processes of older adults. At a larger research university, it would be rare for these four fields to be represented on a single dissertation committee. But the scholarly diversity of this Bryn Mawr student’s committee has contributed to an excellent and distinctive research project and has in turn pushed each faculty member on the committee to explore and challenge their own research framework.

Faculty at a small college such as Bryn Mawr necessarily meet and work with colleagues in very different departments and in the process can form partnerships that advance their research and create new curricular opportunities for students. One of the most fruitful of such collaborations at Bryn Mawr has formed between Peter Magee, an archaeologist who studies prehistoric settlements on the Arabian Peninsula, and Don Barber, a geologist whose work focuses on the transport and depositional patterns of sediments in coastal and deep marine environments. The issues, techniques, and tools of their work could not be more different. But what Peter and Don have in common are sand and mud. The geologist provides the archeologist with access to geochemical expertise, and the archaeologist offers the marine geologist opportunities to do research in the desert. Together, and with support from other faculty colleagues, Don and Peter have also gone on to create a concentration in geoarchaeology that helps students develop important tools for interdisciplinary study.

Bringing together different disciplinary perspectives on a common topic or shared question is the hallmark of Bryn Mawr’s 360° Program, now in its fifth year. In a “360,” students take multiple courses that offer different ways of engaging an issue. This fall, a 360° cluster titled “Climate Change: Science and Politics” included courses titled Science, Technology and the Good Life (Philosophy); Global Politics of Climate Change (Political Science); and Energy Resources and Sustainability (Environmental Studies). During fieldwork they pursued in Freiburg, Germany (a community in which grassroots movements have led to new sustainable practices and policies), students had the opportunity to think about how different forms of framing and analyzing problems—ethical, political, and scientific—can and perhaps must contribute to systemic changes in environmental practice.

In a moment that became a standing joke of the trip, students also witnessed how our disciplines teach us to see different things: on the steps of a large baroque church, the geologist interrupted the philosopher (who was providing a history of the church) to point out (repeatedly) that the lichen growing on the stone structure would provide an alternative form of dating. It proved to be a quintessential and laughter-filled moment for the students to witness the power and limits of disciplinary knowledge, and for both faculty and students to embrace what they could learn from one another.

Considering a small college can raise legitimate concerns for students and faculty about fewer choices or the lack of immediate intellectual “neighbors.” But our size forces us to reach outside of our most comfortable intellectual zones and creates a community that supports bringing together varying approaches to framing and solving problems. The results can be surprising (or funny) and are almost always productive.


Kim Cassidy