Book Review: Hughes, Patrick C., Juan S. Muñoz, and Marcus N. Tanner, eds. Perspectives in Interdisciplinary and Integrative Studies. Lubbock: Texas Tech UP, 2015. 248 pp. Paperback ISBN 978-0-89672-937-7.

Abstraction and Its Discontents: A Review

By Peter W. Wakefield

Aspirations notwithstanding, this anthology of theory and practice is not going to sell my college dean on the necessity of interdisciplinary or integrative studies. Not to say that this collection doesn’t contain a few gems, mostly in the form of specific pedagogical or programmatic innovations (and an exceptional chapter on the philosophy of Mary Parker Follett). But, by including interesting reports from interdisciplinary efforts at places as diverse as Champlain College or Marylhurst University, this book as a whole inadvertently reflects a schism between practitioners of interdisciplinary studies across the U.S. who respond to specific student needs, and a familiar group of scholars who have been working for many years to theorize interdisciplinarity as a discipline, especially within the auspices of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS).

Complicating matters further, the authors in this collection (oddly, named only at chapter breaks) are not primarily reflecting on interdisciplinarity. Rather, the debate is about how to distinguish integrative studies from interdisciplinarity. The task requires a working definition of “integrative studies,” but it’s more the range of definitions that’s interesting.

In his chapter, Michael Yeo notes that, whereas interdisciplinarity is oriented toward research and knowledge production, “[i]ntegrative learning, in contrast, is fundamentally about education only … unlike interdisciplinarity, integrative learning has only a teaching or academic programming arm” (49). Yeo sees integration, in one sense, as a (not quite Hegelian) relationship among disciplines that should be used (presumably in teaching and programming) to articulate the cohesiveness of the course of study offered to students. For Yeo, students should graduate knowing how the whole of their college or university fits together.

On the other hand, Yeo also acknowledges a sense of “integration,” used by others in this volume, that focuses on application of knowledge to life beyond the classroom. Marcus Tanner and Charlie Adams put it this way, in “Programming for Integrative Learning”: “Original thought is a cornerstone of business, and integrative learning is an effective means of teaching undergraduate students how to apply their knowledge and skills to their personal lives, education, and careers” (79). Tanner and Adams cite an example of a student who worked as a barista and who demonstrated integration when she set out to “identify an interdisciplinary workplace problem, research it, and provide potential solutions to the employer” (92). The measure of success was the student’s promotion after graduation—quite a different matter than the intellectual integration promoted by Yeo.

A short essay by Julie Thompson Klein begins this collection. Klein, a former AIS president, has written many influential books that establish a theoretical field and structure for interdisciplinarity. But Klein’s essay here also illustrates a tendency toward abstraction. After a short, useful history of interdisciplinarity, Klein weighs in on its distinction from integrative studies: “If synthesis is a defining keyword of the interdisciplinary studies conception of integration, connection making is the keyword of integrative studies” (6). To the general confusion between interdisciplinarity and integrative studies, Klein responds geometrically:

Together the two movements examined in this chapter underscore the need for a new quadrangulation of disciplinary depth, multidisciplinary breadth, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary integration, and interprofessional cooperation. Integrative thinking is needed at all points of the quadrangle. (10)

I fear that this is where the eyes of my college dean and colleagues in other departments glaze over.

A more successful and capacious theoretical analysis is offered by James L. Welch, IV, a current AIS board member. Welch ties his discussion of integration to both neurological features of the brain and theories of student learning, generating three principles regarding integration: “1. Integrative nature of mind. 2. Integrative learning engages metacognition. 3. Integrative learning is holistic” (17). Making students aware of the mind’s intrinsic (and neurological) pattern-making functions (principle 1), as well as their own pattern-making habits, argues Welch, develops metacognitive skills (principle 2). In other words, students learn about their own patterns and capacities for learning, and so become more active in their own educational experiences. Explaining his third principle, about holism, Welch draws on theories of complex systems, of which the mind is one. Lingering with ambiguity, drawing on creativity, and aware of their own responsibility for learning, students who have been properly exposed to integrative studies, Welch suggests, move toward wisdom:

Integrative learning is an approach to life, which offers its practitioners the promise of mastering their own consciousness and the ability to productively understand the world in all its dynamic complexity. In order to place such goals in context, the ancient concept of wisdom is worth revisiting here. (35)

Welch’s theory implies useful extensions into classroom practice, for example by linking pedagogy to neurological evidence. But, “wisdom” is too airy a term to convey much to a broad audience about the concrete engagements and research interests of students in interdisciplinary or integrative experiences.

From abstract theory of integration to concrete practice, this volume, in the latter category, benefits from the collaboration of Simeon Dreyfuss and Jennifer Sasser, both of Marylhurst University. Dreyfuss has long been a critic of abstract theories of interdisciplinarity (Dreyfuss, 2011), such as Allen Repko’s (2008). Among their other pedagogical experiments with adult students, Sasser and Dreyfuss here tease out the topics and insights gained when they met their “Embodiment in Later Life” class in a nursing home, because one of their elderly students broke a hip and was unable to come to the campus.

A real treat is the clever approach to integrative studies taken by Judy P. Whipps (“Mary Parker Follett: Creativity, Power, and Diversity in the Integrative Process”), who uses a biographical study of Follett, a Boston community activist and theorist, to articulate insights into integrative studies:

Follett’s theory of integration begins with her understanding of what it means to be human. She sees the individual as ontologically integrated with community. As she says, “The group and the individual come into existence simultaneously” (121—citing Follett, 1918, 127).

From such an intriguing approach to individuals and their learning, and from unwonted posts in state government and business, Follett articulated the value of creativity, and analyzed the role of power in reaching integrative understanding.

Reflecting on my own work with interdisciplinary undergraduate majors, I might extend Follett’s principle: it’s not just groups and individuals who come into existence together, it is also theories of interdisciplinarity that evolve dynamically—an idea that some of the essays in this volume confirm, but not all.

Works Cited


Dreyfuss, S. 2011. “Something Essential About Interdisciplinary Thinking.” Issues in Integrative Studies (29): 67-83.

Repko, A. 2008. Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory. Thousand Oaks: Sage.