Mountaintop projects at Lehigh University, College of Arts and Sciences

If you want to see what interdisciplinary looks like at Lehigh University, meet Kelpÿ. In Scottish mythology, kelpies were a supernatural, shape-shifting water spirit that often appeared as a horse, guarding rivers and streams. In most tellings, it was a malevolent creature, luring unsuspecting humans to a watery grave. In others, it protected water fowl and saved humans from drowning. 

In the hands of Lehigh students in the interdisciplinary Sustainable Development program, Kelpÿ’s shape is also undetermined— a snack chip, or perhaps a cracker, made with kelp. Its intentions, however, are universally beneficial: to boost kelp farming as a way to protect river deltas from eutrophication due to excess fertilizer runoff, thereby creating jobs to replace those being lost in the struggling fishing industry while bestowing health benefits on all who snack on it.

Yes, at Lehigh, the interdisciplinary work being done by students is more powerful than myth.

“What I like about this project is the potential to have identified such a win-win-win situation,” says Mark Orrs, director of Lehigh’s Sustainable Development program. “It’s a win for the oceans, it’s a win for the consumer, it’s a win for the fishermen who are now losing their jobs who could transition into farming kelp.

“It’s a win for all of us because the more farming we can do in the ocean, instead of on land, the more land that’s freed up to go back to its original purposes, as opposed to being converted for human use for farming.”

The Kelpÿ project is just one of many that illustrate the synergistic energy that has flourished around interdisciplinary programs at Lehigh. It was the idea of an IDEAS— short for Integrated Degree in Engineering and Arts and Sciences—major named William Kuehne ’17 and brought together an interdisciplinary team of students in the Sustainable Development program that carried over to the summer of 2015 as a Mountaintop project. The Kelpÿ team of six students, ranging from engineering to arts and sciences majors, won Lehigh’s prestigious Eureka competition for social ventures, which earned them a team from another interdisciplinary program, Integrated Product Design, to help develop their product. Prize money they won through the Eureka competition as well as from earning the Baker Institute’s Best in Show award helped them hire a chef to create a tastier product.

So one project that was itself highly interdisciplinary advanced with a boost from four different interdisciplinary programs at Lehigh.

The growth of interdisciplinary programs led College of Arts and Sciences Dean Donald Hall to begin planning an Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and International Initiatives when he arrived five years ago. For Hall, whose background is in interdisciplinary cultural studies, it was a natural fit for his own academic passions.

“Part of the richness of what we offer in the College of Arts and Sciences is a diverse array of programs, including our interdisciplinary programs,” he says. “Interdisciplinary learning moves students outside their comfort zones, often to discover what other cultures are saying about the same problems and understand how the wealth of diversity within American culture teaches us new ways of approaching complex social challenges.”

The office, led by Associate Dean Jackie Krasas, coordinates administrative support services and fosters collaboration among the college’s 20-plus interdisciplinary programs. 

“I think you see this kind of convergence of interests where students are looking for opportunities to cross disciplinary boundaries and get multiple perspectives, and faculty are interested in pursuing those collaborations outside of disciplinary silos,” says Bruce Whitehouse, associate professor of anthropology and director of the interdisciplinary Global Studies program. 

Orrs, who came to Lehigh four years ago as the first director of the Sustainable Development program, says integrating interdisciplinary programs within the institution’s administration is significant and further advances Lehigh’s well-deserved reputation as a leader in the field. Having earned a rare interdisciplinary Ph.D. from Columbia University in sustainable development, Orrs was initially drawn to Lehigh by the new Sustainable Development program being launched. But the more he learned about Lehigh, he says, the more he came to understand that the commitment to interdisciplinary studies and the application of knowledge go all the way back to founder Asa Packer. 

“We had a head start, and people have not caught up, I would say. There’s a lot of institutional memory and a lot of institutional learning that goes along with that, and I think that’s why,” Orrs says. “It’s one thing to copy someone’s program on the books but quite another thing to actually institutionalize that and embed it within the culture.” Remember those ubiquitous TV commercials from the 1980s for Hair Club for Men? They featured founder Sy Sperling telling viewers: “I’m not just the Hair Club president; I’m also a client!” 

I think that the kinds of issues that we face these days increasingly require interdisciplinary approaches, sort of an all-hands on deck approach.

It could well be said that Krasas isn’t just the associate dean of interdisciplinary programs and international initiatives; she is interdisciplinary to her academic core. 

“Interdisciplinary is, to me, a logical extension of what we mean when we say a liberal arts education,” Krasas says. “I think everybody should be interdisciplinary and have that experience of what it means to look at your field through a different lens or multiple different lenses. Or to talk with people who  approach a problem from a completely different perspective. I think, increasingly, that simply reflects the complexity of the world.” Although she has been an academic for more than two decades, Krasas, who is also associate professor of sociology and former director of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, says she has “never actually worked in a strictly departmental sense.”

She earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Southern California but also got an interdisciplinary gender studies certificate that required her to take courses in areas outside of her field, such as law and English.

“These were frightening things for me to do at the time but also turned out to be the best things I did in my graduate career,” she says. Before coming to Lehigh in 2005 as the first full-time director of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, Krasas was a faculty member of Penn State University’s interdisciplinary department of labor studies and industrial relations for a decade.

“There were a couple of sociologists, we had economists, we had political scientists, historians, attorneys—and it made me a better sociologist to work there,” she says. “I learned a lot of things that I wouldn’t have otherwise learned. It can be an uncomfortable space, in terms of you’re walking into areas that are new. I think that’s exciting. I think that the kinds of issues that we face these days increasingly require interdisciplinary approaches, sort of an all-hands-on-deck approach.” 

Having spent her academic career working in interdisciplinary programs, Krasas brings a deep understanding of the challenges that can arise.

“As much as Lehigh is doing great work with interdisciplinarity, universities still are residually organized around departments,” Krasas says. “And every time you turn around, you find something else that’s a little bit odd or different or difficult for interdisciplinary programs because it comes from a time when we were organized by departments and didn’t have these programs.”

The interdisciplinary programs remain autonomous and do not report to the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and International Initiatives. “I see it more as helping them to function in the world that is Lehigh and then bringing them together to collaborate and form a group of colleagues who work together across very different kinds of topics,” Krasas says.

In addition to Sustainable Development and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the programs supported by the office highlight the impressive diversity encompassed by interdisciplinary majors and minors in the College of Arts and Sciences: Africana Studies; American Studies; Asian Studies; Berman Center for Jewish Studies; Center for Global Islamic Studies; Classical Studies; Cognitive Science; Community Fellows; Digital Humanities; Eckardt Scholars; Environmental Initiatives and Environmental Studies; Environmental Policy Design; Ethics Series; Gipson Institute for 18th Century Studies; Global Citizenship; Global Studies; Grants for Experimental Learning in Health (GELH); Health, Medicine and Society; Humanities Center; Latin American Studies; and Science, Technology and Society. Beyond the undergraduate components, many of the programs offer graduate student elements, while others offer interdisciplinary approaches to scholarship.

Christa Neu
Mountaintop projects are interdisciplinary deep dives where faculty, students, and external partners come together and take new intellectual, creative, and/or artistic pathways that lead to transformative new innovations, new expressions, and new questions.

One problem common to all institutions with programs that cross departmental boundaries is how to fairly evaluate faculty who are hired into a specific department while also having responsibilities to an interdisciplinary program. 

“One way that’s done is through Memoranda of Understanding, so a faculty member who comes in with significant responsibilities in another unit will have one of these documents that spells out what they’re supposed to be doing and how they’re supposed to be evaluated,” Krasas says. “We’re trying to be clearer. If you’re not clear about it, then faculty end up doing more. They get spread very, very thin. Lehigh is moving the institutional apparatus to reflect better how faculty actually do their work.” 

The Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and International Initiatives also helps organize hundreds of events every year, many of which involve multiple programs. In March, for example, the office handled arrangements for the four-day interdisciplinary, international conference “Feminisms Beyond the Secular: Emerging Epistemologies and Politics in the 21st Century.” The conference was a collaboration between the Office of International Affairs; Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies; Humanities Center; Global Studies; Africana Studies; Global Citizenship; and Religion Studies.

Hartley Lachter, associate professor of Religion Studies, who holds the Philip and Muriel Berman Chair in Jewish Studies and serves as the director of the Berman Center for Jewish Studies, says the College of Arts and Sciences has become “a hub for interdisciplinary activity.”

The Berman Center for Jewish Studies, for example, sponsors a series of international conferences around the globe that bring together leading scholars from different disciplines to consider important questions. In May, the Berman Center sponsored “The Intimate Sea: Jews, Families and Networks in the Mediterranean,” a two-day colloquium held at the Università di Salento in Lecce, Italy. Some 15 scholars gathered to discuss the role that informal family networks played in Jewish life across the Mediterranean Sea and how those networks may change the way we think about Mediterranean Jewish history and experience.

“This is a way the Berman Center can expand its international footprint, its international presence,” Lachter says.

An interdisciplinary approach, he says, “is something very much at the core of how religion studies as a field works.” Research and teaching in religion constantly cross disciplines into history, literature, anthropology, sociology, philosophy and other fields, he says.

Concern, especially among parents of prospective students, that was fairly common a decade ago regarding the potential job market for graduates who pursued interdisciplinary studies is waning, Whitehouse says.

Something I like to say to prospective students and their parents is the jobs that young people need to be prepared for today, in many cases, don't yet exist.

“I think there is awareness among the students and among their parents that at the end of the day, the job market is going to be extremely fluid and people are going to change not only jobs and employers, but they’re going to change careers, probably multiple times in the course of their working lives,” Whitehouse says. “So it pays to have a broad skill set and exposure to a variety of perspectives. As long as we focus on certain fundamentals, such as communication skills, critical thinking, the sorts of things we always identify with liberal arts education, I think our graduates are going to be prepared for those very fluid and flexible career trajectories.

“Something I like to say to prospective students and their parents is the jobs that young people need to be prepared for today, in many cases, don’t exist yet. They’re not going to exist for a few more years. So with that in mind, we feel that a broad approach is quite sensible.” Whitehouse refers to Global Studies as “the Swiss Army knife approach.

“If you’re going to get a single, traditional disciplinary degree, you’re getting one particular tool to use on one particular problem. With Global Studies, you’re getting a Swiss Army knife with multiple tools you can apply to different contexts for different reasons,” Whitehouse says. “No one of those tools is probably as useful at any single task as the tool that you would get from the discipline. But we think it’s more important to have a variable toolkit that you can apply to multiple issues and bring in multiple perspectives than it is to have one highly specialized tool that’s extremely useful for a highly particular type of situation.”

Krasas admits to being biased but says she firmly believes that interdisciplinary programs are “really excellent intellectual spaces. I think they’re a lot of fun if you’re a student, and I mean that intellectually. And for me as a faculty member, it’s a lot of fun to be engaged with people coming from different areas. I’m so privileged to have all these very rich discussions.

“Someone’s always stretching, and that’s a really invigorating intellectual space to be in,” she adds. “It’s like intellectual candy. It really is.”