Wheaton’s Nationally-Ranked Interdisciplinary Studies Major Tackles ‘Wicked Problems’

By bringing together diverse fields of study, the rigorous program reimagines the college degree.

By Noah Cassetto | Staff Writer
March 25, 2022
Dr. Jeffrey Davis, James Sharpe and Charis Sanders of the IDS major. Photo by Sanya Holm.

Jada Kamau is busy. 

 

The Wheaton junior sings in Gospel Choir. She cohosts the podcast for the student-run literary journal the Pub. She’s prepping to be a Resident Assistant in McManis-Evans Hall next year. 

 

And this doesn’t even take into account her academic course load. 

 

Kamau is studying philosophy, Christian formation and ministry, and literature while researching for a masters-level dissertation. 

 

How can she do it all? 

 

The answer, Kamau says, is interdisciplinary studies, a major that allows students to create their own integrated course of study and take classes in two or three different disciplines.

 

“Interdisciplinary studies is based on the premise that a complex problem requires a complex solution,” said Kamau, who also promotes and represents IDS as a student ambassador. “You can’t dip into one slice of the academic pie and expect to have a complete solution.”

 

IDS students select courses from two or three traditional majors to create their own, unique academic journey. The major requires 36 credit hours, and students apply for the major their junior year by undergoing an interview process designed to screen for strong applicants as well as refine the applicant’s areas of study.

 

The program is small and usually has about 20 students in any given semester. Currently, 18 Wheaton students are majoring in interdisciplinary studies. 

 

Charis Sanders is a senior who is wrapping up her time in the IDS program, where she studies writing and theater. Although she entered Wheaton studying voice, she soon realized that her participation in college’s Conservatory was not fulfilling her interests.

 

“I quickly found that for the kind of things that I wanted to do, the programs at the Conservatory weren’t going to help,” said Sanders. “Playwriting is my passion, and studying one program would be limiting for what I wanted to do. After some trial and error, I was able to integrate writing and theater through IDS.” 

 

The IDS program is directed by Jeffry Davis ‘83, who is also dean of humanities. Under his leadership, Wheaton’s IDS program is currently ranked the best IDS program nationwide by Bachelor Degree Center and listed fifteenth on Best Value Schools’ list. According to DataUSA, approximately 760 private universities in the U.S. offer an interdisciplinary studies degree.

 

“These rankings and national recognition have been a pleasant surprise to us, but they are not our primary concern,” said Davis. “What we really try to emphasize in the IDS major is thinking hard, researching well and writing clearly about a serious problem in a way that’s going to bring a helpful response to the people who are directly impacted by the problem.”

 

According to Davis, a focus on building bridges between different disciplines is what distinguishes IDS from other majors.

 

“The connectedness of knowing and the connectedness of the disciplines are underscored in our program,” said Davis. “In most higher education today, there is a specialization emphasis; however, with interdisciplinary studies, we emphasize the importance of connectivity. At Wheaton, we talk a lot about the integration of faith and learning. What we’re doing in IDS is the integration of learning and learning, too.”

 

Wheaton’s IDS program was founded in 1986 by faculty who saw a clear connection between IDS’ emphasis on interdisciplinary connections and the inherent interdisciplinary nature of liberal arts education. Since then, the program has come to include about a dozen students every year. 

 

All IDS students leverage their cross-disciplinary studies to research a problem they are passionate about. Some issues IDS majors have explored include human-trafficking, climate change and communication across religions

 

The IDS program culminates in a masters-level research project which students work on continuously from the time they declare the major their junior year until they graduate. The qualitative projects are usually 60-80 pages long and engage in sources from cross-disciplinary perspectives. 

 

“Each of our majors focus on what we call a ‘wicked problem,’ which, by definition, is a problem that is too complex to be resolved by only one academic discipline,” said Davis. “The goal is to demonstrate integration between disciplines in order to fully appreciate the nature of a problem.” 

 

Kamau transferred into Wheaton as a junior and was initially unsure about the specific problem she wanted to address for her paper.

 

“It starts with a passion and a desire, but that’s fleshed out during your two years in the major a lot,” said Kamau. “What I wanted to do in the beginning is not what I want to do now. I’m continuing to hone my passions and I expect my path to change significantly still.”

 

Now in her second semester with the IDS program, Kamau has settled on her own wicked problem: the lack of diversity and inclusivity in homeschool curriculum.

 

Four IDS majors recently applied to present their IDS projects at a virtual academic conference coordinated by the University of Connecticut. IDS majors also presented last year at a virtual conference sponsored by the Humanities Education and Research Association, a nonprofit which promotes study of the humanities.

 

“Increasingly, we’re encouraging our students to get involved in academic conferences,” said Davis. 

 

Students can decide to undertake a creative project if it better suits their problem. This semester, Sanders is putting the finishing touches on a play which she will also direct and produce as her IDS project. “It’s a gift to be able to do that for credit,” she said.

 

Using her creativity for IDS has helped Sanders hone skills she hopes to use in the job market after graduation.

 

“One of my dream jobs is being on the narrative team for video game design,” said Sanders. “This is kind of a niche area, but it’s really needed for a lot of games. I’d love to pursue this kind of position with IDS.”

 

Though the program is small in number, it requires strong investment from its students. Sanders said that the major’s requirements are rigorous and demand a high level of work.

 

“It feels very much like being refined by fire,” said Sanders. “It’s not an easy major. You can’t skim through it; you have to engage in every way to get to the good stuff and grow.”

 

The program’s small size fosters close relationships between students and faculty, helping students examine their course material on a deeper level while forging a strong community. In the senior seminar class, the IDS students and Davis sit around a table in Jenks Hall, drinking coffee while discussing coursework. 

 

“The IDS cohort is incredibly tight-knit because we’re talking about these really important things,” Sanders said.

 

Fellow IDS majors were among Kamau’s first connections when she transferred into Wheaton in the fall of 2021. “I felt like I already had a community and people who were ready to support me,” said Kamau. “Because of the program’s size, we are given so much one-on-one guidance and mentorship.”

 

Davis says that the IDS program is uniquely adapted to reflect a changing job market. In a trend exacerbated by the pandemic, more and more people are changing their careers. Younger generations, particularly millennials, are more likely to leave their job and pursue a different one. The result is a dynamic workforce where it is becoming more common to have multiple major career changes.

 

“Research shows students of this generation may have more than 12 job transitions over the course of their lives,” Davis said, citing recent research. “Wherever you are and whatever you do, your personal development of talent, character and skill is most important.”

 

Davis believes that interdisciplinary studies occupy a unique space in academia, especially at Christian liberal arts schools like Wheaton.

 

“We’re not going to solve poverty. We’re not going to solve global warming,” Davis said. “But with interdisciplinary studies, we can respond to them in a way that demonstrates the love of God in service to other people.”

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