Interdisciplinary studies: 60 years with the ILA

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Oct. 22, 2013

At its inception, Emory's Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA) was considered a bold academic endeavor — among the nation's first graduate programs in the humanities devoted to the new trend of interdisciplinary studies.  

The year was 1952, and the program's chief architect was Emory's new Vice President and Dean of the Faculties Ernest C. Colwell, an Emory graduate and former president of the University of Chicago, which had emerged as an early leader in the field of interdisciplinary education.  

Sixty years later, the drive to pursue research that transcends conventional academic boundaries is still going strong, says Kim Loudermilk, a senior lecturer in the ILA and director of the program in American Studies, who is working on a history of the program.  

The enduring strengths of interdisciplinary research — its role now and in the future — will be at the heart of a two-day symposium scheduled at Emory this week in celebration of the ILA's 60th anniversary.  

"Interdisciplinary Futures: A Symposium to Honor 60 Years of the ILA" Oct. 24-25 will feature special speakers, roundtable conversations with ILA alumni, and an informal reunion of sorts, as ILA graduates are invited to convene with Emory faculty, students and the generally curious.  

The symposium is free and open to all, though preregistration is required.  

Highlights include:  

  • Participatory roundtable conversations with some of the ILA's notable alumni from across the academy and beyond, who will lead discussions on the nature and future of interdisciplinarity.

  • A keynote by Robert Pippin, Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, on "Transdisciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity, Reductive Disciplinarity, and Deep Disciplinarity."  
  • Undergraduate roundtable discussions will look at interdisciplinarity in higher education, with special guests including undergraduates from Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University. Ten students in the ILA's Interdisciplinary Studies in Culture and Society/American Studies senior seminar will lead a discussion around themes including the history of the ILA and AUC, "crisis" in higher education, and the role of interdisciplinarity.  

Legacy of scholarship  

Today, interdisciplinarity remains at the heart of the ILA, a rich tradition of public scholarship that in some ways represents the very embodiment of a liberal arts education, Loudermilk says.  

In addition, the program has also served as an important incubator for emerging new fields of scholarship, she notes. Departments at Emory that began or found early homes within the ILA include African American Studies, Comparative Literature, Film Studies and Women's Studies.  

"That's part of our legacy," Loudermilk says. "What draws students is the ability to examine or explore an idea or question or problem that cannot be addressed through one discipline alone," she says.  

"A place," she adds, "where you can pull things together."  

That was the original intent of the program, which was launched with 16 associated faculty members and two students who engaged in a year-long seminar on "Freedom vs. Authority" which covered the "evolution of human society from classical to modern times," according to a 1952 Emory Wheel article.  

At the time, the primary objective of the curriculum was to teach the student to face present-day problems "with an understanding of how the problem has been faced in the past…," the article stated.  

"We are going to make a program for the individual student in the light of his interests," Colwell stated. "And we hope to avoid the rigidity of a standard program in a special subject."  

That unique intellectual environment — nourished by faculty representing a wide array of disciplines — is what first drew Loudermilk to the program, she explained, in a quest to examine the relationship between social movements, such as feminism, and the media.  

"I didn't think I could do that through a traditional program within an English department, and we didn't have a women's studies graduate program at the time," she recalls.  

"I think that almost everyone who comes to the ILA has a question like that, something they simply don't feel they can adequately address through a single discipline."  

Through the years, the program has grown and adapted with the times. The role of the ILA is now being re-examined within a wider restructuring of Emory College.  

Today, the benefits of interdisciplinary scholarship live on through ILA alumni, people "doing fascinating things, serving as museum directors, involved in politics and in Hollywood, working in academia as professors and administrators — one is even president of the United Negro College Fund," Loudermilk notes.  

They, too, are evidence of an ongoing need for interdisciplinarity: "As time goes on, it seems to me that the problems we face as a society become more and more complex, and the questions we need to ask become more difficult to answer from only one perspective," Loudermilk says.  

"The interdisciplinary work and training that the ILA provides teaches us how to do just that, approaching the problems of the day from multiple perspectives."