How an Interdisciplinary College Taught Me How to Learn

Interdisciplinary studies combines fields to find creative solutions. One student shares what they learned by attending an interdisciplinary college.

portrait of Monty Rozema
by Monty Rozema

Published on July 15, 2022 · Updated on July 22, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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How an Interdisciplinary College Taught Me How to Learn
The author sits on the steps of Wilson Library at their alma mater, Western Washington University. Image Credit: Monty Rozema

When I was a child, I loved to ask my dad would-you-rather questions. Just for fun, as a way to pass the time. Would you rather be able to fly, or be invisible?

Without fail, every time he would answer, "Well, it depends." This infuriated me. Just answer the question, Dad!

Fifteen years later, I think I understand. It was his way of saying, "I don't have enough information to answer this question yet." He had yet to explore the logistics of flying and invisibility. He had yet to pry for additional context.

His extraneous questioning bothered me because, well, it's just a simple question. It just is what it is. But he was right to say that it depends. I know now that nothing is only what it is. Everything is interconnected.

In the words of Audre Lorde, "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives."

Here begins the spirit of interdisciplinary work.

I'm the sort of person who likes to be prepared for things. When I go out, I like to know how fancy everyone else is dressing. I've got a notebook and pen in my bag that I barely use, but I like to have them there just in case. I always read the syllabus before the first day of class. And the syllabus for my first college class at an interdisciplinary school was … befuddling.

The class was called Words, Words, Words: 201a — a cheeky name for what I assumed would be an English 101-type situation with lectures, essays, and probably a big research paper at the end. We'd do reading responses and give a presentation or two.

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

Among other odd projects, the professor asked us to spend the entire quarter exploring a single word from as many perspectives as possible. We were to keep a journal. We were to investigate our word in all sorts of ways: poetically, etymologically, literally, figuratively. Even ridiculously.

Essentially, we were instructed to screw around in a notebook for a whole quarter, trying to come to some profound conclusion about a word of relatively little consequence. My word was "slug."

Old Main, a building on Western Washington University's campus where the author spent much of their college career. Image Credit: Monty Rozema

Fresh out of public high school, I felt like I was totally getting away with something. I bought a copper refrigerator magnet of a slug and started saying goodnight to it. I started a slug altar because someone else in class mentioned it, and I thought, "That's the weirdest thing I've ever heard — I have to try it." I researched the linguistics, evolution, and various meanings of the word. I wrote lackluster acrostic poetry and felt silly about it.

In class, we brainstormed ways to interact with our words. Notebook in hand, I jogged to the campus farm where I found a real-life slug and placed it on my paper, letting it write its own statement in slime. I interviewed the slug. It didn't answer, but I recorded the exchange on my phone anyway.

As the quarter progressed, I grew insecure. I was doing this whole thing wrong because I hadn't asked enough clarifying questions. I was missing the point. Which common core standard was I fulfilling by interviewing garden pests?

I remember feeling nauseous the day of our presentations because I was worried my notebook would be laughed at. Why, oh why, had I been stupid enough to fill an entire notebook with nonsensical slug crap? I'd wasted weeks having fun and poking around like a gumshoe detective when I should have been doing schoolwork.

All that time screwing around in the garden had produced pages that were sprawling and unorganized. My bibliography was like an untrimmed blackberry thicket, my thesis so convoluted it was practically nonexistent.

The presentations began. My classmates cracked open their journals to reveal magic tricks full of fun and excitement, spiritual revelations, wild discoveries, and limitless ruminations.

I'd been thinking about things all wrong.

I'd felt guilty, convinced I was getting away with something — simply because I'd had fun while doing it. My professor and my peers stared in wonder at the shimmering trails left by the slug slime, applauding me as if I'd solved a complex math problem.

Up until that point in my life, I had absolutely no experience with alternative schooling. I'd attended public school my entire life and was used to worksheets, massive class sizes, and tentative participation.

School was fine, but the enjoyable moments were fleeting, inhibited by an institutional obsession with common core standards, measurable statistics, standardized test scores, and efficiently cranking out graduates. School was fun, but it wasn't for curious people. That was what student-led extracurriculars, YouTube, and the public library were for.

Students walk through the Outback Farm, Fairhaven College's resident community farm and garden, where Monty took classes on ethnobotany and food justice. Image Credit: Monty Rozema

I'd applied to this college in a ferocious moment of curiosity. I knew school had the potential to be better than it was. I knew it could be fun, weird, progressive, imaginative. I knew there had to be more out there than dry AP curricula and unenthusiastic, underpaid teachers throwing detention slips around like confetti. That couldn't be all there was to education. No way.

I first heard the term "interdisciplinary" from my career counselor in reference to a particular college. "It's a small school," she said, "and it's pretty different. But I think it might be exactly what you're looking for."

When I got home, I scoured the internet. Interdisciplinary learning, I found out, encourages instructors to build bridges and make relevant and clear connections across disciplines and curricula. It's simple but profound. There's a strong emphasis on intersectionality and the continuous critical examination of, well, everything.

A switch flipped in my brain. Everything is connected. Everything is complicated. I didn't know why exactly, but I knew I had to give this interdisciplinary thing a shot. I owed it to myself.

In my junior year, I took a course on nutrition. I was fulfilling a science requirement for my degree, but the class didn't stop at the science of nutrition.

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On our first day of class, we were asked about our thoughts and feelings on the topic of nutrition. The class immediately brought up the web of interconnectedness of the topic. Food is a biological science, sure — but there's so much more wrapped up in a meal than vitamins and minerals.

Food is also anthropology, history, religion, psychology, and art. Interdisciplinary learning acknowledges and values the complex nature of educational topics and challenges the notion that dividing disciplines is the most effective and holistic way to learn.

And that's the best thing I learned at my interdisciplinary college: I learned how to learn. I learned to prioritize curiosity and exploration. I learned formal education doesn't have to be austere or gatekeep-y to be effective and life-changing. I learned to take risks. I learned to self-justify. To dictate my own goals and think critically as I moved through the world.

Post grad, as a teaching artist, I make a habit of chatting with my students. Across generations, it seems that 8-year-olds really love would-you-rather questions.

"Would you rather be able to fly, or be invisible?" And now it's me who's grinning, driving them insane with my answer.

"Well, it depends," I say.

"On what?"

"Everything."


Meet the Author

Portrait of Monty Rozema

Monty Rozema

Monty Rozema (they/them) graduated from Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington University in 2021 with a BA in theatre arts, where they served as artistic director for WWU's Student Theatre Productions. They are now a multidisciplinary arts educator, devoted bookseller, and ticket peddler at Arts Corps, Outsider Comics, and Taproot Theatre, respectively. They live in Seattle, Washington.