Manhattan’s latest interdisciplinary projects highlight the many upsides to crossing academic lines.
Interdisciplinary study, which combines two or more academic fields, has had many proponents and practitioners over the centuries, from Leonardo da Vinci to Charles Darwin. In recent years, higher education has embraced interdisciplinary programs for their strengths in preparing students for an interconnected world. Manhattan College is no exception.
“By crafting interdisciplinary programs, we’re actually looking to the origins of our own understanding of knowledge that isn’t silo-ized or segregated,” says Maeve Adams, Ph.D., assistant professor of English.
Below, we explore four of Manhattan’s newest interdisciplinary initiatives. From a minor that merges the humanities with digital arts to a senior seminar that brings together students from three majors, these programs are bridging divides and fostering dialogue.
Confronting CRISPR on Three Fronts
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and the students in a graduate-level business class, Leadership and Organizational Behavior, are deep in debate. Their professor, Poonam Arora, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of management and marketing, has presented an imaginary business scenario: Invest in the controversial genome-editing technology known as CRISPR, or walk away?
“It’s a groundbreaking innovation,” says one student. “It can be used for extraordinary things. But at the same time, if it’s not regulated, it could be used for evil purposes.”
“Who’s regulating it?” counters Arora.
As the lesson progresses, students wrestle with the implications of their hypothetical business decision, drawing on economic theories of utilitarianism and virtue ethics — and Manhattan’s Lasallian ideals. It’s a wide-ranging conversation, just as Arora anticipated when she, Heidi Furey, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy, and Bryan Wilkins, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, first envisioned an interdisciplinary unit of study to examine an issue by integrating business, ethics and science.
The collaboration sprang from a mutual interest in academic inquiry beyond individual specialties. The questions surrounding CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) struck them as an ideal topic. The technology has the potential to cure genetic diseases — and, critics say, to wreak disaster if not constrained. Wilkins has discussed the issue with his Advanced Topics in Biochemistry class, and Furey presented it to students in her Ethics class.
In preparation for the CRISPR lesson, the faculty members developed a packet of readings to be shared by all three courses.
“For me, one of the interesting questions is the difference between enhancement for genetic modification and curing disease and disability,” says Furey. “Where do we draw the line there?”
Wilkins notes, “I like the idea that I can introduce students to some other aspect of their science. Not many of them have taken a business class. To be able to dialogue with people in different fields is extremely important.”
Biology major Cole Johnson ’19 appreciates the extra dimension that business and ethical concerns have brought to the classroom conversation around CRISPR. “Initially, when I thought of working with CRISPR, my attitude was, ‘Let’s do it,’” he says.
Now he’s embracing the topic’s complexities beyond the realm of science.
“You forget somebody has to own the rights to it, it has to be marketed correctly, and somebody is going to profit from it,” he says. “It’s going to have to be regulated ...You realize how intertwined everything is.”
At the semester’s end, the three classes will gather for a meeting in which they’ll break into mixed groups to work together on a CRISPR-based case study. Across the board, the three professors note, students are enthusiastic about the dialogue.
“I think it’s a great idea to bring everyone together to discuss their viewpoints,” says Michele Famularo ’21, an MBA student. “You might not consider different stances if you’re looking through one lens all the time, but it’s important to embrace that aspect if you want to be a leader.”
Finding Common Ground: An Interdisciplinary Senior Seminar
What do you call a senior research seminar that brings together students from three different interdisciplinary majors?
“I call it ‘interdisciplinary squared,’” says course instructor Dart Westphal, director of the Environmental Studies program.
The seminar, which includes seniors from the Urban Studies, Environmental Studies, and Peace and Justice Studies programs, was launched in the spring 2019 semester as a way for students from small interdisciplinary programs to work on their capstone projects alongside peers who are pursuing complementary lines of inquiry.
“Everybody in the class is focused on making some sort of change happen,” Westphal explains. “It could be making the world more peaceful or more environmentally sustainable, or making cities more successful, civic places.”
Several students are researching how well organizations are making that change. A few are evaluating organizations where they hold internships. Environmental studies major Nikka DeMesa ’19 is investigating the impact of the Climate Museum’s messaging, while Zachary Holmes ’19, a peace and justice studies major, is conducting an analysis of outcomes for participants in Police Athletic League programs.
In the seminar’s first run, Westphal aims to better meet the needs of students in interdisciplinary programs by combining their efforts.
“We work together in order to find common ground on issues that don’t seem similar but have at their root social change or promoting a cause,” says Kelsey Quartulli ’19, an art history and peace and justice studies major.
Through her internship with the International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs (ICMICA), Quartulli has visited the United Nations regularly. There, she investigates the effect of philanthropic uses of art on international relations. Her research has informed the work of classmates who are examining authoritarian regimes.
Urban studies major David Caiafa ’19 is drawing on his volunteer work at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center to research whether more social-emotional learning improves student outcomes. He appreciates Westphal’s efforts to bring in experts from fields that students are passionate about, like social work and environmentalism.
“He has used this class as a springboard for us, career-wise,” he says.
Adam Arenson, Ph.D., associate professor of history and director of the Urban Studies program, is pleased to offer this new option to urban studies students, who typically have participated in political science, sociology or history seminars.
“Part of the urban studies experience is this sense of being a cohort,” he notes. “Approaching these questions together, using their interdisciplinary training together.”
As Quartulli wraps up her capstone project, she reflects, “I think the interdisciplinary lens helps create a dialogue where you’re not just building each other up … You need people to tell you when you’re wrong, when things aren’t necessarily clicking.”
This first seminar has shaped a template for its future.
“The students really did model the concept of interdisciplinary learning that we’re trying to emphasize,” Westphal says. “I’m grateful to them.”
Highlighting Human Connections in Clinical Work
In early 2018, a collegial chat between Kayla Valentino, chair of Radiological and Health Professions and program director of radiation therapy technology, and Shawna Bu Shell, Ph.D., assistant professor of education and director of the Instructional Design and Delivery Program, led them to realize that they had overlapping goals.
At the time, Valentino was seeking to acquire virtual environment radiotherapy training equipment, or VERT, an instructional tool likened to “a flight simulator for cancer treatment machines.” Using the VERT, students practice operating the controls of a linear accelerator, the device that destroys cancer cells. They also view cross-sectional anatomy slides of actual patients and gain deeper understanding of specific cancer treatments.
Bu Shell, on the other hand, wanted to purchase 40 hours’ worth of avatar simulations to help students navigate ethical situations requiring cultural sensitivity. Avatars are interactive computer animations controlled by live actors and can be adapted to suit clients’ needs.
They applied for, and ultimately received, a grant from the College to fund the two virtual reality technologies.
Once the VERT was installed in a classroom in O’Malley Library, Valentino and Sara Silverstein, clinical coordinator of the Radiation Therapy Technology Program, got to work tapping its potential.
“[The VERT] allows us to do things differently than we could in real practice,” Valentino says. “We’re able to show students things they wouldn’t be able to see on a real patient …We can plan for more complicated cases and pick them apart into details.”
They also wanted students to make a greater connection between the 3D slides on the VERT screen and the patients they represented, like the people they’ll meet through clinical internships at Manhattan’s 15 affiliate medical centers.
“Students knew what they were doing, but were taking their time,” Valentino says. “We wanted to emphasize that they should [use the VERT] as though it was real life and remember that there’s a patient lying on the table in a very uncomfortable position.”
Enter the avatars. A series of sessions was planned in which students would interact with a patient avatar on a webcam prior to conducting a VERT exercise. Silverstein prepped the actor with a fact sheet about head and neck cancer, how a patient would feel physically, and a list of concerns that a real patient might have.
“It’s good for students because they can get practice and feedback and learn to communicate, especially with the most challenging questions, in an environment where you’re not going to say the wrong thing and make someone upset by accident,” Silverstein explains.
After meeting with the avatar and discussing a treatment plan, students ran through a set-up procedure on the VERT. Their timing improved, and so did their levels of confidence and compassion.
“It was awesome to sit down on a consult,” radiation therapy major Leslie Carchi ’20 says, noting that the avatar exhibited anxiety. “I needed to reassure and comfort her.”
Bu Shell and Valentino hope to work together on more projects that merge instructional design and delivery with radiation therapy coursework. In the meantime, the VERT system continues to prove its value as a classroom resource.
“Every day we’re learning something we can do with it,” Valentino says. “The surface isn’t even scratched yet.”
Ushering the Humanities into the Digital Age
For the course ENGL 335: Victorian Media, Rose Brennan ’20 didn’t write a research paper on the Thomas Hardy short story Alicia’s Room. Instead, she created a virtual reality (VR) project using the software program Unity. Brennan’s English assignment can be viewed by donning VR glasses and “walking through” the character Alicia’s bedroom and reading diary pages located throughout.
This merging of technology with the study of literature is the kind of innovation at the core of a new interdisciplinary program, Digital Arts and Humanities, or DAsH, that was recently launched and will be available as a minor in the fall 2019 semester.
Victorian Media is one of several history, business, sociology, communication and English courses included in the DAsH curriculum, which brings the techniques of data analysis and digital representation to traditional questions in the humanities. DAsH uses tools including computer mapping, content management and social media, and incorporates internet and digitized resources into coursework.
“It’s an opportunity to re-innovate the work that we do and reanimate the way we think about methodology and the traditional objects of our study,” says Maeve Adams, Ph.D., assistant professor of English.
Brennan has already taken several DAsH courses, including ENGL 392: Writing and Remembering, and COM 304: Digital Storytelling.
“I know that in the 21st-century job market, there are a lot of software programs that will make you a more marketable candidate,” she says.
Adams affirms that the program is designed to meet employer expectations in today’s digitized world.
“Whatever field our students are going into, increasingly what’s expected of them is that they have some skills in digital tools and data analysis, and an ability to understand what data is and what we can do with it,” she says.
DAsH courses can include trips to venues, such as Jump Into the Light virtual reality studio and the Virtual Arcade at the Tribeca Film Festival, that add further dimensions to in-class concepts. In addition, DAsH students will benefit from Manhattan’s new partnership with the NYC Media Lab, which connects media and technology companies with several of the city’s colleges and universities.
The program is already garnering wide interest from the College community.
“We’ve been blowing past our projections,” Adams says. Up from an expected 10 DAsH course offerings for next academic year, 23 will be offered in the fall alone.