Letter to the Editor from Deans Rob Sabal and Phillip Glenn

by Rob Sabal and Phillip Glenn • February 26, 2015

Last week’s editorial astutely summarizes the challenges faced surrounding program silos and interdisciplinary study at Emerson, and how new ways of learning are required in a rapidly-changing 21st century. This is a challenge not only here at Emerson but in all of higher education.

As the academic deans, along with the rest of academic administration, we share your concerns and are committed to finding new ways to meet the educational demands of our modern times. In fact, interdepartmental efforts like those called for in the editorial have been in the works across both Schools for a few years now. 

Developing innovative curricular processes that cross departmental and School borders presents challenges at both the pedagogical and logistical levels that both the School of the Arts and the School of Communication continue to work together on. Both have established numerous faculty committees that evaluate current programs and have identified many opportunities for interdepartmental cooperation, new programs, and additional methods for supporting student learning through external partnerships. Some changes are already public in the form of prerequisite changes, creating non-major sections, and increasing numbers of cross-listed courses. For example, PA students can now take VMA audio courses and WLP and PA are cross listing playwriting classes.

We are also working to develop interdisciplinary courses within and across both Schools, and several have already launched. Take for example our first partnered studio course with EdTech Times, a Boston-based start-up. Planning for the course began in early 2014, it then piloted as a multi-student directed study in Fall 2014, and is now a special topics course that involves undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty from WLP, VMA, and Marketing Communication. The EdTech Times partnership also takes steps towards another significant trend in higher education: experiential, project-based learning through service-based models that assess based on the mastery of competencies rather than hours spent in the classroom.

Other examples of thematic and skill-related collaborations across programs include an audio book performance class partnered with Ploughshares and a collaboration between VMA and PA on television studio production of play performances. Another new course in development is for performers and playwrights. More will soon pilot across both Schools. Similarly, proposals for school-wide foundational courses continue to progress. For example, the School of Communication has discussed first-year courses intended to help students develop core literacies in information, media, and technology while also developing acquaintances across fields, disciplines, and majors.

In addition, plans continue to move ahead in crafting interdisciplinary programs, including a major in the Business of Creative Enterprise across both schools, a Comedy Studies major, and a Production Design major. Early discussions of a minor in nonfiction storytelling continue as well. In order to ensure that community members are able to identify interdisciplinary opportunities, the School of Communication is piloting a project for a searchable database for identifying courses on particular content specializations or topic areas across programs (for example, sports; global communication). Both Schools also continue to work towards pilot projects that promote innovation about and through technology.

Furthermore, the establishment of various interdisciplinary labs across campus also seeks to augment learning, such as the Engagement Lab and an as-yet-to-be-named lab for comedy.

Because these changes are numerous and complex, both Schools are in the process of developing a central base for news on these projects, and in the meantime disseminate regular updates to all faculty.

Making change successful requires a deep buy-in from departments and faculty to re-envision how courses work and to design new curriculum. Making difficult decisions about how those changes affect student requirements involves collaboration, approval, support, and restructuring across all facets of the College, its financial resources, and accrediting bodies. Communication between departments and between the two Schools remains open and constant, and we remain committed to working together to foster new curricular pathways and interdepartmental cooperation that supports student learning. These changes will take time, but we are excited to report that change has already begun and much more is in the works. 

We are genuinely thrilled to hear that Emerson students are as eager for these changes as we are.

Rob Sabal
Interim Dean, School of the Arts

Phillip Glenn
Interim Dean, School of Communication