Teaching Across the Curriculum

Many higher education institutions feature a pedagogical element called “Writing Across the Curriculum.” The intent is to require students to write in every course for the purpose of improving their writing skills. The phrase “writing is thinking” captures the rationale for requiring writing across the curriculum – to further develop and improve student’s critical thinking skills so that they can function more effectively in their work and personal lives. Writing, of course, is a hallmark of an educated person.

But what about the concept of teaching across the curriculum? This concept exists in K-12 education (especially in the form of team teaching), but I do not know of any university that does this. And if they do, it likely would involve very few professors, when it should involve most.

College and university professors reside in departments that reflect their knowledge areas and specializations. Organizing and co-locating people this way seems to make sense. They can discuss problems and opportunities that affect them and their students, learn from each other, improve existing academic programs, develop new academic programs, and so on. In essence, it is a small silo contained within a larger silo: English department within the school of Arts & Sciences; Mechanical Engineering department within the school of Engineering; accounting department within the school of business, etc.

Industry long ago recognized there were problems with silos and worker specialization. They set out to create cross-functional teams, co-locate teams where possible, and train workers to become multi-skilled. Expanding workers’ capabilities allowed industry to become more flexible to changes in the marketplace for the goods and services that they provided. And, it benefited workers by giving them opportunities for growth and expanding their capabilities.

Why not do the same thing in higher education, to benefit students as well as professors, and the institution by giving it more flexibility to responding to changing conditions? As we know, enrollments rise and fall over the years, with low enrollment programs coming under great scrutiny by administrators and state government officials (in the case of public higher education). The professors who teach in these low enrollment programs fear losing their job. But, more enlightened college or university leaders would recognize that faculty under threat of job loss are an asset, likely trained and educated beyond their narrow specialization. And, in the case of those whose knowledge is truly specialized, they would likely accept efforts to train them in related disciplines where they could become effective teachers.

Let’s examine my own case: I have an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering with a double-major in applied mathematics; a master’s degree in chemical engineering, and a Ph.D. in materials engineering. As a result of my 15 years of industry work experience in diverse areas such as engineering, manufacturing, and supply chain management, I have produced scholarly work in Lean management, Lean leadership, supply chain management.

So, were the programs that I teach in to fall victim to low enrollment and put on a list for elimination, I would still offer students and the university something valuable. In each of the following three schools (and four departments), I could teach one or more courses at various levels, ranging from undergraduate to Master’s and Ph.D. levels:

  • Engineering: materials science and engineering, engineering management, technical writing
  • Arts & Sciences (Mathematics): algebra, linear algebra, calculus I or II
  • Arts & Sciences (History): progressive management
  • Business: Lean leadership, Lean management, operations management, supply chain management, executive decision-making

Many other full-time professors possess similar diverse academic backgrounds and work experiences, and would be able to teach across the curriculum.

If I were to teach in three different schools and four departments, my status would likely have to change to something like “university professor.” If this were widespread, most professors would then be categorized as such. The benefit of this arrangement would be that it provides the university with flexible faculty staffing, and enable it to better able to absorb changes in demand for its academic programs. In addition, faculty would feel more valued by college or university leaders and less threatened by enrollment declines – and hence more likely to make necessary changes in academic programs to keep up with the times.

It may also be attractive to change from traditional functional departments – English, Modern Languages, Accounting, Mechanical Engineering, etc. – to cross-functional departments (teams) based on academic programs. In industry, engineering and finance people, for example, tend to be segregated into their own departments, with like-skilled people located together in the same building. However, in operations (manufacturing) – the part of the business that makes the product or service that customers actually buy – all the functional skills necessary to get the work done are co-located. This has many benefits, including more rapid recognition and correction of problems that affect customers and well as those which affect the company. The same idea could be applied to a college or university’s service operations.

Teaching across the curriculum and cross-functional teaching teams would benefit all stakeholders and support the necessary evolution and improvement of higher education, both people and processes. Unfortunately, college and university presidents who feel their legacy is better associated with fundraising and new buildings don’t think of this stuff.

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