Intersecting Disciplines

“Chad Wellmon has done a fair bit of dreaming and analyzing over the past four years. Blame it on the fact that he professes an equal love of math and poetry, of science and philosophy. Although he’s now an associate professor of German, Wellmon always assumed he’d grow up to be a physicist.

Most recently, his unique temperament and interests have been put to work upending the undergraduate requirements for the College of Arts and Sciences, under direct orders from Dean Ian Baucom himself.

Why change something that’s working? Both Wellmon and Baucom would say that undergraduate education wasn’t working as well as it could.”

Like many universities, UVA incorporates a “distribution model” for its undergraduate curriculum—requiring students to choose from a smorgasbord of choices across various broad areas, in addition to basic requirements in writing and foreign language, before they step into their major.

Unfortunately, Wellmon and others say, this can devolve into a checkbox mentality—I’m looking for an afternoon class on this topic to fulfill this requirement—rather than a love of learning.

Wellmon saw that ingrained pattern as an indictment of the faculty, himself included. So he began pondering: What if he and his colleagues could instead create a compelling interdisciplinary experience, one that models how to pose sweeping intellectual questions that cut across academic fields—questions such as: What is beauty? What is data? What is a good life? What are the demands of justice?

Wellmon describes these as questions that students “are going to spend the rest of their lives, whether explicitly or implicitly, struggling with. Whether that’s trying to gather data to figure out which insurance plan they want, trying to model a good life for the children they’re going to have or being a member of their neighborhood or citizen of the nation. All of those questions are questions that afford no immediate answer, and they’re actually a joy but also a great challenge.”

[Read the full story about UVA’s College of Arts and Sciences new curriculum in by Diane J. McDougall, “Intersecting Disciplines: An innovative undergraduate curriculum completes its first year” in 2017 issue of UVA Magazine.]

chad wellmon

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