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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
Volume 5, Number 1, Sept 2004

Graduate Peace & Conflict
Studies Programs

The Prospects and Problems of
an Interdisciplinary Field

Some of the preceding issues are of obvious concern for many graduate degree programs. What makes PCS programs unusual is their interdisciplinary nature. Most disciplines in the social sciences claim some part of, or connection to, social conflict. The interdisciplinary nature of the field is one of its biggest advantages in getting the cooperation of a wide spectrum of other disciplines and scholars involved in the initial planning and implementation of a new program. Ironically, the interdisciplinary interconnectedness of such programs can also be one of the largest impediments to rethinking and restructuring a program a few years after its introduction.

These programs are often conceived as interdisciplinary innovations, and as a way of finding consensus between competing interests. They are instituted as intra-departmental arrangements to cross-list a number of courses, to provide faculty in a variety of disciplines to teach related courses, and as agreements about how many students each department would gain from the collaborative venture. Once established, therefore, changing or adapting a PCS program is not that easy because it can involve renegotiating the original arrangement. Moreover, changes that might be of value to the overall PCS program and its students might not benefit other departments. The logical outcome of these changes might be that students take fewer electives from other disciplines. It might even mean a loss of revenue for other programs—never a popular option. In spite of the logic of a requested change in the initial program, it might also not make sense in terms of the larger interdisciplinary package. For example, extending the core PCS courses beyond their initial number or responding to students’ requests to provide elective course options that pertain more directly to their academic interests, might not always serve the larger needs of the institution. It is, however, perhaps inevitable that as PCS programs (and indeed the field) matures, the faculty and students will want to focus their interests more narrowly towards courses that relate more specifically to their understanding of the field itself.

In the meantime, curricular changes or even simply maintaining a current program require ongoing nurturing of intra-university relationships. What would normally be a matter of fine-tuning a programmatic focus and shepherding new courses through the necessary university governance processes can become an exercise in how to negotiate a web of other departmental interests. As many faculty members know, this type of discussion can be challenging and time consuming. Requesting, for example, changes in the content of a course may intersect with dearly held notions in academia, such as academic freedom. Faculty members often measure their status, or that of their academic interests, by the courses they teach. Therefore, anyone seeking changes in a highly interdisciplinary and interwoven curriculum must first seek consensus on such changes.

The Peace and Conflict Domain

PCS programs and courses on topics such as negotiation, mediation, or ADR are perhaps most often taught via the social sciences, but are equally well offered in other parts of a university such as in law and business schools. This shared interest underlines the need for intra-university cooperation to prevent zero-sum competition over the PCS domain or certain courses. Cooperation on these matters across disciplinary divides, and even schools within the larger university, should at a minimum be able to eliminate duplication. At best, it should capitalize on the need for synergy between the different, but complimentary, parts of a university. One way of achieving this goal is to create a combined law (or business) and PCS degree program. Such truly collaborative projects between different parts of academic institutions can happen through a genuine dialogue among faculty regarding their program and faculty interests. However, these interdisciplinary dialogues can be complicated. In spite of their mutual interest in peace and conflict studies (or ADR), academics tend to interpret the field through their own disciplinary and professional lenses. These different lenses can lead to different understandings of what exactly the PCS “field” is, on where such programs should be centered within an institution, and on the type and content of the course work that should be taught.

The Three R's of Program Development:
Resources, Resources, Resources

Once the issue of locating a program (or having inter-linked programs) in the university has been settled, all other issues about program building relate directly or indirectly to resources. Interdisciplinary programs often start on the smallest of budgets and then succeed in expanding far beyond their projected growth, as indeed has been the case with a number of PCS programs. For a variety of reasons such programs then need further resources to take them into the next phase of their development. The program’s core faculty members (few, it seems, are fortunate enough to have three or more) can easily become overexposed to their students. At this instance in a program’s development, students may exert pressure on the institution to enlarge the size and diversity of the faculty in order to enhance the quality of the curriculum. Such requests normally include a drumbeat for more practice-oriented courses, for more variation in course offerings in general, and for smaller, seminar-style, class sizes. Responding to such concerns can become priority number one. Other varied provisions for program improvements quickly follow from both the students and existing faculty who by now have been able to pinpoint the shortcomings of the program. Among the most common requests are career guidance assistance to students, practice-oriented projects that faculty and students can work on collaboratively, time for outreach and grant writing, surveys to discover the students’ needs and expectations, and exit interviews to see how students have succeeded in linking their education to careers. Administrative support staff or clinical faculty members could perform many of these tasks. However, beyond their core teaching faculty most new programs cannot afford that level or type of staff.

The one factor that ultimately impacts an interdisciplinary program environment such as a PCS program, is the level and quality of the institutional support it receives. College and university administrations very often recognize the importance of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary activities in public presentations and in written documentation. However, it seems that few among them provide the facilities, faculty, or cooperative structures to make that truly possible. For an accurate accounting of the state of the field regarding resources and other institutional matters of PCS programs we will have to wait for Brian Polkinghorn at Salisbury State University to publish his recently completed survey of 84 programs. This research examines a wide variety of topics relating to the historical development or path of each program, where each program is located within the university or college structure, how many full time and part time faculty are teaching and supporting the program, and whether or not the program faculty and staff write grants or work on a program endowment campaign.

Adult Learners

Building any graduate program with overextended adult learners (who indeed make up most of the students at graduate PCS programs) is a daunting task. Their responsibilities often make it difficult for them to take part in activities beyond attending classes, such as special events with invited speakers. They normally find training that occurs outside the scope of their program too expensive, and rarely have the time and funding to attend conferences. Many of them want to carry a full course load in order to resume their careers as fast as possible. This strategy often proves to be troublesome to individuals who have to balance their studies with a work and family life. Many of them also need financial aid and therefore have to comply with rules as to the number of courses that they need to take each semester.

To this background, faculty members have to resist the notion that the expectations of a graduate degree need to be relaxed for students who work full-time, as is the case with the student population of many PCS programs. Faculty members do sometimes make some concessions to accommodate the work schedules and other needs of adult students in how they structure their programs. This can range from not insisting that students take courses in a particular order to having more than one intake group of students per year. Such arrangements, while advantageous to students and enrollment figures, bring other complexities. Students who join a program at different times of the academic year do not really form bonds as part of a cohort group. The asynchronous fashion in which they take courses also means that the core courses need to be taught year round. This situation can put considerable strain on a relatively small teaching staff, and also prevent them from offering a larger range of courses. Normally this problem is solved by appointing adjunct faculty—a solution that is not an option during periods of severe budget constraints.

In sum, adult learners have their own idiosyncrasies that call for special attention. An ongoing concern (and the cause of much debate) is how to respond to their need for a more career-focused education. PCS programs are therefore always somewhat caught between the built in tensions of providing adult learners with a higher education degree which has academic rigor, while at the same time meeting students’ career and practice needs.

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