The School of Arts and Sciences Announces Restructure to Accommodate Interdisciplinary Education

Dean Cathia Jenainati says the changes aim to increase student employability and prepare them to become changemakers.

By Hanan Nasser

LAU’s School of Arts and Sciences (SoAS) has announced a new structure that will ensure multidisciplinary pedagogy through liberal education and will empower the arts programs while maintaining a steady growth of the sciences programs.

In its restructure, the SoAS consolidated the departments of Communication Arts, English, History and Humanities into the Department of Communication, Arts and Languages. In this new constellation, colleagues who teach languages, linguistics, literature and all aspects of performing arts and communication will be occupying a shared intellectual space where innovative courses and programs can be designed and delivered.

The departments of Social Sciences and Education have been brought together to form the Department of Social and Education Sciences, thus creating a powerful new entity that includes the disciplines of education, psychology, sociology and political sciences.

The new structure sees the birth of the Department of Liberal Education, that services the entire LAU community as it is home to the Freshman Program, the Liberal Arts and Sciences Curriculum, the Intensive English Program, and the Writing Center. The departments of Computer Science and Mathematics and Natural Sciences remain unchanged.

In a wide-ranging interview, Dean Cathia Jenainati delves into the multifaceted objectives of the restructure: how it impacts the school’s mission, student education and employability, faculty cohesion and collaboration across disciplines, how it promotes multidisciplinary pedagogy, and prepares students to become changemakers through its Liberal Arts Curriculum. 

How does the new structure enhance the existing multidisciplinary aspect of the school?

We have a unique opportunity to be multidisciplinary, and yet we were still structured according to disciplines.

The first point of contention for me was the Liberal Arts Curriculum (LAC). Whereas it is meant to remedy students’ experience of an education in silos, it was not doing that, because it too was divided into courses in the arts, courses in the natural sciences and courses in math.

We wanted to create an agile structure that allowed students who are interested in all aspects of the arts and languages to be part of a community of thinking and of practice. This was already happening in the natural sciences, which incorporated physics, biology, chemistry and nutrition.

We wanted the students to see themselves as part of a bigger picture, as well as preparing for specialization in their discipline.

What does the new structure offer?

The pedagogic incentive was to create a much more vibrant, pluralistic experience of education. It was obvious that we had an imbalance in our previous structure. We had two imposing sciences departments. Everywhere you went people knew about the Department of Natural Sciences and about the prestigious Department of Computer Sciences and Mathematics. For many years the focus had been on kitting out those labs and supporting research endeavor in the sciences. Yet, only once in a while did people pay attention to the smaller departments’ needs and their achievements, even though there was a lot of creativity and innovation that was taking place.

Under the new structure, SoAS brings together vibrant intellectual expertise into one department focused on Communication, Arts and Languages. The department will now have more human resource at its disposal, which is an essential criterion for multidisciplinary praxis. We are hoping to design new degree programs that would bring together languages, literature and performance, for example. Or else we could design comparative degree programs that draw on the synergies between journalism, linguistics and literature. Performing arts is an area of great interest for LAU, and we are hoping to imbue this program with new faculty and innovative learning techniques.

We are not making any structural changes to the Department of Computer Sciences and Mathematics. This is a growth area for us, and we are hoping to develop the BS in Bioinformatics while continuing to promote CS and mathematics. Research in this department is thriving and we have seen a number of world-leading scholarly papers published in recent years.

As for the Natural Sciences, I hope that we will stabilize the exponential growth that we have been witnessing in the number of students enrolling on the pre-med track. We aim to draw more students who are interested in pursuing undergraduate and graduate study in biology, chemistry and physics. The faculty are all research active, and these programs are predicated on the principle of integrating undergraduate research into the learning experience. 

The Department of Social and Education Sciences is a hub of activity that will see even more innovation as the education sciences come together with psychology and political sciences. We are looking forward to seeing research into educational psychology and education policy – and perhaps in a few years’ time we will consider relaunching the social work program which has been put on hold temporarily. This department has been very active in its research output in the areas of migration, conflict resolution and international affairs.

I also wanted to encourage co-delivery of teaching, which is so enriching for both faculty and students. I thought it would be wonderful for students to sit through one course and receive tuition from two people with different perspectives, thus compelling them to negotiate different ideas. We will be promoting this delivery method in the newly revised Liberal Arts and Sciences curriculum.

When you talk about co-teaching, does that mean there will be a new curriculum with shared courses in the arts as in the sciences? If so, how will that impact student employability?

That was the first of the many suggestions the faculty made when we said that we were going to merge translation, theater and performance studies, for example. We had suggestions, which are being developed now, of collaborations between the Arabic language, translation, theater and performance studies, and of teaching Arabic scriptwriting.

Most recently, two developments initiated by the faculty have been realized. The first was introducing Arabic at the Writing Center, given that most of our students will be employed either in Lebanon or in the region and the purpose of the Writing Center is not just to develop academic writing skills but also to support students across the schools in professional writing.

The second is a Minor in Arabic. Dr. Vahid Behmardi, chair of Communication, Arts and Languages, suggested we include Arabic for journalism, since most of our journalism graduates are likely to work in Arabic press and media. So, we are basically introducing students to courses that will make them more employable in the region.

When we say Liberal Education or Liberal Arts Curriculum, how is that a differentiator for prospective students?

The purpose of liberal education is to liberate your mind to think creatively of how you can function as a citizen and – as we call it in our curriculum – a changemaker. In parallel to us reclaiming the streets and having our voices heard, we must also be constructive agents. We cannot just deconstruct. We must reconstruct. So, the purpose of the LAU Liberal Arts Curriculum is to train you to think critically and constructively about local and global problems that seem beyond your reach. It is designed around problems that are seemingly impossible to resolve, but that nonetheless preoccupy us.

What issues is the LAC focused on?

We drew on the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that capture the spirit of the major problems our world is facing, and alas our country faces all of them.

We designed the core courses of the LAC along the four pillars of sustainability: Economic, Social, Environmental and Governance. Each course is linked to one or more of the SDGs: Food, Water, Energy, Poverty, Health, Gender etc. In each course the student acquires general education on the four pillars that determine the extent to which the issue is sustainable. 

The purpose of this curriculum is to get students to think through a problem-based pedagogic framework about the sustainable development goals as they relate to the nation, to the region and then to the world, be it around water and food security, energy sustainability etc.

What opportunities did the new administrative positions for faculty provide? And how did the faculty feel about the change?

First, I want to pay tribute to all the faculty who were initially skeptical about a restructure, especially as it was being done at a time of extreme turmoil in the country. But the more we talked about it, the more we consulted and discussed it in person and in teams, I could see them slowly finding their space and a role for themselves.

Faculty do feel that this restructure offers them new leadership opportunities. We have created director role, more program lead, and more coordinator opportunities. Department leadership is distributed among more individuals who take part in decision-making. The new structure has also made it possible for many early career faculty to participate fruitfully. There is no way any of this could have happened without the faculty’s leap of faith.

SoAS is quite a unique school where a sizeable number of faculty are embracing change. We want prospective students to know that we are serious about education, and we want to offer them an experience that is in tune with the world that they inhabit. We are working hard to offer them opportunities to learn in departments that promote interdisciplinary thinking because this aligns with the exigencies of the professional world that they will encounter.

We are doing something radically different, unique and revolutionary. We want each student to know that we will make them more employable, more intellectual, simply because our curricula push them to study and to think differently.