Students taking a new course on food justice at UCLA learn about the topic from the ground up. The course is part of a new food studies minor, one of a growing number of interdisciplinary programs that have become popular to take.
A growing list of interdisciplinary minors is attracting students who seek to broaden their post-graduation prospects and interact with peers in different areas of study.
“I’m clearly seeing how beneficial the entrepreneurship minor is to my future career prospects,” said Veronica Chan, a fourth-year who is double-majoring in both architecture and design media arts. “But it is also sculpting me personally.”
That perception among students is one factor that’s driving the development of more interdisciplinary minors. Last year, the UCLA Anderson School of Management launched an entrepreneurship minor while the UCLA International Institute offered a global health minor. And a food studies minor developed by a cross section of campus departments and the Center for Community Learning will be offered this spring. So will a minor in literature and the environment, managed by the English department. Students in this minor will select environmentally focused electives from other humanities departments as well as those in the social, life and physical sciences.
With the recent additions of entrepreneurship and food studies, there are now five minors boasting similar cross-disciplinary curricula managed out of UCLA’s Undergraduate Education Initiatives, including social thought (launched in 2005), civic engagement (2006) and disability studies (2007). A free-standing interdisciplinary minor under UCLA’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies Program has existed since 1997.
“Collaborative minors invigorate curriculum,” said Dean of Humanities David Schaberg of the UCLA College. “We aim to educate creative thinkers who read widely and learn to analyze, synthesize and apply knowledge; study world cultures; and become articulate speakers and persuasive writers. We want our students to graduate with the ability to thrive as global citizens.”
Most of the interdisciplinary minors also incorporate internships, capstone courses or service learning programs. These in-depth, experience-based courses are invaluable, students say, allowing them to cultivate skill sets that will serve them well in the job market.
The roots of the food studies minor
The newest addition to the interdisciplinary menu at UCLA is a minor in food studies.
The program embraces a rapidly growing course list from a variety of departments that use food as the main lens of investigation. Students will dive into such topics as the science of food, food production, food policy, nutrition, cultural customs, the folklore of food and much more.
For example, this spring there will be food-focused classes for every palate, including “Chocolate in the Americas: Bittersweet Bliss” and an English class called “California Foodways and Food Writing.” And this winter a variable history class, “Cultural History of Food in Atlantic World,” was offered.
The desire to develop a minor in food studies evolved naturally out of work being done by UCLA’s Healthy Campus Initiative, said Joseph Nagy, English professor and chair of the minor. Student interest was already high, he said, thanks to engagement with healthy eating and wellness programs on campus and the popularity of new courses such as “Food Studies and Food Justice” and “Food and Sustainability,” a general education cluster course.
Food is a universal, inherently varied topic, one that is embedded with meaning, memory and opportunities for dialogue, Nagy said. Students minoring in food studies have the flexibility to incorporate related classes, petition to include other classes and to self-curate a course of study. Also in the works are plans to bring in food industry experts as guest lecturers, including L.A. restaurateur and KCRW host Evan Kleiman, starting this summer. Her course will be called “We are Stardust: Moral Ecology of Food.”
Stepping outside conventional ideas
There are currently 75 students enrolled in the entrepreneurship minor, which has drawn students from a variety of majors, including Andreas Dereschuk, an applied math major. Within the minor, he has taken on valuable public-speaking and teamwork challenges. He also appreciates interacting with a diverse pool of students through the minor.
“Getting to experience and have access to instructors and fellow students in what really is a sub-campus within UCLA has absolutely enhanced my experience here,” Dereschuk said. “Mathematics teaches me problem-solving, which is translatable to so many things in life. Having these management courses has helped me recognize strengths that I can use to my advantage and skills I can work on developing.”
A fourth-year student who has already secured a job, Dereschuk said potential employers were intrigued to see the entrepreneurship minor listed on his resume. He aspires to build a technology-based business, a concept that will be part of his final project in the minor.
One of the most robust and constantly evolving interdisciplinary minors is disability studies, which has graduated more than 100 students. Victoria Marks, professor in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, became its chair in 2013.
As a choreographer, Marks said she never expected to work so deeply within the UCLA College, but she thinks that establishing and maintaining interdisciplinary coursework is both worthy and necessary.
“It allows for us as thinkers and doers to step outside conventional ideas about knowledge and to question what knowledge is and to create new definitions of knowledge,” she said.
In disability studies, students challenge and redefine what is “normal” — whether physical, mental or intellectual — by exploring disability as a social issue with the goal of re-envisioning models of access, inclusion, participation and equality.
Marks said the introductory course is often a paradigm shift for students, many of whom are seeking careers in health fields, but also gravitate to social work, advocacy, philanthropy or public policy. Through the minor they have the opportunity to study disability-related topics in such fields as dance, urban planning, law, history, art, even gerontology.
Mi So Kwak is a third-year psychology major who decided to double-minor in education disability studies, even though it will extend her original plan to graduate in three years. Kwak, who is blind, said the program gave her the opportunity to examine disability academically for the first time.
“I’ve been blind all my life, and I’m fine with it,” she said. “But this minor has been very perspective-broadening about disability in our culture. These scholars we’re learning from are activist scholars, and it is very encouraging to see how they are making a difference in the way people view disability.”