Media, Technology, and Education
Integrated ClustersStrategic Clusters

This Week in Clusters

It was a busy week in cluster development. The guides met Wednesday for eight hours to continue our discussions about definitions and success measures for the upcoming year and begin our discussions about project funding and external partnership development. Then on Thursday, the President and his cabinet held a town hall meeting to discuss where PSU has come from to get to this point, where we currently are, and the vision of PSU’s future in more detail. Later on Thursday, the Arts and Technology cluster had our first social gathering with about 20 people attending. I personally also had several conversations about various aspects of cluster development that have helped me to continue to understand what we’re trying to do and why we’re doing it.

I think the most useful conversation came from the A&T cluster social gathering. A faculty member asked us if anyone has researched how other institutions have implemented clusters. The answer is yes. In fact, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning brought two guest speakers to campus in early June to talk about their institutions’ experiences with implementing something like clusters. I had done some research on my own in the Spring semester about other cluster implementations. But it had been a while since I had looked for any information about what other institutions are doing. Since I have a much better understanding of our own goals with cluster development, I thought it might be useful to revisit some of this research. It was useful as it helped me to understand the ways in which what we’re trying to do is different than what any other institution has tried to do.

In my research, I’ve found that there seem to be two major strategies for implementation. In the first, the focus is on faculty research. Clusters are developed in order to bring faculty with a variety of disciplinary perspectives together to work on large societal problems.In the second, the focus is on coursework for students, most often general education coursework. Clusters are developed to create connections among a group of courses to give students an integrated disciplinary perspective on how to approach their academic work. There are numerous examples of academic institutions approaching the idea of clusters using each of these two strategies.

A good example of the faculty research model for cluster development is Dartmouth College (my alma mater!), our New Hampshire neighbor. The description of their cluster initiative says, “the cluster initiative extends Dartmouth’s impact on the world through interdisciplinary faculty teams who collaborate at the leading edge of discovery.” Although I’m sure some students will get involved in the cluster initiative at Dartmouth, students are never explicitly mentioned in their description. In fact, there seems to be no attempt to ensure that the research of all faculty will fit into one of the seven clusters. Several of the clusters are focused on large, but actually fairly narrow, issues. For example, one of the clusters is called “Arctic Engineering in a Period of Climate Change.” Another is called “Personalized Treatments for Cystic Fibrosis.” These are clearly large, important areas of research but in looking at the full set of cluster names and descriptions, it seems as though many faculty on campus will not easily find a fit in one of these seven clusters. Nor will all students although the description of the clusters does say, “Cluster themes will provide the basis for new courses and curricula as well as new research opportunities.” But there does not seem to be any effort to engage everyone on campus in the cluster initiative.

Several other institutions seem to be approaching clusters as Dartmouth is. The University of Houston web site says, “Clusters are faculty-driven, multilevel frameworks that connect researchers with expertise in various disciplines in a multicampus system with industry partners and funding agencies. They provide an inclusive foundation for collective scholarly activity and foster the sharing of ideas.” The web site for Syracuse University says of their 11 clusters, “Each includes major faculty appointments for cluster leadership, disciplined investment from both University and school/college resources, and creation of multi-institutional, cross-sector partnerships to drive progress toward solutions of the most pressing issues facing the world.” A final example (although there are many more) comes from White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities which is part of the University of Leeds, Sheffield, and York in England. Their web site says, “The three White Rose universities have a breadth of expertise across number of academic areas.  In WRoCAH these are represented by seven academic clusters each of which covers a range of research areas. Each Academic Cluster has a Chairperson that sits on the WRoCAH Studentships Committee. They also co-ordinate cross-consortium collaborative research activities such as subject-specific forums and interdisciplinary research forums.”

The University of Rochester uses the word cluster to describe interdisciplinary activities including both faculty and students. The University Committee for Interdisciplinary Studies has as its mission “to encourage and facilitate interactions on scholarly topics cutting across traditional boundaries between departments and schools. UCIS clusters should exploit pre-existing and new centers of excellence within the University to develop new areas of scholarship.” The University currently “funds 21 UCIS clusters in the sciences and humanities with a remarkable range of activities throughout the year.” These clusters “must be highly interdisciplinary. Cluster members must represent multiple departments and at least two schools within the University.” The individual descriptions of these clusters explicitly mention getting students involved in activities but there is no mention of coursework associated with the clusters. In addition, there seems to be no attempt to ensure that every faculty member and every student is associated with at least one cluster.

A different approach to cluster implementation focuses on coursework, most often in the general education program. For example, James Madison University has an interdisciplinary approach to General Education that is described as follows: “General Education: The Human Community is the core academic program of James Madison University in which students come to understand how distinct disciplines look at the world from different vantage points. Courses in The Human Community are organized into five clusters, each emphasizing unique tools, rationales, and methodologies.” The University of Dayton defines a cluster in their general education description. “A cluster is composed of courses that focus on a common theme. Each cluster includes at least three courses from three different domains of knowledge.” Students at Chapman University must take a set of related courses in two different clusters, the Global Citizen Cluster and the Inter/Multidisciplinary Cluster as part of their general education program. The goal of each of these clusters is to “study one disciplinary subject in depth or one topic from several disciplinary approaches.”

One of the things we have consistently said is that PSU is attempting to do something that no other institution is doing. After reviewing the programs above (and others) again, I think that what we’re trying to do that is different is to incorporate as much of the University as possible into the cluster model. We want every faculty member and every student to be involved in clusters in some way. So our clusters will be comprised of course work for every student, perhaps primarily through general education as other institutions have done. I think we’re also envisioning that student work in classes will sometimes be focused on issues and projects that extend beyond the classroom and will be visible to the world beyond the classroom. But the cluster will also involve faculty scholarship in collaboration with other faculty, with students, and with external partnerships. I don’t think all faculty scholarship will involve cluster work the goal is to get faculty to think about their scholarship in new ways, to articulate the relationship between their scholarship, their students, and the community beyond academia. I think we’re trying to focus our cluster implementation on the experience of the students so that every student gets the opportunity to engage in at least one high impact activity, such as working with a faculty member on scholarly activities, or an internship, or some sort of practicum, or even a project within a class that engages the community outside of that class.

Reexamining all of these programs in the last few days has helped me to clarify in my own mind some of the ideas that we’ve been talking about as guides and in our more informal conversations as members of the PSU community. I look forward to continuing these conversations and welcome reactions to what I’ve shared here.


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I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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