Asking the Right Questions: Interdisciplinary Arts in Academia

BY LAUREN V. COONS

Note: This article was first published in Stance on Dance’s spring/summer 2024 print issue. To learn more, visit stanceondance.com/print-publication.

In 2009, I entered the office of my undergraduate academic advisor at the University of New Mexico, eager to embark on a new chapter of my creative life and education. The moment I sat down at the receiving end of the advisor’s desk, I found myself answering a long list of questions that would foreshadow some of the greatest challenges of my eventual career as an interdisciplinary artist. While the questions were specific and varied, they all pointed to one essential inquiry that every artist is presented with time and again: “What is your primary discipline?” While logical and necessary within the confines of the university, this question has formed the foundation for a structure of externally imposed limitations that I’d either be searching for ways to creatively exist within or escape from for years to come. Later, this question would again present significant challenges in my search for potential doctoral degree programs.

My reason for meeting with the academic advisor back in 2009 was to sort through the details of a new degree plan. I had changed my major from Creative Writing to Music Theory & Composition, sparked by my feverish ambition to expand my artistic toolbox, to maximize my potential to compose and create. Like so many artists, I spent my childhood flowing joyfully and effortlessly between creative disciplines and activities: piano lessons, dance classes, plays, choir practices, and solitary moments of writing and drawing. Each discipline provided me with different ways to engage, create meaning, and express myself. Each discipline was informed and strengthened by the others. From early on, I could sense that my goal wasn’t necessarily to dance, to write, or to make music, but to take in the world with fervent curiosity and to create something new in return. I was a composer, in the broadest sense.

I eventually obtained both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Music at UNM. While the scheduling logistics and demanding curriculum of the music program made it impractical for me to pursue a minor or a second major, I continued to practice dancing and writing both inside and outside of the university. I was incredibly fortunate to study under several professors who not only understood the value of interdisciplinarity in both composition and research but also supported and encouraged my pursuit of intermedia compositional work. I was also introduced to the fields of arts-in-medicine and the healing arts by my mentor and advisor, Dr. Patricia Repar, which would eventually become a major component of my work. Nonetheless, there were still many times when I received pushback from faculty who defined composition as a strictly musical practice and from administrators who I frustrated with my determination to defy the prescribed curriculum. By the time I graduated in 2017, I had begun to form a creative identity and practice that integrated my artistic disciplines as well as my interests in holistic health, collaboration, and arts-based community engagement.

Lauren stands close to a bass clarinet player who is also standing. Lauren gestures forward. They wear black and are on a wood floor.

Lauren V. Coons and Clara Byom, Photo by Randi Thompson

Like many music scholars, I started looking into doctoral programs in my final year of graduate school. My goal was to find a program that would allow me to continue my research in utilizing open works (what John Cage termed “indeterminacy”) as a methodology for interdisciplinary exchange, social practice, and accessible participation in the arts. My ideal program was one that would permit equal and integrated study in the departments of music, dance, and English/creative writing. A program that would allow me to also work with faculty or students in relevant programs outside of the arts, such as social work or public health, would be even better. Whatever the specifics of the curriculum, it would be essential for me to find a school that understood the nature and value of interdisciplinarity, that had an open and progressive view of composition, and provided enough freedom and support for me to continue my research. Excited by the number of emerging interdisciplinary arts programs I had been hearing about from my professors and classmates, I approached the task with optimism. It wasn’t long, though, before I started to feel the way I did in the advisor’s office years before: disheartened by the realization that, in my pursuit to expand my knowledge and body of work, I might instead be required to shrink the scope of my, admittedly unusual, practice to accommodate for the limitations of the university.

The first challenge in finding a suitable school was the limited number of interdisciplinary PhD or DMA programs. I do want to give credit to the universities and colleges that see the need for interdisciplinary tracks and have either developed programs or are in the process of doing so. I also want to acknowledge the faculty members, like those whom I studied under at UNM, who nurture and encourage interdisciplinary work from their students, regardless of the format or restrictions of the school. Nonetheless, programs that are truly interdisciplinary are few and far between. For example, many programs that claim to be interdisciplinary merely allow for a few additional electives to be taken outside of the “primary discipline.” I would argue that this is not interdisciplinarity, but a version of multidisciplinary, not unlike an undergraduate curriculum. This leads me to the second challenge: differing definitions of “interdisciplinary.”

I define interdisciplinary work as the integration of multiple disciplines within a piece, practice, study, or approach. I believe that an interdisciplinary degree program should facilitate deep and meaningful integration for students. Many of the programs labeled “interdisciplinary studies” exist within a single school (music, dance, etc.), but allow students to study more than one instrument or genre (often requiring the choice of a primary one, yet again), or to study performance, composition, or choreography alongside a research discipline such as history, theory, or musicology. Others are deeply integrated but are highly specific in terms of discipline or research, likely due to the expertise of the faculty or the perceived or expressed interests of prospective students. For example, technology is often the primary or singular interdisciplinary component. This is neither surprising nor inherently problematic, as developing and integrating new technology in the arts is quite a large, continuously growing, and important area of interest, but it is only one avenue of interdisciplinary studies. In the case of some other universities, a program might be topics based, such as the study of a single genre or style of music or dance as it relates to a specific social justice issue within a geographical region. Again, it is a wonderful thing that these types of programs exist, and they surely provide exactly the thing that some students are seeking. But for those of us who would like a more flexible format that allows us to utilize the resources of a university to forge a new path, they aren’t the right fit.

Another problem I encountered was the division of academic departments. Through my own personal experience and my conversations with colleagues, I’ve learned that it is not uncommon for departments within the College of Fine Arts to have little to no interdisciplinary engagement in the form of cross-listed classes, collaborative performances, or other practices. This division is often exacerbated by physical distance, with departments sometimes located on opposite ends of college campuses. If it’s a challenge to study or collaborate in more than one department within a college, it is even harder to do so across colleges. Creative writing, which is so often combined with music and dance in the “real world,” typically resides within the humanities or the College of Arts and Sciences. This division of the arts is baffling when you consider how deeply integrated music, dance, and language have been since the dawn of humanity. Nonetheless, many programs require students to choose a primary discipline and situate themselves as either a musician, dancer, or visual artist with a secondary interest. Third disciplines or studies outside of the College of Fine Arts are often not permitted or not officially considered part of the course of study.

Lauren stands on tiptoe with arms in a V above her head. Clara plays bass clarinet in the backfround. They both wear black on a hard wood floor.

Lauren V. Coons and Clara Byom, Photo by Randi Thompson

Some colleges offer a PhD in “Interdisciplinary Studies” for students with specific or complex research interests. Serving as its own college, an Interdisciplinary Studies department can work with students to design a program wherein they are able to study under faculty members in multiple departments simultaneously. While this type of program is designed specifically for the above-mentioned students looking to forge a new path within a flexible structure, it still presents some major barriers to entry. Those barriers include obtaining funding via teaching or research assistantships, possessing required prerequisites or credentials (such as bachelor’s degrees or extensive coursework) in each of the fields, or securing faculty advisors in every prospective department prior to applying.

I ultimately made the decision not to attend a doctoral program, but to gain the knowledge and experience I desired through working as a freelance intermedia composer. In the past several years I’ve enjoyed a rewarding and meaningful career full of opportunities to create, perform, collaborate, teach, and engage with my community as an artist-in-medicine and facilitator of numerous arts-based projects. While the “primary discipline” question continues to haunt funding and artist residency applications, calls for works, and many online forms that will only allow the checking of a single box, I truly owe any success I’ve had to the interdisciplinary nature of my work. Nonetheless, my growing ambition to teach and to develop community programs has made apparent the increased opportunity that a terminal degree would afford me and finding a suitable program hasn’t gotten any easier.

A doctoral program should be an opportunity to dive fully into your specific research interests. It should be a time dedicated to deepening your expertise. It shouldn’t mean putting your life’s work on hold for three to five years in order to obtain a credential. There are many artists who prefer to work within a single discipline, and for them, specialized programs should, of course, continue to exist. But my hope is that academic institutions consider the ways that the hard division of the arts into separate disciplines and the challenge of pursuing interdisciplinarity affect the way that we make and think about art. We should try, with great intent, to minimize the limitations we put on this essential part of our humanity in favor of the logistical needs of a standardized curriculum.

So, how can we begin to minimize these limitations? The most obvious way is for academic institutions to continue to develop interdisciplinary degree programs based on the expressed needs and desires of students. But perhaps we can also go back to the start of my academic journey, to the advisor’s office, and consider whether we could be asking different questions. Perhaps rather than putting so much emphasis on the declaration of a primary discipline from a drop-down list of vague and reductive options, we could begin to regularly ask students, “What interests and excites you? What would you like to learn right now?” and consider new ways to advise them down an ever-changing path, both inside and outside of the standard curriculum. Every artist, every person, regardless of whether they work within one discipline or many, is a complex individual influenced and inspired by what interests and excites them. The more often we ask and answer those questions, the more willing we are to forge uncommon paths, the less need we have to identify ourselves by our “primary disciplines,” and the more we are able to discover and fully engage with our life’s work.

Lauren sits at a desk in a living room and looks up and smiles. She is surrounded by musical instruments and papers.

Lauren V. Coons, Photo by Niccoli Scalice

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Lauren V. Coons is an interdisciplinary composer, performer, healing artist, and educator from Albuquerque, New Mexico. In her creative work, she synthesizes her backgrounds in music, dance, mindfulness and meditation, and creative writing into intermedia performance pieces for a broad range of instrumentation, electronics, movement, written and spoken word, and visual art. She has composed works for several artists and institutions including the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center Orchestra, the University of New Mexico Art Museum, Abrepaso Flamenco, Wave Dash, New Mexico Contemporary Ensemble, and New Music New Mexico.

2 Responses to “Asking the Right Questions: Interdisciplinary Arts in Academia”

  1. DINA REID CNP

    I’m thoroughly impressed with Lauren Coons endeavors and her comments. I’ve been studying dance with Lauren for 3 years and specifically @ MapleStreet DanceSpace for 21 years under the direction of Romy Keegan , owner. Lauren has been my inspiration in dance, movement, and music. My background is NCC & NM Certified Womens Health Nurse Practitioner with UNM BS NURSING & UNM MS CLINICAL EXERCISE PHYSIOLOGIST. My practice is wholistic to include Core Synchronization, Healy Device based on Quantum Physics Research & Creator Neville Goddard. My desire is to have an association with Lauren Coons FOREVER!

  2. romy keegan

    What a beautifully stated and interesting article! Thank you! Lauren’s unboxed pioneering spirit and socially minded creativity is inspiring, and has me asking my own questions, about my own choices and processes, offering new personal insights and internal realizations. Beautiful!

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