The first cohort of Ph.D. students are beginning their journey through Virginia Tech's new interdisciplinary program in the humanities and social sciences.

Approved by the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) in January 2008, the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) program is the result of years of planning between core departments (history, interdisciplinary studies, philosophy, and political science), faculty, and college and university administrators.

The program design has already been hailed as a bellwether for higher education by numerous expert evaluators from peer institutions who contributed to the council’s approval process.

Applications for this first cohort came from throughout the United States, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Many students bring more than one advanced degree to their doctoral studies, and most have degrees in more than one discipline. Indeed, they are as diverse as the problem-centered, theory based, curriculum itself. Cohort research interests include post-industrial society and culture, critical social theory, social memory, human security in post-communist countries, the impacts of new communication technologies on social identities, liberation movements, and global transformations of democracy.

For program director Wolfgang Natter, who oversaw its curriculum design and approval, “ASPECT is now poised to realize its full potential as a nationally and internationally renowned teaching and research program.”

The initial vision for the program came from an internal proposal in 2000 by Timothy W. Luke, professor of political science, and University Senior Fellow for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. Luke spearheaded the early stages of the program’s development until 2005, when Natter joined the Virginia Tech faculty. The program now draws upon the expertise of some 50 Virginia Tech faculty from three colleges.

Curricular hallmarks are the program’s attention to theory and methodology, along with an emphasis on team teaching as a way of integrating interdisciplinary teaching and research. A team-taught seminar and integrated lecture series was piloted in spring 2007 on the theme of Democracy and Democratic Theory as part of its graduate certificate program.

In spring 2009, the seminar theme and integrated lecture series will be on Neoliberalism and Society. Other team-taught Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought seminars have addressed the topics of contemporary theoretical turns: spatial, performative, postcolonial, and animal; psychoanalysis and politics; and first contacts between settler and indigenous communities.

Program affiliates who have joined Natter in team teaching seminars include the Department of Philosophy’s Steve Daskal and Phil Olson, the Department of History’s Marion Mollin, Joanna Kucinski, and Brett Shadle, the Department of Political Science’s Wayne Moore, Rick Shingles, and Antonio Vazquez, women’s studies professor Barbara Ellen Smith, government and international affairs professor Rupa Thadhani, humanities professor Elizabeth Fine, foreign languages and literatures professor Janell Watson, and religious studies professor Brian Britt.

Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought is a research as well as a teaching program. A lively faculty working-paper series provides collegial feedback on work prior to its publication, and numerous workshops, panel discussions, and public lectures have been organized during the past two years. In addition, Virginia Tech hosted major conferences on democracy in commemoration of the founding of Jamestown, and an annual meeting of the International Social Theory Consortium.

Already there is some anticipation about the first graduates of the program: “I look forward to recommending students to your program,” noted Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut. “And as someone who interviews job candidates every year, I especially look forward to that time when ASPECT Ph.D.s begin to have their impact on higher education.”

Natter's research has been supported by the Fulbright Commision, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He received his master’s and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins and his undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University.

Participating faculty and course offerings in Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought hail from three colleges:

They include the core contributing Departments of History, Interdisciplinary Studies, Philosophy, and Political Science, as well as programs and departments including Africana studies, Appalachian studies, area studies, business and economics, the Center for Public Administration and Policy, English, foreign languages and literatures, government and international affairs, an emerging program in public humanities, religious studies, science and technology studies, sociology, urban affairs and planning, and women’s studies.