Slow Interdisciplinarity, Reprised
In some regards, it seems counter to the values of open education to begin the year with a forecast of what’s to come. If students truly shape how I approach my teaching, how rigid and detailed can my plans possibly be before I meet them? Yet even in the most unplanned, learner-driven, project-based courses (such as Integrated Capstones), I still find myself imagining the arch of the class, and how we will get to where we are doing. I imagine flexible assignments, structured fish-bowl discussions, and my now-infamous primer assignment.[*] In other words, despite my best efforts, my inner planner is in full force. This time, it is much more informed by current scholarship of teaching and learning, thanks to my participation in the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (CPLC).
This summer, I was most influenced by the work of Cathy Davidson, Josh Eyler, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and Paul Handstedt, who all, in their own ways, emphasize more integrated, open, and collaborative forms of learning. Particularly during my first read of Davidson’s The New Education (2017), I began to develop a concept that I call “slow interdisciplinarity”: a method of teaching and learning that calls us to be mindful, respectful, and inquisitive of each other’s disciplinary perspectives—to value ways of knowing that might challenge our own. Many of our readings—and indeed, much of the forward-thinking scholarship on teaching and learning—emphasize the vital role of innovative, integrated curricula in transforming higher education for the twenty-first century. I couldn’t agree more, and my sense is that Plymouth State’s community is invested in creating and sustaining interdisciplinary learning experiences for our students. However, as a member of the INCO Task Force, an INCAP Teaching Fellow, and an ambassador to WPI’s Institute for Project-Based Learning this past summer, I’ve learned that effective interdisciplinary pedagogy is much easier said than done. As I wrote in a previous piece this summer: “Sometimes I think that, in our zeal to provide more innovative learning experiences, we get on the interdisciplinary train without inviting students on board. And we need to remember that, if we are going to implement interdisciplinary forms of learning, we should welcome students into these forms of learning as well. Sometimes this requires slowing down, making space for conversations about disciplinary divides and methods, and recognizing how those divides can affect the classroom.”
Having taught English courses with multiple majors, I am no stranger to the ways in which disciplinary divides can alienate non-English majors and unintentionally devalue diverse forms of knowing. So, when I taught an Integrated Capstone (INCAP) course last spring, I began by asking students in the course to articulate their own disciplinary assumptions, methods, and objects of study. I did this for a number of reasons: (a) so that students could come to value the respective majors and knowledge domains representative in the class (rather than perpetuate “major cliques” and disciplinary divides), (b) so that students could begin to think about how different disciplinary perspectives might intersect on their own projects related to food (the course’s topic), and (c) so that students could recognize the boundaries and limitations of their own perspectives. I am so glad that we did this, because it set the tone that, in this class, we were going to bring our disparate disciplinary perspectives together and that these various perspectives were what made the course both challenging and meaningful. As we work towards various forms of integrated learning at Plymouth State more broadly, I think that we can benefit from slowing down, consistently asking students to examine their own disciplinary assumptions (as well as our own), enhancing their conception of disciplinarity in courses within the major, and infusing a meta-critical awareness of disciplinary boundaries throughout the undergraduate career (not just in particular courses or programs). I have been unconsciously developing this theory about interdisciplinary teaching and learning for a few years now, but the CPLC allowed me the time and space to explore the current scholarly conversation surrounding these issues. This year, I hope to more clearly share this theory through either (A) an on-campus workshop or (B) a scholarly article or (C) both. I also know that “slow interdisciplinarity” will inform my work, both implicitly and explicitly, as I engage in discussions about the future of the INCAP, thematic pathways in General Education, and the broader institutional efforts outlined by my faculty team at the WPI Institute for Project-Based Learning.
Inspired by CPLC readings and discussions, I am also taking steps to develop my own deconstructive teaching practice, which asks students to question the assumptions and boundaries of particular knowledge systems and disciplines as they learn about them. My “Rethinking Early American Literature” course exemplifies this practice; as students learn the major movements and texts governing the idea of “American Literature,” they also challenge that very idea, reframing literature around concepts such as climate, transnationalism, and digital technology. In many respects, this course constitutes an “un-survey” of sorts—a survey from the inside-out, a survey that undoes itself. This course includes some “open” elements, insofar as students teach particular classes throughout the semester, and the textbook—now a nationally recognized phenomenon—is student-published, ongoing, and freely accessible.[†] This semester, for the first time, student-led, in-class activities and textbook contributions will be “un-graded” (see Jesse Stommel’s work on this). Instead of emailing students a grade based on a rubric, I will engage students in a feedback dialogue about their experience with leading the class and developing materials for the textbook. This doesn’t mean that the assignment loses its rigor. On the contrary, the textbook contribution isn’t complete until it’s publicly presentable. The ungraded nature of this assignment might actually push students out of their comfort zone. In fact, my hope is that students will feel more empowered to take risks and experience the weird unpredictability of leading a class without the anxiety of losing points. In addition to trying ungrading, I am also teaching a new, challenging text, entitled The Black Vampyre (1819) (that’s right!) that I myself have not read yet. The digital edition of this newly recovered text was just released last week as part of the Just Teach One Project, and I am both nervous and excited to explore this text with my students for the first time. To be clear, I am inviting my students to explore this text with me, rather than for me.
As part of the institutional effort to teach and assess the Habits of Mind, particularly in General Education courses, I have redesigned the final project in Wilderness Literature. The Personal Wilderness Portfolio asks students to connect their conception of wilderness to their own personal, intellectual, and professional paths. It can include creative writing, photography, art, other student writing, and interviews, among other pieces, and its aim is to enable students to connect deeply and personally with the concepts from the course. I piloted this assignment last year, received positive student feedback, and submitted it to the Gen Ed Assessment Outcomes Task Force. This year, I would like to include an element that, in the spirit of “slow interdisciplinarity,” enables students to step outside of our English classroom to experience wilderness from another disciplinary perspective. To that end, I am asking them to either (a) visit a class that deals with topics related to the environment/outdoors/wilderness or (b) attend a lecture or other event related to these topics that is not literary. I will ask the students to examine the different approach to the wilderness that they experienced as part of their final portfolio. I’m not sure how this will go, or what we will learn, but I think it’s important that students step outside the literary world at least once, in order to cultivate their “integrated perspective.”
[*] For each class that I teach, I begin with the students’ ideas on the course questions. For instance, in the first week of Wilderness Literature, students write a “primer” on the subject matter, answering the question “What is Wilderness?” They do they same for American Literature. In Critical Theory, they respond to: “What is the value and purpose of Literary Studies?” And so on. This “primer” assignment allows us to consider the knowledge and assumptions that we bring to the course, and we can refer back to students’ preliminary definitions throughout the semester. In many ways, the primer provides students with a collective and personalized compass with which to navigate their learning.
[†] This textbook began with Robin DeRosa’s Early American Literature course, and students have been reshaping and contributing to it ever since. It is not my textbook, but rather the PSU community’s textbook.