CRC Field Report – Promoting Interdisciplinary Teaching Ventures – 3rd Annual Teaching & Learning Showcase – Research Academy for University Learning – Montclair State University – May 2, 2012 – by Neil Baldwin

As our followers around the globe already know, The Creative Research Center is resolutely virtual. That said, we still have not quite [to our satisfaction] met the challenge of serving as the rapporteur for this generous, iconoclastic conference, unable to clone ourselves so that we could be in more than one session at a time.  What follows is an anecdotal account of one transcendent day in the life, with a link to all the concurrent sessions beyond those we were able to visit, as a tribute to the pioneering pedagogues who presented last month at University Hall.

A quick note on the concept of interdisciplinarity and its supposed expansion in the past few years. The term has certainly become more widely-known and used – but is the practice really as pervasive in higher education? The mind, in and of itself, is already an interdisciplinary cognitive landscape; perhaps academia needs to catch up with its own human nature.

Cigdem Talgar, Acting Director of RAUL, set the tone in her Welcoming Remarks when she spoke of “best practices,” another key term worth re-evaluating, because as interdisciplinarity becomes integrated into our work of teaching, albeit incrementally, the wider the reach will be of best practices when they morph from codified lists to internalized modes of behavior conditioned by every unique classroom situation.

In her session on A Collaborative Approach to Online Course Design, Kristin Curry alluded humbly to the “adjustment issues” experienced as she put together her first course for the launch of MSU’s nascent online program in Arts Management. It is one thing to know your subject, as all  scholarly and professional content-providers want to do; it is another to cross the digital Rubicon and become comfortable with the newest methods of delivery.

Kirk McDermid spoke animatedly of his new tactic Using Semantic MediaWiki to Power Constructive Learning and Collaboration Among Students.  So doing, he has tapped into the paradigm-shift away from the distanced lecturer engaged in one-way delegation of information to masses of students, and toward assembling course content along with these students, hoping to empower them, through the Facebook-fuelled propensity to “like” , to learn more effectively, enthusiastically and permanently.

In How I Picture It: Teaching Mythology with Visual Aids, Joanna Madloch jumped in with bravado, invoking the dictum of Roland Barthes that “myth is a type of speech,” followed by John Berger’s noted “reading images” and ”theatricalization of reality,” topped off by Jean Baudrillard’s subversive “simulacrum.”  Her dense semiology was refreshing, penetrating and inspiring, especially to those of us who love theory but shy away from imposing it upon undergraduates. Au contraire!

Down the hall, Ting Ho and Christine Magee spoke of Adjusting to Teaching Online as requiring clear “rules of engagement” established through presenting real-life curricular analogies to our students. How many times has the classroom resounded with pleas to make topics more “relatable.”  In past generations, we ourselves as students often spoke of being “relevant.”  If we cannot figure out ways to harness technology to our advantage — and stop the tail from wagging the dog — we shall never make progress as teachers.

Innovative Experiential Education and Community Engagement was the focus for Lenore Molee’s presentation. What could be more quintessentially interdisciplinary from an environmental standpoint than taking students out of their comfort zones and into the institutions of our society that need them most — in this case, public schools? Montclair State is already an acknowledged leader in this area; every time this University reaches beyond ivy-covered walls it is a plus-sign toward a socially-integrated society.     

David Lee Keiser ruminated eloquently in advocating for Mindful Teaching for Excellence and [what he called "the sweet taste of"] Equanimity. His two collaborators in this enterprise were The Self and Silence; his muted hiatus from the hurlyburly of the conference day was a treasure.  The Tree of Contemplative Practices, its roots and branches extending into realms of the spirit, stood as the perfect symbol for the ideals of education — and a reminder of the imperative need to stop, breathe, and ponder why we do what we do in the classroom, and how we can do it better. 

Introducing the day’s Keynote Speaker — Rhonda Roland Shearer, founder [with her late husband, Stephen Jay Gould] and director of the Art Science Research Laboratory in NYC — Provost Willard Gingerich praised the core mission of the MSU Research Academy, referencing its ”deep DNA of instruction and learning.”  This apt metaphor brought to mind the spiral spatial structure of the molecule and an idealized three-dimensional image of interdisciplinarity combining elemental substances and extended through space in multiple directions with  variety and persistence.   

Committed to the creation of an intellectual environment advocating interdisciplinary study encompassing research, collections and publishing, Ms. Shearer explainted that ASRL provides a unique setting wherein art historians, scientists, artists, designers, and programmers work side by side, encouraged to contribute ideas, participate in a dynamic environment, and challenge the “outdated but still prominent structures of practices” in the arts, sciences, and humanities. The ambitious goal of ASRL is to promote and facilitate fast, thorough, and efficient global exchange of knowledge in fields ranging from art and science and journalism ethics to the cyberBOOK+ system, all aiming to build a network of people sharing knowledge and research methodologies for mutual understanding of cultures and histories.

Ms. Shearer’s leading assertion was well-received by the conference audience: By virtue of its infinitely-permeable structure, she insisted, the internet gives greater facility to doing interdisciplinarity. Such techno-intellectual free-association, when working properly, feeds upon itself, giving rise, [again, hopefully], to a healthy dissipation of distinctions.  To some in Academe, this accelerated process will appear as a threat; to others, it is an invitation to cast more widely: “Disciplines are conventions,” Ms. Shearer said, and so it naturally follows that late-adapters will resist peremptory invasions of their boundaries.

“Disciplines are mental constructions that become difficult to change,” Ms. Shearer continued; and then, in another unerring metaphor of the day,  she reminded us that “a square bowl creates square water… thus, we need to think about ways to disaggregate and reformulate our vested areas of interest — to defeat categories. ”    Ms. Shearer’s own imaginative artwork and the brave trajectory of her multifaceted research over several decades demonstrate her commitment of thought and feeling to these encouragements. 

[The question leapt to mind: Do we at MSU have the courage of our convictions; and, if so, what intellectual and pragmatic actions will be necessary to help further institutionalize interdisciplinarity?]

Milton Fuentes, in his afternoon session, provided one viable answer: Motivational Interviewing to Improve Academic Performance. Our inherently conservative — or, let’s say, intellectually hesitant – first-generation college students here at MSU often need to be jump-started into inquisitiveness, and then require continued guidance to stick to their forward motion.  Inspiring motivation can lead to a commitment to  change in a young life heretofore victimized by educational stasis.  Motivation demands other-directedness and collaboration on the part of the teacher, i.e., “You and I can do this together,” s/he says to the student.

Bryan Murdock and Christine Lemesianou — seasoned veterans of service-learning – invited their audience to Envision the Possibilities [through] Innovations in Service-Learning and Community Engagement, sounding a theme that had resonated throughout the day. Their campaign in close collaboration with Soyoung Lee and Deborah Ragin and the students and staff of the Rosa Parks School in Orange NJ was an inspirational tribute to the effectiveness of learning outside  conventional parameters. This reminder that the world is the best classroom of all was underscored by Elizabeth McPherson’s session on Embodying Folk Dances from Around the World, where everyone was on their feet and thoroughly enjoying themselves.   

What was my so-called takeaway from this densely-packed day of exploration into Digital Learning, Pedagogies of Engagement, Creativity, Promoting Teaching & Learning, Active Learning In & Out of the Classroom, and Contemplative Pedagogy?

As I write these words, I am more resolved that representative enactments of interdisciplinarity require the kinds of collaboration that I witnessed throughout the conference.  However, we must keep in mind that the May 2nd RAUL symposium was a series of demonstrations by colleagues who were already like-minded; hence the term “Showcase.”

Let’s take the clarity of the conference content as a mandate to transcend preaching to the choir — and go out and find the unconverted.  

 

 

 

 

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