4 Slow Interdisciplinarity

Abby Goode

picture of three water fowl swimming across a lake at sunset or sunrise

By now, we know that the world is interdisciplinary. We know that, in order to prepare our students for a fluctuating world, we must provide them with opportunities to collaborate across different fields, work in teams to address unsolved, complex problems, and treat them as contributors, rather than just consumers of knowledge. This kind of pedagogy is urgently needed, and in the past few years, scholars such as Joseph Aoun, Cathy Davidson, Paul Hanstedt have sounded the alarm. Many institutional communities, such as my own, are working hard to answer these calls for more innovative interdisciplinary curricula and pedagogies. As part of this effort, we envision students collaborating across multiple fields to create their own outward-facing projects or design their own learning experiences.

Too often, however, these kinds of multi- and interdisciplinary learning experiences only emerge in particular courses — such as First-Year Seminar — or in a specific, forward-thinking programs, rather than across the undergraduate experience. Too often, students participate in interdisciplinary learning experiences just once, as part of a singular course or project, and then proceed with the business of specialization. Too often, we ask students to collaborate across disciplines without much conversation about what they are doing and why. Too often, the semester ends, and with it, the rich, long-term work of understanding and questioning disciplinary boundaries and norms. Like a major, which involves increasingly complex courses and years of practice, interdisciplinary thinking requires consistent inquiry, exercise, and metacognitive work. Interdisciplinarity takes time.

In our frenzy to be interdisciplinary, we are often quick to label our work and our courses as such, without putting pressure on the implicit knowledge divides and hierarchies that govern intellectual life, without recognizing the vital role that students play in rendering a learning experience interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinarity does not flow from one source. It emerges from a community of thinkers who have, over time, cultivated the desire to learn from fields and perspectives that differ from their own. Given the urgent need to design more meaningful and innovative learning experiences, it might be tempting to briskly hop on the interdisciplinary train without inviting students on board. This fast, frantic version of interdisciplinarity is counterproductive, and it threatens to further destabilize the shifting landscape of higher education. Integrated, project-based, and outward-facing pedagogies are more pressing than ever, but as we welcome students into these forms of learning, let us be thoughtful about our own disciplinary positions and epistemological assumptions. Let us value how students’ own backgrounds and ways of knowing enhance, and in fact define the interdisciplinary classroom. This requires slowing down, making space for conversations about disciplinary divides and methods, and recognizing how those divides affect the classroom community.

As we strive to “robot-proof” our students and prepare them for a “world of flux,” let us also remember the wisdom of Maggie Berg’s and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor, which challenges the “frantic pace” of academic life. According to the book’s preface, “while slowness has been celebrated in architecture, urban life, and personal relations, it has not yet found its way into education, Yet, if there is one sector of society which should be cultivating deep thought, it is academic teachers” (xvii). What would it look like to apply “slowness” to interdisciplinary pedagogies? As a method of teaching and learning, “slow interdisciplinarity” calls us to be mindful, respectful, and curious about each other’s disciplinary perspectives—to value ways of knowing that might challenge and enhance our own. This “slowness” does not signify “inefficiency,” “smallness,” or “ineffectiveness.” It is not a plea for more time in developing urgently-needed, integrated curricula and pedagogies for the twenty-first century. And it is most certainly not an obstructionist effort to preserve higher education as it is. In fact, slow interdisciplinarity works against a form of hasty interdisciplinary mania in higher education that can often end up confusing learners and our institutional communities as a whole.

Rather than discuss the dangers of “fast interdisciplinarity,” I would like to present a series of lessons that brought me to the concept of “slow interdisciplinarity.” I came to this concept last spring, while teaching an experimental, interdisciplinary, project-based course at Plymouth State University (PSU). This course, entitled “American Food Issues: From Fast Food Nation to Farm Stands,” asked students to integrate their disciplinary perspectives and work in teams to develop their own initiatives related to contemporary food issues. In this course, we explored how food issues related to consumerism, health and wellness, racial and socioeconomic inequality, and environmentalism. Students identified a challenge related to food in their community and worked to implement their own solutions to issues related to sustainable agriculture, food waste, food security, and food justice. Their work was rigorous, dynamic, and driven by their own interests. Students working on expanding our food pantry, for instance, ended up researching food insecurity in college students. Their project, not a pre-selected reading list on the syllabus, brought them to this work. (After all, as Jesse Stommel writes, “content is co-constructed as part of and not in advance of the learning.”) This is all just to say that this course represents a site, among many others, where “slow interdisciplinarity” can flourish, and it was while teaching this course that I came to recognize the profound complexity of integrated learning, and the continuous, multi-semester efforts that it requires.

Lesson #1: “Slow interdisciplinarity” entails respect for multiple ways of knowing, a recognition of our own disciplinary assumptions and constraints, and a willingness to allow other disciplines to impact our learning. A few years ago, I taught an English course called “Eating American Literature,” which focused on literatures of food and agriculture. On paper, the course claimed to be interdisciplinary, but it was, for all intents and purposes, a literature course that highlighted the field’s relationship with environmental studies. Nevertheless, to my delight, the class included a range of majors, such as Art, Adventure Education, and Health. Half of the students were English majors and half were from other fields. In this so-called interdisciplinary class, I encountered a major challenge: the tendency for non-English majors to feel alienated and uncertain about their ability to participate in the unspoken-yet-shared assumptions, practices, and ways of knowing that characterized the field of literary studies. English majors, for instance, tend to read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma for its figurative language and rhetorical style, while a Biology major might be much more interested in the technical details of Pollan’s botanical descriptions, and an Environmental Science major might challenge his characterization of sustainable agriculture practices. (I say “might,” because science majors are perfectly capable of reading for figurative language.)

Guess which method of reading I favored, and therefore implicitly reinforced in the classroom? When non-English majors contributed to our discussions, it was not uncommon to hear: “Well, I’m not an English major, but….” If students felt the need to preface their remarks in such a way, as if their non-English-major status somehow minimized their contribution, then this classroom was far from an inclusive, integrated environment. This course inspired me to ask: What are the implicit ways in which we reinforce our own disciplinary assumptions and practices in so-called interdisciplinary environments? How do we unconsciously produce and reproduce hierarchies of knowledge and disciplinary divides, even as we label much of what we do as “interdisciplinary”? How can we become more aware of those biases ourselves, signal them to students, and in so doing, welcome other ways of knowing, reading, and thinking about the world into our classrooms?

As an interdisciplinary novice myself, I wanted to avoid unintentionally prioritizing my discipline over others. I wanted to counter the tendency for same-major sub-groups to quickly form and ossify in the classroom. I was eager to see how this might work in an interdisciplinary course on food that was decidedly not an English class. The course ended up with the same breakdown of majors as “Eating American Literature”: half English majors, half non-English majors. So, for the second day of class, I asked students to respond to the following prompt: “Briefly describe your interests and discipline — the methods, content, and dispositions related to your major field of study — and how they might be useful in a class related to food. Keep in mind that we have a mix of majors in this class, so imagine you are explaining your major to someone who has no background in the discipline.” At the beginning of class, I asked students to re-read their disciplinary explanations and capture their major in one sentence for others in the class. I brought chart paper for every major represented in the class, and I invited students to post these sentences at the top of their respective charts: Anthropology, Communication and Media Studies, English, Environmental Science and Policy, Exercise and Sports Physiology, and Psychology. The rest of the chart paper included four quadrants, each with distinct prompts: (1) How does your discipline/field relate to this one? What kinds of similarities do you notice? (2) How might this field be useful for a project related to food? (3) How could you imagine collaborating with someone in this field? (4) What questions do you still have about this field? What are you still wondering about? I posted these charts around the room. Students circulated and responded to the prompts with respect to fields that were not their own.

My hope was that this introductory exercise would accomplish three things: (a) encourage students to value the various majors and knowledge domains representative in the class (b) make visible the boundaries and limitations of our own disciplinary perspectives, and (c) spark students’ imaginations about how these different disciplinary perspectives might intersect to serve their own projects. All of these items, especially the final one, foster disciplinary permeability, or the ability to allow other disciplines — and their respective priorities, methods, and concerns — to impact one’s thinking. Examples of disciplinary permeability might include English majors taking up environmental projects that require knowledge of food waste’s climatological impact, or Art History majors learning about Criminal Justice as they curate an on-campus exhibition of work by incarcerated artists. To understand that there are other meaningful ways of knowing besides one’s own is to engage in what Kathleen Fitzpatrick calls “generous thinking,” and challenge the disciplinary competition and fragmentation that has long characterized the academy. With this exercise, I sought to inspire curiosity about others’ majors and intellectual priorities. I sought to break down, at the outset, the invisible borders that divide students from diverse majors, and too often have a deleterious effect on interdisciplinary, project-based courses. And truth be told, I too was curious to learn about other disciplines. I am so glad that we took the time to engage in this exercise, because it set the tone that, in this class, we were going to bring our disparate perspectives together and that these various perspectives were precisely what made the course both challenging and meaningful.

This encouraged students to embrace their own perspectives, while remaining curious about other fields and ways of knowing. As students approached their work in this class, as they designed their own projects in multi-disciplinary groups, they did so with an awareness of their own disciplinary position and how it might differ from those in their group. The projects that emerged, however, were greater than the sum of their disciplinary parts. For instance, one group developed a “Grow Slow” initiative, in which they hosted a “Paint Your Own Plant Pot” session during our campus Earth Day celebration. Working to counteract a widespread culture of fast food and encourage college students to feel more connected to their nourishment, they distributed “blank canvas” pots of soil and microgreens seedlings. With these seeds and pots, they included instructions on how to nurture these seedlings, as well as healthy recipes and information about locally-grown foods. This initiative emerged from the group’s collective curiosity about fast food culture. Throughout the semester, they researched the myriad environmental and health impacts of this culture, interviewing faculty members, local business owners, and farmers to learn more about this issue and gain support for their project. This group included a Psychology major, an English Education major, and an Environmental Science and Policy major. Their disciplinary perspectives no doubt influenced their approach to their work. The Psychology major, for instance, approached the project with an interest in learning about the psychological underpinnings of our industrial eating culture. Ultimately, they developed an environmental education and public outreach project that drew on, but also exceeded their own disciplinary boundaries.

Lesson #2: “Slow interdisciplinarity” entails a metacognitive awareness of one’s own discipline, and an ability to explain that discipline to others. It just so happens that, during this same exercise, I confronted another challenge to interdisciplinary learning. After students circulated and responded to these questions, we discussed each of these fields, and here is what we discovered: it is incredibly challenging to articulate what we do in our disciplines and why. In fact, some students in the same major disagreed with one another about their field’s priorities and methods. Granted, not all majors are alike. Learners cannot be reduced to the stringent codes and norms of their discipline. There were three English Education majors in this class. One was a beekeeper. One was a GIS expert. One had studied abroad in Japan. Their backgrounds and ways of knowing were far from identical, and delightfully so. Still, this disciplinary exercise, and the challenges that accompanied it, made me wonder. To what extent do we encourage disciplinary awareness in our own fields and major courses? To what extent do we prepare students for the kinds of interdisciplinary work that they will encounter in their courses and careers? Do they know what they do in their discipline and why it is important? Can they explain it to someone outside of their field? If disciplinarity happens before interdisciplinarity, to what extent are major courses necessary preludes to upper-level, interdisciplinary ones? Do we treat them as such? Can we have disciplinary permeability without a clear sense of disciplinary awareness? Or, if disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity exist in dynamic interrelation with one another — if other disciplines change, enhance, and clarify our own — how can we foster conversation about this relationship within and outside our major courses?

Interdisciplinarity is not just reserved for self-contained programs and courses. It emerges from disciplinary awareness and practice, from multiple metacritical conversations about the boundaries and assumptions of discrete fields. We can jumpstart this process with students by asking them to discuss the significance of their major during the first day of class. For instance, in our introductory course for the English major, we spend the first day of class discussing our preliminary responses to the following question: What does it mean to be an English major? This is highly complicated question, so I ask students to write a longer response to this prompt for the second day of class, and then we spend the entire second day of class debating these responses.

As it turns out, there is more than one way to answer this question. What do English majors DO, exactly? How? Why? What, if anything, distinguishes the English major from other majors? In upper-level courses in the major, such as Critical Theory, students encounter a similar prompt, but one that builds on these questions: What is the purpose of literary studies and why does it matter? The answers to these questions are far from straightforward, and it behooves us to encourage consistent conversation about what we do in our disciplines and why. What do we assume is important? What do we tend to study? What are our implicit values and norms? What is the difference between English and History? English and Media Studies? To what extent do those differences matter? How might we explain the purpose of close reading a poem to a non-English major? The ultimate test of disciplinary awareness is disciplinary ambassadorship, the ability to explain one’s discipline to a non-specialist—a necessary skill not only for interdisciplinary capstone courses but also students’ post-college lives. How can we cultivate disciplinary ambassadorship throughout the undergraduate experience?

Lesson #3: “Slow interdisciplinarity” calls us to rethink the shape of undergraduate curricula. Perhaps what prevents us from cultivating this ambassadorship is our current curricular structure, which emphasizes the process of specialization. Students tend to begin their college career with foundational courses such as “Composition” and “First-Year Seminar.” Ideally, in their first or second year, students select a major and take introductory courses in that field, alongside general education courses in other disciplines meant to expand their breadth of knowledge. As they take more courses, they progress towards a higher level of rigor and focus within their chosen field, culminating in advanced seminars, internships, and independent research projects. I imagine that this process looks like a pyramid, moving from breadth to increasingly specialized practices and insular communities.

the outline of an upward-pointing triangle, representing non-interdisciplinarity: breadth at the bottom and specificity at the top

But what comes after specialization in higher education? At what point does this process of specialization open up again, transforming into a practice of sharing, collaborating, and working with those from other fields? What would it look like to rethink the undergraduate experience in a less unidirectional manner, perhaps as a pyramid that re-opens and re-broadens at the end?

outline of two triangles, arranged to form a shape similar to an hourglass, representing the interdisciplinarity of breadth at the top, specificity in the narrow center, and a return to generalized breadth again at the bottom

Of course, these shapes oversimplify the complexities of the undergraduate curriculum and student experiences. We could imagine other shapes or zig-zags that crack open the curriculum — that provide students with multiple opportunities to share their diverse backgrounds and disciplinary orientations with others who might not be in their same field. We could imagine less solidly defined borders around these shapes, taking into account the interplay between coursework, our communities, and our lives. My point here is that the undergraduate curriculum does not have to culminate with disciplinary specialization.“Slow interdisciplinarity” challenges specialized insularity by embracing collaboration across specialities. It involves consistently providing ways for students to step outside of their major, teach their discipline to others, or examine their objects of study from a different disciplinary perspective than their own.

There are small and large ways to do this in our teaching. We can offer linked or federated courses that approach a question or topic from multiple disciplinary lenses. We can meet with other classes and ask students from one class to teach others about a particular disciplinary approach. We can invite students to develop pedagogical materials or contribute to open textbooks for subsequent classes. We can read materials by other students in other classes or fields. We can ask students to attend lectures or workshops on our course topics that are outside of our disciplinary perspectives. This semester, in Wilderness Literature, I am inviting students to visit other classes that deal with topics related to the outdoors, nature, and the wilderness from a non-literary perspective. I hope that this kind of activity will give them a broad sense of the other ways of knowing the wilderness, and, ultimately, clarify and deepen their understanding of the literary perspective. These kinds of activities solidify students’ disciplinary awareness, but they can also allow them to make their major minor, preparing them for interdisciplinary projects and collaboration.

Final lesson: Slow down, make space. In an informal course assessment, a student from “American Food Issues” powerfully captured their experience of stepping outside of their major: “Every day when I walk to class, I walk past Boyd [Science Center], and I think to myself, ‘I have never taken a course in there and I never will.’ There are people I will never have classes with and share ideas with. This class made that possible. It was awesome to connect [with] and learn from English and Science majors. It has made me appreciate the path [that] I chose at PSU.” This comment captures the extent to which disciplinary boundaries so deeply shape and divide the world of higher education. But it also gestures towards students’ hunger to puncture and learn across those disciplinary boundaries. Importantly, as this comment suggests, interdisciplinary collaboration is not meant to erase disciplinary specialization, rigor, or difference. When implemented slowly, interdisciplinarity also fosters an invaluable appreciation and awareness of our chosen “path[s].”

Many leaders in higher education advocate moving away from disciplines, majors, and the pejoratively-termed “silos” altogether, citing their irrelevance in an integrated, collaborative, and ever-changing professional world. But these arguments overlook the ways in which interdisciplinary practice often emerges from effective disciplinary practice. They overlook the ways in which interdisciplinary projects often affirm learners’ love for their own fields. If we slow down, we can create meaningful flexibility and cross-pollination between disciplinary and interdisciplinary realms. After all, disciplinary specialization is important largely because it prepares students to teach others about their field, deploy their expertise in a range of contexts, and recognize that it belongs to a much wider, varied world of knowledge.

As we develop more interdisciplinary learning experiences, we can benefit from slowing down, consistently asking students to examine their own disciplinary assumptions, cultivating metacognitive awareness of disciplinary boundaries, and infusing this pedagogy into the entire undergraduate curriculum (not just particular courses or programs). This requires examining our own assumptions as well. Our training, no matter how sophisticated or inventive, is necessarily constrained by particular norms and priorities. Even in the most specialized or foundational courses, there are always opportunities to make those norms visible — to prepare students, in small and large ways, to work across disciplinary boundaries.

Often, I hear scholars claim that their work and their field is inherently interdisciplinary. Is that claim, on its own, particularly useful for students, without the intentional process and pedagogy that invites them into that interdisciplinary world? Interdisciplinary pedagogy is not something that magically happens when we rename or revise a course. It does not magically happen when we team teach, link our courses, or list our courses as “interdisciplinary” in the registration catalogue. Like all pedagogies, it “involves recursive, second-order, meta-level work,” as Stommel reminds us. It requires that we constantly alert students to what they are doing and why, and how their own disciplines, interests, and backgrounds relate to others in surprising and delightful ways. Most importantly, interdisciplinarity comes from the learners themselves — their fields, their experiences, their ways of knowing. It comes from the questions that they choose to pursue and the collaborations that they undertake. It is a dynamic process, and one that is slower than we think.

Acknowledgements: This piece was inspired by the work of Plymouth State’s Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community and the students of “American Food Issues.” I would also like to thank Robin DeRosa and Martha Burtis for their encouraging response to these ideas.

This article was originally published on Hybrid Pedagogy and is reprinted here under a CC-BY-NC license.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay 



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Slow Interdisciplinarity by Abby Goode is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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