Connections in the classroom

Spring 2007 Interaction

L.A. Cicero

Robyn Wright Dunbar and Jill Bible
Robyn Wright Dunbar, left, and Jill Bible, a co-terminal student in Earth Systems, worked together on a workshop to help train graduate students in interdisciplinary teaching.

Research across disciplinary boundaries comes naturally to many academics, regardless of their field. The rewards are obvious. It's challenging, it's fun and, increasingly, it's necessary.

But interdisciplinary teaching, at least at first, is another matter. It might entail team-teaching, which has all sorts of administrative, disciplinary and stylistic challenges. It might involve retraining oneself and writing new textbooks. It might entail dealing with teaching assistants from various fields who, in turn, have to communicate to undergraduates that much of what they thought about the classification of knowledge needs adjustment.

There are examples throughout Stanford of professors who are willing to go the extra mile; the team-taught autumn quarter of the Introduction to the Humanities program is one of the most prominent cases, though there are others.

L.A. Cicero
CTL director Michele Marincovich acknowledges that interdisciplinary teaching can be a real challenge.

"Interdisciplinary teaching is much harder than interdisciplinary research," said Michele Marincovich, director of Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), "in part because many instructors do not know what the final product should look like."

So the CTL helps them design courses by starting at the end. In workshops led by Robyn Wright Dunbar, the CTL's senior associate director for sciences and engineering, they start not with what they will teach or assign, but with what students will learn. The output, not the input, in other words.

Team-teaching involves different methodological approaches and skill-sets, Dunbar and Marincovich said, which means the journey might have unexpected turns. So keeping the destination in mind is especially useful.

As an example, they pointed to a triple-listed course on "The California Coast" taught by Ali Boehm, of Civil Engineering, and Meg Caldwell and Debbie Sivas, both from the School of Law. The course was designed around outcomes. In their early meetings with the CTL team, the instructors wondered what level of technical expertise to expect of the students, who were likely to come from many disciplines. Each had different assumptions. Once they settled on what they could reasonably expect from students and what the end point should be, they were able to develop exam criteria and reading and field work requirements.

Team-teaching may be the most obvious way of getting interdisciplinary instruction into the classroom. But team-teaching has sometimes been compared to parallel play, by which toddlers play nicely side-by-side in the sandbox but don't exactly interact. Others refer to "tag-teaching;" first you lecture, then me.

Real team-teaching, advocates say, is about engagement.

Russell Berman

"Students like to hear faculty bring multiple perspectives," said the current director of IHUM, Russell Berman. "We should demonstrate to students that there is room for dispute around knowledge."

The experts at CTL are all in favor, but they point out that freshmen might not be. Fresh out of high school, they want right answers.

"Faculty love to deconstruct arguments, while students want to build," Dunbar said. The trick is to show that those are not mutually exclusive propositions.

Building blocks

Some faculty members argue that the disciplines must be the foundation of interdisciplinary research and teaching.

Penny Eckert, a linguist who is also director of Feminist Studies, spoke forcefully in favor of disciplinary training at a CTL panel last year on interdisciplinary teaching. Her heart is at the intersection of the psychological and cognitive sciences, she said.

"But interdisciplinary work is built on disciplines, which is where theory and methods and skills lie," she said. She learned that the hard way, while a resident at a research institute with colleagues from many fields. Together, they fought their way through texts, each bringing their own analytical criteria.

"Good interdisciplinary education has to begin with good disciplinary education. Students are unclear on what disciplines even are; in Feminist Studies, students have to design majors, and they don't know what the building blocks are. What is sociology? What is literature? They know you read literature, but they don't know what that practice means." (To hear the panel, go to

Other faculty members are more doubtful about those building blocks. "There are trade-offs with interdisciplinary team-teaching," said Berman, a professor in German Studies (itself a far broader enterprise than just literature).

IHUM courses in the autumn quarter must be co-taught by two faculty members from different disciplines.

"If we are going to teach in a new way, maybe we have to ask ourselves if we still have to keep teaching the old way," Berman said. "What we think of as the core of departments might turn out to be expendable, and we could take it out, like an appendectomy. So let's do the new stuff, which is where the excitement is. Maybe we don't need departments, or maybe we need a different sort of organization."

Such pedagogical debates are naturally of great interest to graduate students. When they leave Stanford, they may well go on to be the founders of Berman's new sort of organization. They, who have been trained by the best disciplinary scholars, may be the first generation of interdisciplinary scholars. But while they are here, they have the task of translating multilingual conversations for undergraduates.

The CTL therefore, in addition to working with faculty members, works with teaching assistants (TAs).

Graduate liaisons

"Graduate students like interdisciplinary teaching," said Mariatte Denman, CTL's associate director for humanities. "But there's a lot more pressure on TAs if a team-taught class isn't well integrated, because students complain to them."

TAs may not be from the same field as the instructor. Or, TAs themselves may be drawn from interdisciplinary graduate programs. Or, in large classes, TAs may be from different fields.

To ensure that everybody gets what they need, the CTL sponsors teaching workshops and has graduate-student liaisons in most departments.

One of those liaisons is Jill Bible, a co-term master's student in Earth Systems, a program that shows there are more ways to be interdisciplinary than just team-teaching. Earth Systems students are trained to look at particular cases from a multitude of angles, the idea being that one cannot effectively think about or act upon the environment from a simple disciplinary perspective.

As Denman said, "you make the methodologies apparent to the students. You put on a sociologist's glasses, a classicist's glasses."

In the case of Bible and her colleagues, the glasses belong to biologists, policymakers, lawyers, economists and oceanographers, to name a few. Earth Systems 10 has 22 instructors, each of whom lectures to undergraduates. The TAs then sort it out in section.

"The TAs' core responsibility is to make the connections," she said. "The professors try, but it's not always easy. So we use case studies, like incandescent light bulbs, for example. We look at energy issues, economic issues, recycling. We show the linkages. We teach different approaches to environmental problems, gathering all the different contexts. So the students learn a methodology of problem-solving."

Devoted to the teaching of science, Bible last year took Dunbar's science course-design class. When it was over, she told Dunbar she wanted to keep working with her, and the two launched a study project that culminated in a workshop for graduate students interested in interdisciplinary teaching. Participants came from Earth Systems, Management Science and Engineering, Psychology, Statistics, Geological and Environmental Sciences and Biological Sciences.

They discussed their learning and teaching styles in the context of interdisciplinary education, good and bad experiences, tools and barriers. Workshop participants were given "connection journals," supplied by CTL, in which they were asked to jot down connections they made throughout their day, whether in their research, in class or with acquaintances. Later, they had meetings to discuss how connections happen. At the end of it all, Bible put together a lengthy, annotated bibliography about interdisciplinary teaching.

"It should be a mission"

A recent self-study of IHUM recognizes there are some problems with the innovative program, but the directors are absolutely committed to continuing the interdisciplinary nature of the team-taught autumn course. In fact, they want more people from outside the core humanities to join in.

"In Area Studies you always had the social sciences and the humanities interacting, but what's new now is that the humanities and the sciences — including medicine — are working together," Marincovich said.

Dunbar, herself a scientist, noted however that the "critical apparatus is completely different between the humanities and the sciences, and faculty have to sort that out through their reading assignments." They probably will also find that there are no appropriate textbooks, leading to the inevitable course readers.

For Berman, however, these are not serious obstacles.

"It should be a mission" for the faculty, he said, adding that he plans to make a formal appeal to the Academic Council for more participants. "I'd like to see courses on law, education, business, culture . . . I want a humanistic Introduction to the Humanities in the spirit of Da Vinci. This is a pedagogical challenge we can meet, turning the transition from high school to college into a multiperspectival approach to knowledge."