Last weekend I attended a workshop called Teaching and Maintaining Mulitdisciplinary First-Year Seminar Programs hosted at the gorgeous Pomona College campus. I expect this is the first of a couple of blog posts drawing on my experiences there.
It seemed like a lot of the impetus for having multi-discipinary seminars had at least as much to do with a skepticism about the transferable skills within a disciplinary seminar as it did with positive benefits of multi-disciplinary work. (And I think there are a lot of benefits to multi-disciplinary work in these circumstances.) Institutions have a lot at stake with these seminars, helping students make the transition from high school to college and getting them up to speed with college-level writing skills and college-level critical thinking skills and college-level classroom discussion skills. But I think sometimes those goals seem so huge that we end up with the classic problem of not narrowing our research topics. Some parameters usually help us think deeply and carefully — narrow topics are often richer than broad ones.
I kept wanting to protest that fleeing the disciplines in order to isolate these skills from any particular discipline not only made the skills seem that much more insurmountable but also mis-characterized “multi-disciplinary” as “non-disciplinary.” There’s no such thing as “non-disciplinary.” Not only is multi-disciplinary work a discipline unto itself, but there’s just no such thing as a work with all the skills of the disciplines but none of the topical constraints. A college essay is just as much a learned genre as a lab report or a close reading, so teaching students “to write” first, as if it’s a free-floating skill outside of the disciplines, seems like a fallacy to me. All we’re doing is teaching the genre of writing we’ve most internalized as “basic,” first. And that may be a valid approach, but that doesn’t make it generic.
Divorcing skills from content always feels easier to teach, but actually renders each hollow, I think. I remember the language faculty at a recent conference bemoaning the fact that they have interesting topics to think about and teach, but that their students need so much grammar training first. And I remember feeling like this was exactly my problem, too, because I like to teach about epistemology and scholarly communication and critical thinking, but sometimes this means teaching boolean logic and LCSH first.
And then I think about the classes I’ve taught with professors who were willing and eager to interact with the research process in front of their students and build on the day’s discussions or readings in the process, and how marrying content and skills always felt so much richer and more real as a consequence.
And I wonder if fleeing disciplinarity, as such, is really the best way to teach these skills that everyone hopes all first year students will learn. Maybe, it’s equally valid to think about the skills, the learning goals, and build them into classes regardless of disciplinary or interdisciplinary focus.
Or maybe the value of fleeing disciplinarity is that the professors feel like the work is denaturalized and are therefore better able to articulate some of these principles that are otherwise invisible from long acquaintance.