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First Year Seminars: Multi-disciplinarity vs Un-disciplinarity

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.

Published inFirst Year StudentsTeaching and Learning


  1. Hi Mark,

    On the one hand, yes, exactly. On the other hand, I think that there’s a lot of variation under the term “information literacy instruction.”

    I think that there’s a lot of danger in falling into the role of trainer (here’s how you use x tool and here’s how you use y tool) or of assuming too much that if you talk about evaluation or searching or any other skill in general terms it’ll be obvious to the students how to accomplish it in the scope of their current work, or why it matters to the more interesting project of becoming a mini-scholar in that field.

    I know that there’s more interesting information literacy instruction out there, too, though. I’ve seen it done and I’ve done it myself. It takes cooperation with the teaching faculty member, and some work up front to maybe read a reading from that day’s planned readings, or get the faculty member to talk through themes they’ll cover. I’ve done this most recently with an English methods class, and I do it on a recurring basis with an intro to Linguistics class. The students have fun, I have fun, and the research skills are explicit but also embedded firmly in the academic work at hand rather than separated out as a totally separate skill. The trade-off is that it’s not nearly as comprehensive for the students, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make in these circumstances and for those goals.

  2. Mark Kille Mark Kille

    “The trade-off is that it’s not nearly as comprehensive for the students, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make in these circumstances and for those goals.”

    Yes, this. I find myself trying to collaborate with teaching faculty more and more–individually when class presentations are requested, and also collectively at the level of curriculum. I think part of the reason I sometimes think of it as separate from information literacy per se is that I haven’t encountered any faculty who use that term. I’m sure they exist, and I’m sure if I put a lot of time and energy into it I could get my local faculty talking about information literacy, but…well, I’d rather put the time and energy into the actual collaboration.

    It is *very* reassuring to know that people more experienced than me are taking similar approaches. :)

  3. Yeah, the term “information literacy” is really jargon that’s useful within our field, and can become useful on your campus with some work. But until it’s become useful, I prefer to talk around it so that people don’t tune me out before I even get going. :-)

    I’d love to hear about some of the things you’ve been doing with those classes. I’m all about stealing from, er, I mean LEARNING FROM other people.

  4. Mark Kille Mark Kille

    I don’t know that I am doing anything particularly interesting in my class presentations. They are generally either introductory composition classes or disciplinary capstone seminars. For the latter, I engage the teaching faculty as well as the students in a kind of “master class” format where we clarify the students’ actual research questions and discuss what kind of evidence would be most useful and where and how one might uncover it or create it. For the former, I try to talk to the teaching faculty ahead of time to find out what they hope students will do in the assignment that will be supported by the research I will be showing them how to do. And then I can explicitly say during the presentation, “As Jane has talked to you about…” or “Is this the kind of thing you want them to be looking for, Joe?” (Naropa is very informal about titles. :)

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