Constructing Interdisciplinary Courses
Defining Interdisciplinary Course Structures
The term “interdisciplinary” is quite often misunderstood or is taken as some very large and very vague idea. Courses that are often thought of as interdisciplinary are sometimes multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary or adisciplinary. Below is an effort to distinguish between these structures. I have borrowed Carolyn Haynes’ metaphor of ice cream, which, like these structures, is just basically good—but it comes in many varieties that produce very different results.
- MULTIDISCIPLINARY courses present disciplinary perspectives in a serial fashion, like Neapolitan ice cream. The flavors/discipline contents are lined up next to each other but don’t intersect. While this is an interesting approach, it leaves the responsibility of integrating the knowledge up to the students.
- CROSS-DISCIPLINARY courses are courses in which one disciplinary perspective dominates the other(s), like chocolate chip ice cream, where the dominant flavor is vanilla but with flavorful little chunks sprinkled throughout. While courses can be intentionally designed to be cross-disciplinary, cross-disciplinarity can also be an accidental result if the class is taught by one person, or if one discipline’s “way of knowing” is the focus with nuggets of a second (or third or fourth) discipline’s content scattered across the material.
- ADISCIPLINARY courses attempt to gain a holistic picture without specific attention to disciplines. A course like this generally starts with an idea and the approaches pop up where they may, like tutti-frutti. This is an interesting idea, but it can leave students (and faculty) feeling insecure and without direction. Because there is not a conscious effort to integrate types of knowledge, interdisciplinarity is generally missing.
- INTERDISCIPLINARY courses work toward conscious integration of insights from disciplines.
The result is like marble ice cream, where both flavors/disciplines remain distinct
and equal, but the result is a distinctly new flavor/experience. This handout addresses
only interdisciplinary courses.
Definition from the Association for Integrative Studies http://www.units.muohio.edu/aisorg/syllabi/index.shtml
"Address a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single
discipline or profession"
"Draw on different disciplinary perspectives"
"Integrate their insights through construction of a more comprehensive perspective"
Klein and Newell (Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum, 1997)
PUTTING TOGETHER A COURSE
- Identify pertinent disciplines and assemble a team.
Try to ensure equal participation among members.
- Develop a topic; consider how to balance breadth and depth.
Unlike discipline curricula that depend on individual classes providing discrete chunks of knowledge that a student uses to build on from one year to the next, interdisciplinary courses are worlds unto themselves. That is one reason why focus is so very important. Do not try to cover a huge topic; instead, focus on one part of the topic or one part of a problem. Some interdisciplinary courses have been built on a single statement. For instance, one course (syllabus available on the AIS website) used a statement, made in an article that was assigned as the first reading, that the problems present in the Middle East today are directly linked to the Crusades. That gave the class focus and two points of reference—the Crusades and a current, changing situation. The topics covered in the class include political science, religion, geography, mythology, literature, weaponry, etc. A course we could do here might be building a sustainable, “green” campus. Virtually all disciplines could be involved, and it could culminate in a proposal that would have lasting value.
- Let go of the “coverage” model.
This is important and difficult to do. Unlike our disciplinary courses, where we generally have a certain body of knowledge to cover in a class, interdisciplinary courses take models, approaches, and ideas from more than one discipline to address a problem, issue or idea. The point is to go into uncharted territory, not to go deep into the heart of any one discipline. Give them as much as they need to do what they will do for the class and let the rest go.
- Consider what the course is really about (subtext).
This is important for a couple of reasons. One is to ensure focus and clarity, and the other is to make sure you and your teaching teammate are really on the same page.
- Identify outcomes.
There is a list of outcomes in this handout, but yours may be different, and they will no doubt be more specific. Knowing where you’re trying to go as a team is very important to the success of an interdisciplinary course.
QUESTIONS TO GUIDE INTERDISCIPLINARY COURSE PREPARATION
- Is the course issue-based (societal problem, historical moment, text, geographical region, or key concept)?
- What question about the issue is the course designed to explore?
- What makes the question appropriate to ID inquiry?
- Is the issue focused (few enough sub-issues for students to understand perspectives on the issue and develop facility with concepts, theories, and methods introduced)?
- Are the perspectives of disciplines/schools of thought explicit? Are respective contributions to the issue explicit?
- How dominant is one discipline? Do less-dominant disciplines provide more than subject matter?
- Is the level of the course consistent with depth of disciplinary perspectives, explicitness of assumptions, sophistication of disciplinary tools, explicitness about ID methodology, balance of breadth and depth?
The Association for Integrative Study has done studies on heuristics that work well in interdisciplinary classes. Here are a few of their suggestions. (This list isn’t meant to be definitive.)
Formal Cooperative Learning Structures
Group work is particularly effective in integrative classes.
- Student Team Achievement Division (STAD): A heterogeneous group works together to complete a teacher-designed assignment.
- Jigsaw: Each group member is given a specialized discipline area and must contribute to the teacher-designed ID assignment.
- Group Investigation: The teacher presents an ID problem; groups must come up with their own plan to address the problem using multiple disciplines.
Inquiry Based Learning
An orientation toward learning that is flexible and open and draws upon the varied skills and resources of the faculty and students, in which faculty are co-learners who guide and facilitate the student-driven, interdisciplinary learning experience.
Service Learning is a teaching and learning method that enables students to link theory with action through guided reflection. It connects students to members of a community where they provide meaningful service that responds to community needs as defined by the community. For a service learning experience to work, it should include:
- Ethical and meaningful collaboration with the community,
- Meaningful integration of service into the course,
- Ongoing reflection on the ethical, intercultural and interdisciplinary implications of the service experience,
- Integrative journals.
These work best if they are more than diaries. Evaluating journals can, however, be incredibly time consuming and not that productive for the faculty or students. A good suggestion is to have the students do journaling (in one of the professional styles) with responses to course driven prompts or problems, and then have the students evaluate each others’ work. They learn a great deal from both ends of that experience. (Articles on journal work in courses will soon be available from CIIS.)
AT THE COURSE END, STUDENTS SHOULD BE ADEPT AT:
- Identifying conflicts in insights;
- Resolving conflicts in insights;
- Evaluating assumptions and concepts in context;
- Creating common ground/vocabulary;
- Identifying linkages between different disciplines;
- Producing models/metaphors/themes;
- Constructing a new understanding of the problem;
- Testing understanding by attempting to solve the problem.
- Critical thinking
- Analytical thinking
- Writing with clarity and precision
- Research skills developed/improved
- Deepened understanding of the issue(s)
- Rethinking of ideas taken for granted
- Investigating various sides of an issue
- Effectively evaluating resources
- Recognizing ambiguity and biases
- Developing ethical sensitivity
- Synthesizing or integrating ideas
- Enlarging horizons or perspectives
ID STUDENT CHARACTERISTICS
These are the characteristics that both employers and graduate schools have said they would like to see in their applicants. (AIS survey) Interdisciplinary studies is one of the best preparations for achieving these results.
- Asks questions
- Determines goals and meets them
- Open-minded, independent thinker
- Adaptable, not afraid to try new things
- Creative and innovative
- Adapts textbook knowledge to the real world
- Continues to grow and learn
- Oral communication
- Team-spirited, understands group dynamics, works well in group settings, willing to help others
- Sees the big picture (not just an area of specialization)
- Diversity-aware, treats others with dignity and respect