Disciplinary Expertise, Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Today’s guest post comes from Cosette Creamer, a J.D.-Ph.D. candidate and Departmental Teaching Fellow in Government, who writes about the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinary teaching.

A recent article in the New York Times on St. John’s College observed that “as much of academia fractures into ever more specific disciplines, this tiny college still expects — in fact, requires — its professors to teach almost every subject, leveraging ignorance as much as expertise.” This observation – and subsequent discussion with other Departmental Teaching Fellows – got me thinking about the role of interdisciplinarity in the classroom and its impact on teaching in general. I was actually quite surprised that the Times described academia as increasingly “fractur[ing] into ever more specific disciplines”. While I suppose this is true to some extent – academics do specialize in narrow fields, and for good reasons – recent years have seen enormous growth in interdisciplinary endeavors, thinking, and scholarship across much of academia. Interdisciplinary courses offer an opportunity to eliminate the ‘expert blindspot,’ much as St. John’s College attempts to do by having professors teach a course outside of their own field.

What the approach of St. John’s College does seem to get right is the idea of learning with the students. But teaching a course that is entirely outside of your own discipline isn’t the only way to achieve this. Designing and teaching an interdisciplinary course is just as effective a way to promote collaborative learning. And moreover, it can be pitched as a great way for you to engage in ‘professional development.’

One of the junior tutorials I design and teach (the Human Rights Scholars Seminar) has allowed me to do just this ~ it has forced me to learn more about different disciplines and methodologies with which I would not have engaged otherwise. For example, my disciplinary training in the law and political science attuned me to the legal and political ramifications of country human rights reports produced by organizations such as Amnesty International. But it was not until I had to teach a class about these reports from a literary perspective – and to apply critical discourse analysis to such texts – that I came to realize how such NGO reports construct human rights violations within a specific and limited narrative frame. This opened up an entire line of questioning, for both my students and myself, regarding the authorial position and legitimacy of NGOs in the ‘production’ of human rights violations internationally. While I understand the concerns that might arise when instructors teach outside of the disciplines in which they have expertise, this experience led me to believe you do not need to necessarily be ‘in’ a discipline to understand – and to teach effectively – its mode of thought.

There is a superficial type of interdisciplinarity in which the expert applies his home discipline’s mode of thought to another field. Much of the scholarship I have seen doing this (in political science & law, economics & law, psychology & law) does not work very well, and often cross-discipline collaborators end up talking past each other. But there is also a deeper kind of interdisciplinary scholarship, in which the scholar comes at an issue simultaneously from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Some of the best interdisciplinary courses I have encountered are those co-taught by experts in two relevant disciplines; if done right, you can have the benefits of both the ‘expert’ and the ‘non-expert’ views, and some interesting conclusions often emerge. This requires both scholars to develop a relatively comprehensive understanding of the other discipline’s perspective. But most of the time – and particularly for graduate students – co-teaching a course is not feasible. Another option is to teach a course with interdisciplinary content, which allows and in fact forces you to try to reach that more-than-superficial understanding in order to teach it to others. Interdisciplinary collaborative learning in this sense provides you and your students with the benefits of both the ‘expert’ and the ‘non-expert’ views.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s