Inter-disciplinary Teaching: A Novel Approach

Last week I attended an inspirational presentation by two members of our faculty. Christina Christoforatou specializes in Medieval manuscripts, Karen Freedman in abstract design. Together, they are rocking the worlds of their Learning Communities students – teaching abstract thinking and expression through English, Graphic Design, and “tours” to modern art installations.

Christoforatou and Freedman have achieved an inter-disciplinary collaboration that eludes most of us – even those of us charged to collaborate by the mission of the Learning Communities program. Most of us try, but cross-disciplinary course coordination is tough. It’s difficult to pick up a new discipline over the summer. But Christoforatou and Freedman have discovered another way to coordinate their courses, and neither had to train in the other’s specialty. In fact, their approach embraced the differences among their disciplines even as it reinforced particular ways of thinking and doing. So, how did they do it?

Rather than searching for terminological, conceptual, or other content overlaps between Art 1000 and English 2100 (good luck finding them!), the innovative instructors decided to weld their courses at an epistemological point. When they realized during their first meeting that they both embraced the concept of knowing the world via abstraction (abstract art, abstract linguistic concepts), they ran with the idea. Since then, they have crafted a cross-disciplinary collaboration complete with field trips and complementary assignments. Christoforatou has embarked on a quest to learn about abstract, modern art (alongside her students), while Freedman (and the rest of the LC) has been introduced to creative approaches to the text employed by Medievalists (hint: they are often surprising, ironic, and highly abstract). Rather than trying to incorporate graphic design into English 2100 or composition assignments into Art 1000, the two have achieved crossover in a more meaningful way. They teach to their strengths while reinforcing each other’s attempts to inculcate habits of critical thinking in their first-year students. The result? A partnership that has proved professionally fulfilling… and never-ending lines of students outside their offices.

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2 Responses to Inter-disciplinary Teaching: A Novel Approach

  1. Liz Wollman says:

    Thanks for this post, Sarah–I’m fascinated. When teaching LCs (in my case, Music in Civilization), I’ve regularly been flummoxed by the challenge of finding ways to relate consistently to the discipline of my teaching partner (music and English is one thing…but music and calculus? Aside from some of the more general connections, I’m often at a loss). Can you give some specific examples? Karen and Christina, if you’re reading this, can you weigh in?

  2. Sarah says:

    I bet K & C will chime and I don’t want to botch the details of what they’re doing… My LC partner and I did one thing that fits this paradigm. We both taught the idea of knowing through social location (i.e., standpoint epistemology in feminist theory parlance). Ke is a Sociologist who studies medical care in rural China, I am a Rhetorician teaching PUB 1250. She taught them about seeing through socio-economic position, etc. I had them craft a government via role-play (a game developed at Barnard). In Ke’s class they would talk about seeing the world through your economic class position and in PUB 1250 they’d argue about issues like welfare via their positions as “oligarchs” or “fishmongers” in 403 B.C. Athens (talk about a new social position!) In this way, we reinforced a simple but powerful concept w/out having to change our content or approach. Now music and calculus? That’s above my pay grade. But I’ve always heard “music is math…”

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