Want to foster relevant, effective scholarship? Gather diverse thinkers with different skill sets
By Amy Woodbury Tease
The Norwich Record | Fall 2019
Three years ago, I taught an English elective called Art in the Age of Surveillance. The course examined literature and media produced in the immediate aftermath of World War II through the first decade of the 21st century. It invited students to consider how artists engage and respond to increased surveillance in the postwar world. A general education (aka Gen Ed) humanities elective, the upper-level class drew a diverse range of majors and fostered an interdisciplinary classroom experience that took me by surprise.
On the first day of class, I asked students what drew them to the course. Spencer, a construction management major, said he “didn’t know much about art,” but the subject of the course — surveillance — was something that should be of concern to “everyone.” Other students nodded in agreement. It was the post-Snowden era, and paranoia was in the air.
By collaborating with people of diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and disciplines, we cultivate new knowledge, understanding and experience.
Midway through the semester, we discussed Ian McEwan’s "The Innocent." Set in Cold War Berlin, the novel stars a British technician hired to tap Soviet phone lines. He does this by navigating a tunnel system as part of a top-secret government surveillance operation. I planned to talk about the ethics and consequences of surveillance through the lens of the character’s personal experience. But the presenters of the day were two construction management majors, and they had a different plan. They wanted to talk about the tunnels.
In class, they asked us to think about how underground spaces, often designed to avoid interfering with everyday life, could be repurposed to infiltrate systems and disrupt the lives of the people who relied on them. This was an approach to the text that I never would have taken up. It was exciting and engaging, and it gave me fresh perspective on a novel that I thought I knew inside and out.
It’s an example of the value that interdisciplinary teaching and learning bring to a community. Since arriving at Norwich eight years ago, I have sought out opportunities to work with people whose ideas, perspectives, and motivations are different than mine. Why? Because by collaborating with people of diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and disciplines, we cultivate new knowledge, understanding and experience. All of these facets help us to become better thinkers and, quite frankly, better human beings.
A new initiative is born
So it was that last year I led a team of colleagues to introduce a universitywide effort focused on interdisciplinary teaching and learning called the Norwich Humanities Initiative. With the financial support of a Humanities Connections Planning Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we invited faculty across campus to propose novel team-taught courses. Courses that spanned disciplines and academic colleges and would pilot new general education humanities electives. The resulting mash-ups were creative, surprising, and relevant to the growing demands in higher education for innovation and collaboration.
This fall, English Professor Patricia Ferreira and School of Nursing Director Paulette Thabault will teach a course on Narrative Medicine, one that blends storytelling with health science and medical practice intended to draw majors from nursing to psychology, English, biology, neuroscience, and beyond. In the spring, students will take up Game Theory with philosopher Brian Glenney and economist Kahwa Douoguih, encounter the Geoarchaeology of Lost Cities with geologist Rick Dunn and historian Christie McCann, and write murder ballads in True Crime with criminologist Elizabeth Gurian and literary scholar Kathleen McDonald. All of these courses will challenge students to adapt to new ways of learning, communicate across disciplines, and encounter different perspectives. This, in turn, will make them effective citizens.
Done right, interdisciplinary work can have a big impact on the educational experience — not just for students but also for faculty. It gives all of us the opportunity to try out different approaches to teaching and learning, introduce diversity of thought as a means to problem-solve, spark creative and often unexpected connections, and motivate us to ask more questions before settling on an answer.
This matters, because the current crisis in higher education demands that we cultivate skills that enable students to succeed in our rapidly changing and globally minded world. Creating a curriculum that brings people together toward a shared goal requires sharing our stories and pooling our resources, bringing the humanities to bear on science, technology, engineering, and medicine. This was Partridge’s vision for Norwich when he imagined the citizen-soldier 200 years ago. Through the Norwich Humanities Initiative, we are realizing and reimaging this vision for the 21st century.
Associate Professor of English Amy Woodbury Tease, Ph.D., serves as the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and director of NU’s Undergraduate Research Program.