Teaching Interdisciplinarity

While I have been teaching in post-secondary settings for several years now, I have not before taught Interdisciplinary Studies explicitly, until this year. My current teaching load includes two Cornerstone and two Capstone courses. The cornerstone courses are designed to furnish students with a foundation in the theories, concepts, and methods pertinent to doing interdisciplinary work, and to provide resources for students to plan their educational path according to their interests and future goals. The Capstone courses focus more on providing tools for students to convey their degrees in cohesive ways as they move into the next stages of their lives.

As I approach the end of my second semester, I have identified a couple of key issues that are hampering my teaching efforts and that I am seeking to address in the future iterations of my courses.

1. Student Apathy. For some reason, no matter what we are discussing, my students only occasionally look up from their silenced screens and stare at me with with flat looks of aggressive disinterest when I pose questions to the class. I’ve asked students directly why this is so, and the answer has been a range of things: the topic is uninspiring, they’re tired from their exhaustive schedules, not applicable to real-life issues, too early in the day, too late in the day, too complicated, too simplistic. I have to admit a great deal of frustration. I can’t sing and I can’t dance.

So, what’s left? How am I addressing this issue? Well, I am exploring several avenues. First, I’ve been asking everyone I meet with teaching experience how they address this issue, and I’ve received lots of great feedback and ideas that I am trying out. More interactive technology, more peer-to-peer learning, gamification, dealing with real-world issues, addressing controversial issues, and I am learning to sing and dance. Second, I am delving into the research and talking to the teaching and learning experts. Perhaps there are some systemic issues unrelated to the mode of delivery that are propelling apathy. Third, I continue to ask the students directly. What is wrong? What can I do to inspire enthusiasm? Lastly, I am keeping notes on what I learn so that when I do find answers, I will have an idea where they came from and how to reproduce them.

2. The Nature of Interdisciplinarity. I am an avid consumer of Interdisciplinary Studies literature. It is one of my main areas of research and interest, and the only thing I can say almost for sure is that despite the best efforts of professional interdisciplinary associations, among others, an understanding of the constitution of interdisciplinarity is, well, ethereal, for lack of a better word. Textbooks have been written, theories proposed and disposed of, examples and samples produced, yet descriptions and definitions beyond the superficial notion of combining multiple perspectives are disjointed.


In some ways, this disjointedness is a boon because it allows interdisciplinarity to be widely adapted throughout a plethora of academic contexts, but with such a disparate understanding and application, what are we supposed to teach students?There are a few key textbooks that have been adopted in many IDS programs, and these are the textbooks that I have been using as well. What I have noticed, however, is that the content of these textbooks is largely detached and irrelevant to what students are actually doing and what they need to know. (I know this statement needs much more clarification, but that will take another entire post, which I am working on.)

What I mean is that students are not, for the most part, doing disciplinary-based research. They are, often, just trying to get a degree to get a job. They don’t seem to care about the formal structures of academia or their knowledge repositories, and rightfully so, to some extent. We are in the Google era where unmanageable amounts of information are at our finger tips and sly algorithms feed us what we want to hear to re-affirm what we already think. This is no time to be teaching content–at least not in Interdisciplinary Studies–at least I don’t think so.

So, I am struggling with determining what exactly it is that students need. They seem to want a utility-based education, and I agree that that is what they need, though we do not agree on the the nature of this ‘utility’. I don’t think that the students really understand what the market is demanding, and I don’t think that the university (generally speaking, of course), in its traditional formulation, is able to deliver what the world needs, at least not effectively, if at all.

The world seems to be screaming for a creativity, as Daniel Pink and Mark Cuban, among many others, have been saying for some time, but the traditional academy is a fine-tuned highly effective technology of conformity. Students, I believe, need to learn, or perhaps re-learn, creativity, but this process will demand that they leave their comfort zones and challenge their by-now-deeply-ingrained propensity to simply get it ‘right’. Furthermore, the university will need to create space for an entirely different way of doing knowledge. Cue interdisciplinarity.

I agree with the basic notion popular in the literature that interdisciplinarity is a creative process, and more specifically, I agree with William Newell’s argument that complexity theory provides the appropriate framework for interdisciplinarity (though of course my academic credibility hinges on the disclaimer that there are numerous aspects of his argument that compel challenge). Complexity theory is essentially a theory of creativity, but translating these insights into practice is proving more difficult than I expected.

So, what am I doing to address this problem? I am looking at other models of ‘teaching’ creativity. I’m trying different exercises, and looking for patterns that I can identify and replicate. And, after a long sabbatical, I am returning to the complexity and education literature. I am going back to the basics. I’m starting simple: connection, interaction, feedback, non-linearity, and emergence. These are the elements of complexity and interdisciplinarity. They are not content to be conveyed but experiences to be fostered. I believe that this is what students need, but I could use some help figuring out how to foster these experiences effectively. And how to make them like it.


One thought on “Teaching Interdisciplinarity

  1. Jane says:

    Sharon, you’ve hit on some of the key issues we have in the field. It’s difficult to teach students to explore creativity while still grounding themselves in critical theory when the theory for the field is so fluid.

    I’d be interested in your reading list, especially since we come from somewhat different fields.

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