Reading in 2019

I do read a fair bit, though not nearly as much as I used to. I think this is true for many people. Of course, I watch a lot of YouTube videos about a wide range of things, but I’m not sure how well any of this gets lodged into my memory. While reading affords the luxury of time to contemplate ideas and respond to the author’s arguments, the passive nature of videos requires some form of extravagant stimuli to ensure retention. In general, however, I have a terrible time remembering what I’ve read or watched. I sometimes wonder what the point of reading is if I never remember any of the key ideas. Are there benefits to be gained from the reading process itself, even without retention? I am not sure, but I do know that I’d like to remember more regardless.

So, I’ve decided to try and keep a more formal record of what I read/watch to see if that helps.The first book I finished was a novel by Carl Hiaasen. He is a Florida author, and the story is about the politics of bass fishing in Florida. Although I had not heard of this author, apparently he is rather well-known for his rich characters and outlandish plot twists that seem not so outlandish when contextualized as a Floridian storyline. While I found the story to drag on a bit towards the end, I will read a few more selections from this author.

One of the more colorful characters in this novel is a televangelist named Charles Weeb. He is first and foremost a businessman (though not a great one). The underlying mockery of religious phonies highlights the maliciousness of the exploitation of religious belief for monetary gain, and this element of the story was familiar yet still poignant.

The next book I’m working on, Enlightenment 2.0, is by Joseph Heath. This book chronicles the evolutionary history of the development of reason and argues for a new understanding of rationality that encompasses not just individual knowers, but networks of others and artifacts that scaffold individual rationality and compensate for the tendency to exploit cognitive shortcuts that have facilitated our evolutionary successes.

Chapter 1: The calm passion-Reason: its nature, origin, and causes

Our brains have evolved to solve problems as economically and efficiently as possible, according to this author: “Our brain is more like a bureaucracy or a customer service center, which strives to solve every problem at the lowest possible level” (Kindle Locations 474-475). This is not always the most effective, however, as expediency often comes at the expense of investing in the cognitive work necessary to develop the capacity to solve more complex and sophisticated problems. “Thinking rationally is difficult, which is why most of us try to avoid doing it until absolutely forced” (Kindle Locations 523-524). Of importance in this chapter is the introduction of what the author refers to as two systems of cognition: intuitive, heuristic and rational, analytic. This is reminiscent of another book that I have on my reading list: Thinking Fast and Slow, by Kahneman. We’ll come back to this book later.

The thrust of this chapter is that evolution has endowed humans with a variety of cognitive shortcuts to enable survival, but cognition has been assembled piecemeal in response to survival challenges. It was not intentionally moving towards rationality, and in fact, rationality seems to be an exaptation (the byproduct of other adaptations). “Thus the way that your brain feels after writing an exam is like the way your back feels after a long day spent lifting boxes—neither was designed for the task that it is being asked to perform. This is of enormous importance when it comes to updating the ideals of the Enlightenment. Reason is not natural; it is profoundly unnatural.” (Kindle Locations 827-830).

This reminds me of a TedTalk that I regularly show in my class. I agree that rational thinking can be difficult and uncomfortable, but I never really get this conceptual divide between “natural” and “unnatural”. Unless one assumes that there is something beyond or outside of the natural, this conceptualization makes little sense.

Bottom line from this chapter: thinking is hard because evolution is/was lazy.

Disciplines and Reductionism: An Argument for Alt-IDS


Western epistemology has employed various strategies of reductionism such as logical positivism, dualisms, and absolute truth to capture and subdue complexity into linear, understandable, and ultimately manageable forms of knowledge, says Welch IV (2009).

The obvious utility of reductionism notwithstanding, its ability to deal with increasing complexity is limited and its methodologies limiting. As I discussed in a previous post,  “reductionism fails because even if you know everything possible about the individual pieces that compose a system, you know very little about how those pieces interact with one another when they form the system as a whole. Detailed knowledge of a piece of glass does not help you see, and appreciate, the image that emerges from a stained-glass window” (Miller 2015, Kindle Locations 204-206).

That reductionist ideology is imprinted on our academic institutions via the disciplinary structure is well-established. Thus, in their attempt to deal with the increasing complexity of our world that reductionism cannot address, academics are turning more and more towards interdisciplinarity. This is good and works quite well to some extent. But, here’s the problem:

Disciplines are tools of reductionist epistemology. Simply combining the tools of reductionism, regardless of how seamlessly they are integrated, amounts to another level of reductionism. Simply combining different forms of reductionism maintains reductionism, even if in a new form. Thus, interdisciplinarity, if it is to be based on complexity theory, as is often claimed by IDS scholars and suggested by the limits of reductionism, has to be more than merely combining (integrating or whatever agitative verb one wishes to use) the established areas of study.

I am NOT suggesting a destruction of all disciplinary structures, as some IDS scholars often accuse dissenters from their perspective. I am suggesting a different way of working with them. There is a new way of doing knowledge (though the novelty of this approach is highly debatable).

One of the best discussions of the new way of doing knowledge can be found in a paper by Christian Suteanu (2005) entitled “Complexity, Science and the Public: The Geography of a New Interpretation.” I will copy the abstract here, but the abstract really does not do justice to the profound insights of the paper.

 Abstract: This article addresses complexity by selecting some of its key aspects that share a common feature: the power to change. They seem to change not only the way the world is approached by scientists, but also the way this approach, the resulting perspectives and their multiple relationships, are interpreted. These main aspects are: (1) the challenge of measurability, with an unexpected result that escapes the gravitational field of the measurability problem; (2) the meaning of reproducibility and the redrawn boundaries of scientific inquiry, with implications for the social sciences; (3) the altered expectations concerning prediction, which seem to break with a glorious tradition of unquestioned technological success; and (4) the discovery of all-embracing patterns of events that unavoidably include large events, possibly perceived as ‘crises’, which one may hope to understand and confront, rather than rule out. The resulting geography, with its new landmarks, new relationships among its elements and new means of orientation, is expected to reach the public sooner or later, even if the effect – according to complexity theory itself – cannot be foreseen in detail. All these fibres of change are considered in the context of a fresh meaning of time and of a topology dominated by network concepts.

The key point is that in reductionism we try to subdue, but in complexity we try to engage, and this is a challenge to the cognitive status quo of Western epistemology. This challenges our commitment to measuring, predicting, and repeating as the scared rituals of science while at the same time revealing whole new dimensions of the universe.

All of this boils down to the argument that it is insufficient to teach interdisciplinary studies as merely a method of combining established areas of study. This is only a part of the picture, and arguably a rather small part. We have to teach interdisciplinarity as process of engaging complexity of which disciplinary perspectives are but one set of tools available, a point made to some extent by Robert Frodeman. It is the cognitive tools of engagement that are crucial to a fully-realized complexity and hold the power and promise of a fully-realized interdisciplinarity. If the definitions of interdisciplinarity are inextricably tied to reductionist epistemology, then we need an alt-IDS (Interdisciplinary Studies).



Interdisciplinarity is not about knowing more: it’s about knowing differently.

Within the Interdisciplinary Studies literature, it is frequently asserted and/or implied that disciplines are the basis of interdisciplinarity, and from a definitional standpoint, this makes sense. But definitions can be limiting.

Two types of interdisciplinarity are typically identified: instrumental and critical. Lattuca (2001, 3) writes:

It is difficult to separate the willingness to question conventional disciplinary perspectives from the growth of knowledge in the past century; each drives and is driven, at least in part, by the other. Both developments, however, have moved interdisciplinarity from the academic periphery to a more central scholarly location. The border crossing of early interdisciplinarians was largely instrumental, that is, it was motivated by the need to solve a given problem using borrowed theories, concepts, or methods. Early interdisciplinarians were also fewer in number and generally acted as trespassers, not warring parties; they crossed disciplinary boundaries, but they rarely tried to demolish them. Many of today’s interdisciplinary scholars are more revolutionary in their ideas and ideals and are eager to interrupt disciplinary discourse and to challenge traditional notions of knowledge and scholarship. In the sciences and related professional fields, such as engineering and medicine, interdisciplinarity is still largely instrumental. There is also a good deal of instrumental interdisciplinary work in the social sciences and humanities and in professional fields such as education, business, and social work. However, an increasing number of faculty in the humanities and social sciences pursue interdisciplinary work with the intent of deconstructing disciplinary knowledge and boundaries.

This passage is indicative of the dichotomy that is typically set up in this literature between the two types of interdisciplinarity, and this causes several problems (not the least of which is that it establishes a monolithic ‘legitimate’ form of interdisciplinarity that is threatened by alternatives).

One problem is that this dichotomy black boxes the disciplines and grants them a degree of solidity beyond what is warranted. In other words, it ignores the messiness of the development and operations of the disciplines and treats them as some sort of natural kinds. Now, I would not go so far as to suggest that the literature ignores the history of science and the development of disciplines. In fact, every introductory IDS textbook thus far includes a chapter on this very topic, but this history is by and large merely the means of setting the stage to explain and justify the arrival of interdisciplinarity. Although the organic nature of the disciplines is at times footnoted, the notion that one is either building or destroying disciplinary structures elides the adaptive history of knowledge in general, and in essence extends the reductionist paradigm to interdisciplinary studies contrary to the complexity theory that underwrites contemporary interdisciplinary studies.

The second problem (which is really just a different perspective on the first problem) is that this dichotomy mischaracterizes disciplinary boundaries. Disciplinary boundaries are shifting and changing all the time, and thus the construction/deconstruction metaphor is unhelpful. Indeed, some would argue that disciplinary boundaries are so porous that they are practically illusions, and this thing that we are now calling “interdisciplinarity” is merely a contemporary label for the natural politics inherent in the exchange of knowledge and information that has characterized the doing of knowledge for as long as we have being ‘doing’ knowledge.  In the context of complexity theory that  compels a focus from objects to relationships, interdisciplinarity is not about simply mixing disciplinary ingredients (regardless of whether we’re talking about a fruit salad or a fruit smoothie; the only difference between the two is the size of the chunks). It’s about examining disciplinary-ish negative space, which is neither construction nor deconstruction. It’s not about knowing more or less. It’s about knowing different.

There is another way that for many years I have been calling “strategic interdisciplinarity.” More on this coming soon.



From Objects to Relationships and The Place of Interdisciplinarity

Two ideas resonate throughout the interdisciplinary studies literature: complexity is at the heart of interdisciplinarity and an epistemology of complexity is predicated on non-reductionist methodologies.

Complexity theory is a theory of development, adaptation and change that examines the regularities in systems that at times seem chaotic and even random. Complex systems are ubiquitous throughout the living world: organisms, ecosystems, weather systems, social systems. They are multi-layered: trees and forests, people and societies, ants and ant colonies. The list is quite literally endless. Not surprisingly, then, complexity refers to a new science “that recognizes that there are fundamental principles governing our world— such as emergence and organization— that appear in various guises across all of the nooks and crannies of science” (Miller 2015, Kindle Locations 206-208).

Complexity theory compels a perspective that sees the natural world is comprised of a series of interactional relationships among various entities at various levels of organization. Whether it is the assortment of biological systems that orchestrate the human body or the transactions between consumers, businesses and regulators that animate the economy, the point is that these entities are relationships in process and cannot be reduced to basic discrete units. Studying the human body is a qualitatively different task from studying the human being. So too, studying the consumer is something quite different from studying the economy: the two are related, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts, as they say.

The primary epistemological imperative of complexity theory, therefore, is a shift of focus from objects to relationships. The mechanistic worldview of Newtonian physics has instilled a compulsion to see the world as comprised of sets of basic or fundamental objects assembled in various configurations, reductionism, in other words. As one scholar points out, however, in the complexity view of the world “reductionism fails because even if you know everything possible about the individual pieces that compose a system, you know very little about how those pieces interact with one another when they form the system as a whole. Detailed knowledge of a piece of glass does not help you see, and appreciate, the image that emerges from a stained-glass window” (Miller 2015, Kindle Locations 204-206). It would be a mistake to disregard the incredible contributions traditional science has made to our contemporary world, though one could debate the notions of progress and improvement typically embedded in such discussions.

The shift of focus from objects to relationships is a key principle in this new science, and it has  several important implications for interdisciplinary studies. First, that the academic institution has recapitulated reductionist ideology is well-established, and the rise of complexity-based insights should spur a re-organization. The notion that the natural world can be carved at its joints is embedded in the institutional structure of discrete academic departments and disciplines. As Miller writes:

“Science as currently practiced— with psychology separate from economics, physics separate from biology, and on and on— has been remarkably productive. The creative destruction of scientific ideas, with its inherent quest to define the frontier by publicly disclosing, evaluating, and correcting ideas, has provided us with an engine of insight. The cost, however, is that individual fields have become increasingly separated from one another intellectually. Taking an exact look at a small piece of the world has become the academic norm and has almost fully displaced taking what my Santa Fe Institute colleague Murray Gell-Mann calls ‘a crude look at the whole.’ That may seem a minor problem, but we see its importance when we look at the true places we wish to explore. Take any global-scale, societal challenge, such as financial collapse, climate change, terrorism, epidemics, revolution, or social change: not one neatly aligns with any particular academic field.” (2015, Kindle Locations 216-222)

Indeed, we are beginning to see a re-structuring of academic institutions around key issues, problems, and ideas.  For academia to remain relevant and maximize its benefits in society, it must be responsive to the changing needs of its students, teachers, and broader communities (ideally, it would adapt a lot quicker than it currently does). And to do this, it really must strive to more fruitfully cultivate insights from between the disciplines–hence interdisciplinarity. From an interdisciplinarian’s perspective, the changing face of the university to this end is a good thing, but it is not quite sufficient without a broader more pervasive shift in how knowledge is done not just organized.

So, shifting focus from objects to relationships has a second epistemic implication: to know about complex systems one cannot break them down, as this destroys the very system one is trying to study. In other words, one cannot approach the study of complex systems through a process of domination, dissection, and control such has been the methodological ideals of traditional scientific approaches. Complex systems exist through a continual exchange of information within the system and between the system and its environments. These are often referred to as feedback loops. Furthermore, we too, as people, researchers, knowers, are ourselves complex systems, and so knowing about complex systems is best understood as a process engagement: participation, or an exchange of information between the system and ourselves. It is therefore not sufficient to change university program structures. We must also change university classrooms.

I am reminded of my first encounter with complexity theory as a piano major in a jazz studies program. I grew up learning piano in the classical tradition: scales, repertoire, theory, and history. I learned all the pieces, and when I entered the jazz-studies program, I tried to utilize the same approach to learn to play jazz piano. I studied the theory, practiced the exercises, and memorized the tunes. But I did not progress as much as I would have liked because, while learning to play jazz piano does include all of these components, understanding came only through experience: sitting with other musicians and participating in the process of making music. No matter how well I did at mastering all the components, and I did very well, it did not translate into the radically different experience of sitting in a small combo with other musicians and engaging in the music-making process with them. The classical approach was about mastering the material, dominating it, controlling it, and repeating it precisely. All of this has its place and value, but learning to improvise and play jazz, to be innovative and adaptive, while still requiring all those elements, requires a different set of cognitive tools–acceptance of uncertainty and vulnerability, tolerance of ambiguity, openness, risk-taking, and an understanding of the productive value of repeated failure.

Uncertainty, vulnerability, ambiguity, openness, risk-taking, and repeated failure are not typical epistemic values of traditional education, yet they are the crucial epistemic values of creativity and innovation. Complexity is a theory of creativity and innovation, and thus they are crucial epistemic values of complexity. To the extent that complexity is at the heart of interdisciplinarity, they are also crucial epistemic values of interdisciplinarity. We must strive to develop classes that cultivate these values if we wish to truly transform the academy into an adaptive, innovative, and relevant institution capable of engaging and improving the increasingly complex world. This is the place of interdisciplinarity.

Cultivating Creativity

media-20170322Interdisciplinary Studies is about creativity, at least that’s the claim, but where is this creativity exercised? In choosing one’s career path? In choosing one’s compilation of courses? Or, as I hope to suggest is the most significant place, in the daily academic practices of interdisciplinarians?

In the Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies textbook that I and others use in our Cornerstone class, the authors write that “in interdisciplinary work, creativity involves bringing different perspectives and previously unrelated ideas, discovering commonalities among them, and combining them into a more comprehensive understanding” (21). I disagree with the quantitative component of this statement because often creative pursuits are about knowing differently not necessarily more, nonetheless the centrality of creativity is key.  I have been working very hard to cultivate a creative classroom, and I’ve had varrying degrees of success.

Creativity is not easy to teach, it turns out. Indeed, according to Bloom’s taxonomy, it’s at the very top of the pedagogical pyramid. I have to admit that I’ve been struggling a bit with getting students to lighten up and delve into the quirky and whimsical dimensions of intellectual work. But that’s likely because the concept of quirky whimsical intellectual work strikes them as an oxymoron. Academia is serious stuff. GPAs are on the line. What’s so quirky and whimsical about that? When provided with prompts to explore unconventional ways of thinking, they often either stare at me with blank expressions or challenge my intellectual forays by reiterating conventional tropes in regards to whatever topic is on tap. Not only is there often a lack of capacity for creative thinking, there is a lack of enthusiasm about even the prospect of it. Why?

Perhaps because it’s difficult? I don’t think this is a good answer. Many of my students are running academic marathons of sorts, trying to get through while juggling huge course loads, working, managing family, navigating institutional complexities, and facing a volatile political climate and an uncertain future. If anyone can handle difficult tasks, it’s my students. By and large, they are no strangers to hard work. I don’t think this is the best answer.

A better answer, I think, is more pernicious, in some ways. Remember Sir Ken Robinson? He has argued to more than 44 million people that school, in its industrial formulation, kills creativity, and he has convinced me. He argues that creativity is as important as literacy and should be treated with the same status, but I don’t think this message has made it through to higher education.

I had career services come to my class this semester to speak to my students. The title of their talk is “Majoring in Happiness.” During this talk, the speaker passed out pamphlets with a short survey that allowed students to assess their own personalities and intellectual orientations. The back page of the pamphlet provides an interpretation of the survey,  and test-takers can fall into one or more of the following categories: “Realistic Majors” (doers), “Investigative Majors” (thinkers), “Artistic Majors” (creators), “Social Majors” (helpers), “Enterprising Majors” (persuaders), or “Conventional Majors” (organizers). The bulk of my students were either “Investigative Majors” or “Social Majors.” Both of these categories are firmly ensconced in the realm of certainty–true/false, and right/wrong. Virtually no one identified themselves as creators.  I don’t think we are really witnessing personality results but rather education results that teach ‘right’ answers and solvable problems. If IDS is truly about creativity, and I believe it is, we have our work cut out for us.

As an instructor in IDS, I do not believe that my task is really about teaching content (I am sorry to offend the textbook writers and their ilk). There are a few key concepts and ideas that would be helpful for students to know, but let’s be honest, it’s not exactly rocket science. My task, as I see it, is much more difficult. It is to inspire students to be different, and to create a space where intellectual experimentation is fostered and rewarded. We need to provide creativity tools that students can apply throughout their whole learning experience setting the stage for application to their careers and lives in general. We need to teach creativity, or to unlearn conformity, to be more to the point.

Apart from classroom pedagogy, I think there is some important institutional work that must be done by IDS programs as well. IDS as a creative intellectual endeavor, despite its growth over the past couple decades, continues to face stigma. The world is changing and creativity practitioners are more and more in demand. This puts IDS on the cutting edge, as graduates from these programs are showing us and the world. Changing hearts and minds is never an easy task, but perhaps there are things that can be done. Increasing the profile of IDS majors and practitioners, for example. Engaging in campus conversations and building relationships across disciplines and throughout various communities on campus and beyond are certainly ways to strengthen IDS programs and provide support for our students taking classes in disciplinary department. But, it has to start in the classroom with individual instructors teaching in creative communities of practice, or in classroom communities practicing creativity, more precisely.

Making Mistakes and Moving Forward

Learning through failure is now a staple trope of progressive pedagogy, yet it remains one of the hardest elements to install into our classrooms and our own lives. Within academia, at least in the academic spheres I’ve been party to, the stakes are high, failures are very costly, and individuals are scared to step beyond the set parameters of societal and personal expectations.

Failures, however, are par for the course, and more than simply being scared to try new things, our attitude toward failure impedes our ability to reflect on and learn from mishaps in any meaningful way, or perhaps, it prevents us from capitalizing on the unintended consequences. Sometimes ‘mistakes’ turn out to be great opportunities. Cloaked in shame, fear, disappointment, and even rejection, it makes sense that our first reaction would be to deflect responsibility, divert attention, or simply deny the realities of our mistakes. I am imploring my students to think of failures differently, and I have several assigned readings on the topic, including Scott Adams’ How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, but this is not enough. I have to lead the way by modeling the attitudes and behavior that I want my students to adopt and that I believe will benefit them in the long run. The following is my reflection on a mistake that I have made recently.

In August 2016 I started a new job teaching a subject I love at a large university in a fabulous city. I moved away from my family to a new country for an opportunity that I believed was too good to pass up.  I have only been teaching in university for a couple of years as an adjunct, and the learning curve has been steep. (Notice how we always need to contextualize our situation to soften the perceived accountability of our impending actions. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, as I believe most of our mistakes happen purely out of lack of experience and not on account of sinister intentions, but it seems to me to highlight the enormity of the fear surrounding failure.) I was hired to teach Interdisciplinary Studies, an area with which I am intimately familiar and that I believe should be the bedrock of education for the contemporary world. Interdisciplinary Studies focuses on the necessity of addressing complex problems that demand creative, innovative, adventurous, and unconventional thinkers. A whole program dedicated to fostering these qualities was/is a dream come true for me.

But here’s where I went wrong (this of course is not the only mistake I’ve made, but I think it’s the most significant in this context). I know what interdisciplinarity involves, so I thought I knew what an interdisciplinary student would be like, and I set out to build my courses accordingly. Here are a couple places where this mistake was most prominent.


The Interdisciplinary Studies program requires students to set out their own course of study according to their goals and interests, and so I thought these students were highly self-motivated and self-directed. For the most part, however, they are not, and I would argue that it’s largely not their fault. For many, the unfortunate reality is that this is a degree of last resort (I say “unfortunate” because I believe that if students really understood power and promise of Interdisciplinary Studies it would be their first choice), and many are shouldering the scars of rejection by and failure in a consilience of systems in which the deck has been largely stacked against them. I have learned a lot about the education system that has produced these students, and like most traditional education systems, the rules are set and rigidly enforced. Not only have students not been given opportunity to develop capacity for self-direction, they have been bludgeoned by a culture of conformity through aggressive systems designed for successful test-taking and quantitative assessments. Their grammar is impeccable, but their originality is abysmal.

I used to construct my assignments with an intentional vagueness with the goal being to provide enough structure to guide students through the assignment while maintaining enough openness to allow students to bring their own voices to bear. I regret that the vagueness of my assignments may have caused panic–not what I intended, of course. Taking their feedback very seriously, I made a few changes: I now provide much more explicit instructions in terms of structure and more detailed prompts. For example, I state how many paragraphs I expect to see written, and what specific questions they might explore. I encourage students to simply write more. I believe that simply writing more facilitates an intentional stance towards moving beyond prescribed perspectives and ‘correct’ answers. I put very little weight on writing mechanics, and in fact, instead of adopting a punitive stance for writing errors, I have started giving students an opportunity to revise for full credit. I believe that removing focus from the writing mechanics to the content will install a necessary degree of freedom (besides, their writing has already been policed enough in other courses and previous education). I am contemplating including a journaling component with prompts in the next iteration of my courses.

I want my classroom to be a safe space for students to ‘try on’ different perspectives and to gain the confidence to explore their own minds without repercussion. This semester, I have largely avoided lectures and have moved to games and exercises as the primary delivery mode, but not all of the students are comfortable with this. There is safety in the familiar, but I’m not convinced that the familiar is in their best interest. I am contemplating the question as to how I can promote self-direction and self-motivation in ways that allow students to explore and fail safely. As always, suggestions and feedback are very welcome.


Interdisciplinary Studies promotes problem-based learning–complex problems–to be specific. According to The World Economic Forum, the ability to address complex problems is the most in-demand job skill in the contemporary economy, and the complex problems that are being tackled by the intellectual forces of our global society are both awesome and inspiring. I am so excited for my students–they are on the cusp of stepping into this revolutionary world at an amazing moment in human-natural history. How cool is that? I expected students in the Interdisciplinary Studies program would be animated and enthusiastic, but instead I have found a heavy and relentless apathy. My mistake has been to spend more time bemoaning apathy than cultivating empathy.

Students have good reasons for apathy, I’ve discovered after many long conversations with them and others. Many, if not most, are facing a depleted job market with huge debts that will follow them for the remainder of their lives. I’ve learned that debt-forgiveness programs are few and far between and the repercussions of not being able to repay loans can be severe. I’ve noticed that many students are working long hours for low wages to try to reduce the chains of debt. I’ve noticed that many of my students talk about their marriages, children and spouses even though they seem rather young still (they volunteer such info in class discussions, for example. I would never ask students about this). It appears that many get married and start families at a young age for a number of reasons, some perhaps related to cultural/religious beliefs, and perhaps some related to the realities of financial pressures in regards to healthcare and living expenses. Whatever the reasons, the added pressures of work and family life during the completion of a university degree surely contributes to a dampened enthusiasm.

I am still struggling with how to address this problem. The one thing that I know for sure is that I do not want to be complicit in the systems that exacerbate the problem; yet I fear that in my course structure I may have implemented the very types of authoritarian policies that these systems espouse. I have strict deadline policies, for example, and (usually) an attendance policy. I want to empower my students not deplete them any further, but I am scared of being perceived by the governing bodies as being too ‘soft’, not being academic or rigorous enough, or simply not making my students work hard enough. Interdisciplinary Studies in particular has been plagued with these very types of critiques. Whose side am I on? I want to be fair yet sensitive to my students’ needs while maintaining the integrity of the institution. Part of the problem is that the academic institutional structure is out of touch with the realities of the demands of the new economy. Creativity is the new conformity, and new frameworks for academic standards and values are desperately needed. Faculty should not be in the position of having to ‘choose’ between the best interests of their students and the demands of institutional protocol–but this is and will continue to change. In the meantime, what do I do?

One thing that I have been trying is to encourage students to think about what projects/issues/topics they find inspiring and focus on figuring out how they contribute to those as a means of finding meaningful work. In other words, I ask them to think about what they they want to work on  as opposed to what work they want to do. I have been curating and showing videos and talks that might inspire them and I am actively working to bring in guest speakers from various fields. I would like to have more individual conversations with students about their own goals and aspirations, and I am making an effort towards this end, but with four classes each semester, it’s a bit difficult. And, most importantly, I am rethinking every class policy I have adopted. I am going to do things differently. I am keeping my eyes peeled for ideas and suggestions.

From now on, I will approach my students with a much more open mind. I will seek to learn about who they are and attempt to make my courses responsive to their specific needs, rather than seek to impose my ideas of who I think they should be. I will admit that an authoritarian stance is in many ways easier, but it feels terrible and it’s absolutely no fun.

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.

The Problem and the Problems with the Problem–Notes on Chapter One

9780143108269Jerry Coyne’s recent book could not have come at a better time. The science-religion debate is out of control.

In the first chapter of this book, Coyne lays out the problem: the notion that science and religion are compatible is detrimentally influential and widespread despite overwhelming and mounting evidence that the two are irredeemably at odds and despite the plethora of contradictory argumentation for the compatibility thesis.

Why is this problem a problem?

In the preface, Coyne notes that his personal interest in this topic relates to the difficulties he has faced in trying to persuade others in the validity of evolution, both as a teacher and author of a well-known pro-evolution anti-creationist book Why Evolution is True. Noting the rather small conversion (or de-conversion, depending on one’s perspective) of his audience given the abundance of empirical evidence, Coyne is moved to consider this issue from a more abstract level—science versus religion. Religious claims about the natural world amount to hypotheses that are being answered in pseudo-scientific terms, and he notes that “religious people were staking their very lives and futures on evidence that wouldn’t come close to, say, the kind of data the U.S. government requires before approving a new drug for depression” (xv). Furthermore, Coyne asserts that accepting the compatibility thesis dilutes science and renders it impotent. Thus, Coyne’s work seeks, in an odd way, to protect religious believers (though I doubt he would phrase it quite this way), and, more importantly, to protect science and its affordances as a natural knowledge enterprise.

There are at least two problems with the problem as identified by Coyne.

On page 22 Coyne hints to some of the implications of accepting a religious worldview that is not based on the types of truths offered by a rigorous and reliable science. He suggests that accepting religious truth claims implies accepting the social and moral imperatives wherewith they are packaged, including the relentless control of sexuality and social order. This element gets only a passing reference in this chapter, and he promises to develop this further in the next. I agree with Coyne on this assertion, but I think its role as a key driver in the compatibility debate is understated, to say the least.

The second problem, and one that I hope to explore more thoroughly, is that Coyne, as with other authors of the same ilk, assume that somehow science is automatically a better truth generator in regards to claims upon which social and moral parameters can be grounded.

Of course science is a far superior method of generating truths about the natural world, but the realities of how science gets done does not reflect the idealized truth-generating rigorous science that is generally assumed.

Take, for example, the unending science proclaiming the inexorable distinctions between males and females. Every day I see that science is showing how men’s brains are different from women’s brains, how men sleep differently from women, how men drive differently from women, and on and on. Such science, though likely showing some truthful elements, blackens out the ways in which the genders are the same, or the statistical range of similarities. Such studies emphasize a distinction that hides overlaps and contributes to an ethos in which gender segregation is understandable and sensible. All those who fall outside of these norms are instantly pathologized, and this gets translated into a whole host of scientifically-sanctioned social injustices. Now many will argue and say that such representations of science are a product of a pathologically-gender-obsessed media. And while certainly this is a big part of the issue, the selection of research questions produces the types of results that the media wants to report.

This discussion is taking Coyne’s work far beyond what he has written in this first chapter, but it points to larger issues just under the surface of this debate. The point that I want to bring to the fore is that science, like religion (and I am not a big fan of religion), are tools that can be manipulated in multifarious ways. Science is not automatically apolitical, and it is the political dimension of this debate that I think is of the most interest and significance.

Trust in…Whom?

Over the last few weeks in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Situating Science has presented two installments in the national lecture series “The Lives of Evidence.”  On February 28, Carl Elliot from the University of Minnesota gave a talk entitled “An Atypical Suicide: Psychiatric Research Abuse at the University of Minnesota.” In this talk, Dr. Elliot told the story of Dan Markingson, a young man who committed suicide while involved in a clinical trial of an anti-psychotic drug at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Elliot is pushing for a thorough investigation into this case as he alleges research misconduct in the university’s psychiatry department. With several pieces of evidence from Markingson’s records, Elliot alleges that, among other things, Dan Markingson was enrolled at a time when his refusal to do so might have resulted in physical confinement due to his psychological instability, and that his consent was procured just days after several assessments from different examiners determined that Markingson was unable to make his own medical decisions. Elliot is seeking to raise awareness of the issues specific to this case and research ethics more generally.

On March 5, Scott Findlay from the University of Ottawa gave a talk entitled “Governing in the Dark: Evidence, Accountability and the Future of Canadian Science.” Findlay stressed the essential role of government-supported science by arguing that government has both the infrastructure and responsibility to conduct science in the public interest. Science in the public interest, Findlay argued, should service public values—healthy minds, bodies, and environment, and it should provide an evidentiary basis upon which laws and policies should be built. Findlay cited several examples of the current Canadian government’s initiatives to claw back funding for scientific research, enact policies that ignore strong but conflicting evidence, and hamper and silence government scientists by prohibiting communication with the public and between the scientists themselves.  Findlay did not linger on the question as to why the government has moved so far in this direction, but he urged his audience to become active in this issue as a matter of guarding a keystone of democracy.

In regards to these talks, there are two points I want to make. The first one is about money and morality and the second one is about confusion and evidence.

Elliot’s talk made it very clear that he suspects money to be a primary driver of misconduct. In the Markingson story, the doctors running the trial and the university’s teaching hospital where the trial was being conducted both profited handsomely from Markingson’s participation in this study. Furthermore, it appears that policies and procedures were manipulated to secure Markingson’s participation and protect researchers from conflict of interest allegations. Findlay did not grant much attention as to the driver of the Canadian government’s anti-evidence stance, but it has been stated elsewhere that the government is motivated by the enticement of wealth from the extraction of natural resources, and evidence that interferes with this objective is systematically downplayed, distorted, and/or dismissed.

The impacts of such motivations are severe. Markingson’s suicide happened on campus and was particularly gruesome. The impeding of environmental science and action by the Canadian government has many researchers worried about the catastrophic effects of climate change and environmental degradation, not just on human populations, but on the sustainability of life in general. So what I cannot help but wonder is whether, or perhaps why, money seems to negate morality. What kind of evolutionary purpose is there in this? Or it is simply an ugly byproduct?

Part of the answer to my question may lie in a small but perceptible fault-line between these two presentations. On one hand, Elliot challenged his audience to challenge the evidence—the scientists and the science from which the evidence comes. On the other hand, Findlay challenged his audience to challenge the challenging of evidence. This is not to suggest that Findlay in any way endorsed a blind-faith acceptance of scientific evidence, but he did encourage at least a contingent acceptance. Contingent, that is, on the development of alternative or convincing contradictory evidence.

Confused yet? I am. I don’t trust government-endorsed science right now. I don’t trust corporate-endorsed science right now. And I’m not sure I trust the academy-endorsed science right now. And if I go to the heart of these talks, I should probably not trust people in general.  Apparently money negates morality. Or does it?

The whole Occam’s razor approach to these types of questions always leaves me skeptical. I find it hard to accept that the answer is so simple, and I have trouble believing that people are so susceptible to the seductions of money and power. Are people so easily transformed into cold-hearted immoral agents of ill-will at the prospect of gaining more money in their pockets? Am I? While individuals like that undoubtedly exist, I don’t believe that people in general are like that. Certainly there must be some who have resisted such enticements, and the fact that Elliot is appealing to our sense of justice to become outraged at this story suggests that there are many who would indeed resist. Likewise, in the case of the government’s anti-environmentalist pursuits surely there are some in this contingent that, given a scenario that they could believe and accept, would forgo profits for the sake of the sustaining and flourishing of life. So why does money negate morality for some and not others?

I don’t have a good answer. All I have at this point is a thought, but it’s corny. I am not a fan of the democratization of science in the sense that I do not like the idea of scientific discoveries being vetted in terms of acceptance or rejection by the general public. Let the scientists do what they do; however, I am a fan of personalizing science. I would like to see the personal side of scientists more, particularly when it comes to understanding the results of their research. Scott Findlay spoke of ways in which scientists could get more involved in public discourse of values and best practices without necessarily becoming partisan advocates and jeopardizing the objectivity in their work (to the extent that such objectivity exists, Findlay said, and I agree). I am more apt to trust someone I know or think I know and understand, even if I disagree with his or her ideals.

Sure, I do not trust the current Canadian government’s science, but I’m quite sure there are many people in the government who I would trust. The Harper government has been very astute at isolating itself from the media and carefully controlling its public image. It’s unsettling to see such a cultivated picture, and this does nothing to bolster trust–quite the opposite I’d say. I do not trust corporate science, but again, I’m quite sure there are many within such organizations that I would trust. You get the point. If we can shift our focus from the scientific machinery to the people, we may be able to wade through the confusion and find some trustworthy guidance. The funny part is that deciding where to invest our trust in science may end up being more of a gut-reaction rather than an evidence-based decision.