Why is being interdisciplinary so very hard to do? Thoughts on the perils and promise of interdisciplinary pedagogy

  • Nowacek R
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Observes an interdisciplinary class (lit, religious studies, history) to begin to develop a vocab for discussing interdisc. differences All 3 disciplines used thesis-driven essay. But they meant different things by it. The history prof warned students to explicitly avoid starting w/ an argument. He told them to come to him with a TOPIC, which should be a phrase, and not an assertion. He wanted students to reason through evidence to "see where it leads you." He wants them to ARRIVE at a thesis and their essay should take this format w/ the thesis at the end. The history prof even left open the possibility that students might not reach a thesis. History prof tend to reward IMPLICIT argument. For the lit prof, by contrast, having an explicit argumentative thesis that "sticks its neck out" was vital. The religious studies prof wanted students to "think like Aquinas." The "thesis" would most likely be a statement about what is most important about Aquinas, what ties everything together. So the thesis is more like an argument for a particular lens on the primary source. Selective description-->argument for a particular summary. Thomas’s expectations for a thesis were quite distinct from Olivia’s and Roger’s expectations. Indeed, he modeled a thesis with a Madlib type sentence: “The most important thing for Aquinas about salvation is ____,” or “Given [Aquinas’] understanding of ____, salvation works in the following ways.” Such a thesis is notable not for the degree that it sticks its neck out, but for the degree that it aptly identifies Aquinas’ core assumptions and organizing principles. Teachers in different disciplines have a tendency to stress similarities where differences may exist. Students are placed in a double-bind where they receive conflicting messages as well as the message that these conflicts should not be explicitly acknowledged. But if individuals can push through these double-binds to meta-cognitive awareness (i.e., an ability to comment on the differences) this pushes higher-order learning. Roger wanted students to approach texts and make claims as historians would, which for Roger meant allowing the thesis to evolve over time and perhaps reside only implicitly in the final text. Olivia was committed to a version of the thesis-driven essay that was more obviously argumentative. And while Thomas too expected a clear thesis, it was less explicitly argumentativ DOUBLE-BIND = individual “receives two messages or commands which deny each other—and the individual is unable to comment on the messages” (Engeström, chapter 3). One student (Will) had difficulty negotiating these double-binds bc he focused on genres rather than disciplinary differences. Will second-guessed his work, calling it “a cop out.” This denigration of the work he had successfully done suggests how difficult it is for participants—especially students—to negotiate the double binds placed on them when disciplinary activity systems collide. Will wrote successful papers, but intuiting the differences among the activity systems was not sufficient to escape the psychological double bind. Because Will could make no metacommunicative statement about how or why those systems conflicted, he remained puzzled by his success. Despite his good grades, there was no apparent interdisciplinary learning—no move toward awareness of the cong493 straints, complements, and interrelations of these three disciplines. Will’s instructors’ focus on common features of the meditational tool rather than differing motives of the disciplinary activity systems did nothing to ameliorate this problem. Ironically, though, this shared motive of stressing convergences worked directly against the type of meta-discourse on difference that I have argued can make interdisciplinary classrooms powerful contexts for learning and writing in the disciplines. The Interdisc instructors thought that awareness of the disciplines qua disciplines and their differences was too much to ask of first-year students, but Will’s experiences suggest that students are expected to negotiate interdisciplinary double binds with or without the benefit of meta-awareness.

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  • ISSN: 0010096X
  • SCOPUS: 2-s2.0-67249083382
  • PUI: 354742082
  • SGR: 67249083382


  • Rebecca S. Nowacek

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