Breaking down boundaries through interdisciplinary teaching

This week in the University of Exeter’s Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (LTHE) Programme, we held an afternoon of ‘microteaches’, giving participants an opportunity to deliver brief lessons to a multidisciplinary group of peers and, afterwards, receive feedback on what worked, what didn’t, and how they can improve. As always, we fielded many pre-microteach questions from students who felt nervous about various aspects of the activity–choosing an appropriate topic, ensuring the session didn’t overrun, balancing active and passive learning, making sure the facilities and technology would accommodate particular techniques, and so on. And, as always, these worries vanished into the background on the day itself, replaced by a sense of expectation, anticipation, supportiveness, excitement, and real enjoyment of both the teaching portion of the day and the chance to sit back and learn from colleagues from other fields of study.

The main point of the activity is to give our students an opportunity to put into practice the principles that we discussed in earlier LTHE sessions–for example, how to craft intended learning outcomes and use these to select appropriate educational activities; how to consider and respond to the needs of different types of learners; how to construct and adapt to different types of learning spaces; how to engage audiences and empower them to play an active role in their own education; how to give and make use of feedback. This session also segues nicely into the final afternoon of LTHE, which focuses on being critically reflective and analysing your own teaching practices and experiences.

As important and interesting as all those elements are, my favourite aspect of the day is its multidisciplinariness. Each participant delivers his or her lesson to a group of four peers plus a more senior colleague, and it’s rare to have two people from the same discipline; sometimes we even manage to have all six of our colleges represented in the room, without any duplications. This can present a real challenge to students who want to talk about their specialism; it’s hard enough for, say, an ecologist to explain their research to a microbiologist or an economist, so imagine how much thought they’d have to put into an explanation aimed at a microbiologist and an economist, plus perhaps a philosopher and a historian as well. But, not to sound cheesy, every challenge can also be an opportunity; in this case, these multidisciplinary microteaches offer a chance to practice crafting the sort of accessible message that is needed for talking to the media, writing for lay audiences, participating in community engagement events, presenting guest lectures in schools, and writing successful grant applications, just to name a few examples.

Even more exciting is seeing people from diverse backgrounds get excited about the new knowledge to which they are exposed–and, in many cases, realising that it has unexpected connections to their work. This week, for example, a participant from Sport and Health Sciences ran a brief heart rate laboratory during which we learned how to find a pulse and then compared heart rates during different types of activity. Not long after, a student from Drama started her session on theatrical rhythms by asking us to listen to, and then articulate the sound of, our own heartbeats. These two microteaches had very different purposes: The first was related to maintaining or achieving physical health, while the second was associated with being aware of your ‘inner you’ so that you could more easily assume the mantle of someone else onstage. Although you might initially think there is little overlap between these activities or interests, exposure to both presentations can’t help but get you thinking about some fascinating collaborations between these two disciplines–perhaps some mind-body research exploring how or whether actors might experience or achieve different heart rates when portraying different characters, or maybe a public engagement event where theatre is used to convey messages about fitness, or performers have a chance to experiment with different sports to explore how these physical activities impact their moods and their physicality.

This is just one illustration of the sorts of coincidences we inevitably see during the microteaches. At other sessions, for instance, we have unexpectedly had two participants show up with rope in order to teach lessons on knot tying, and multiple people bring yarn and needles or hooks in order to demonstrate knitting and crocheting. Those may not have directly professional implications, but, as with the more dramatic (no pun intended!) example above, they help achieve the same outcome: They break down barriers, which facilitates friendships and conversations and fosters interactions that can ultimately lead to a richer and more satisfying environment at the university. Sometimes this does, in fact, go on to influence teaching and research activities–but even if it doesn’t, it always results in smiles and enjoyment on the day, and it creates a tangible feeling of community.

As someone who has always engaged in interdisciplinary research and has made a career out of being  a jack-of-all-trades rather than a master of one, I am keenly aware of how inspiring, motivating, comforting, and just plain fascinating these multidisciplinary communities can be. In higher education (and, perhaps, in life in general), it is all too easy to allow our intense specialisation to silo us; we can become world-leading experts in our one particular niche but then miss out on opportunities to try a novel technique or apply information in a new way or make an unusual connection between ideas, simply because we are unaware of what is happening outside our own little disciplinary bubble.

Thanks to the wealth of innovations and breakthroughs resulting from inter-, multi-, and cross-disciplinary efforts, creators, researchers, and thought-leaders both within and outside of HE have long been interested in fostering creative communities comprising individuals from a range of fields. Interdisciplinary institutes have become increasingly popular in higher education, and governing bodies at various levels have advocated for increased interdiscplinarity. On the ground, though, it is not uncommon to hear contributors express doubt or report difficulties in having productive conversations and moving collaborations forward in a meaningful and productive way.

I am not oblivious to the challenges associated with interdisciplinary working, but when I watch the microteaches and hear the amazed and delighted comments from participants who find unexpected connections between their work and the research being conducted in another college or field, I feel hopeful. I experience the same sort of thrill I had when I read E.O. Wilson’s Consilience as an undergrad, and when I realised that the research projects I was conducting in my anthropology, English, and biology courses had common features, processes, and basic facts that linked them. I understood then that, as with our attempts to precisely define species and draw countries on maps, we had created boundaries that don’t actually exist and aren’t always useful; though they can make it easier to classify or summarise, they can also blinker us. When I look at my Academic Development colleagues, with a huge diversity of disciplinary expertise, career trajectories, and skillsets, I see clear evidence of how enriching and fruitful it can be to pool different types of knowledge together for a common cause.

Next week when we engage in our post-microteach reflective activities, I’m hoping that at least a few of our participants will report similar feelings to mine. Perhaps some will even have suggestions for interdisciplinary collaborations; previous LTHE students have, after the course has ended, reached across discipline boundaries to form scholarly clubs and contribute to each other’s teaching, so it’s always a possibility. For our LTHE assessment, we ask our students to think about their learning and teaching activities in relation to those of at least one other discipline, and we encourage this comparison to stem from real-life conversations as well as from investigations of the literature. Activities like the microteach can help stimulate these conversations and kickstart these collegiate interactions; I hope they also go one step further and inspire people to actively seek to incorporate knowledge and practices from outside their own field–and perhaps begin to see that the boundaries between fields can be quite thin, and that, in fact, we are all just exploring one vast and exciting wilderness of knowledge together.




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