Interdisciplinary Education

An Inquiry into Interdisciplinary Collaboration

January 10, 2020

By Samuel Chen

It was a rare opportunity for me to visit the SFU Woodward’s location and an even rarer opportunity to hear about the experiences of four professors from different Faculties presenting their experiences, reflections and learning on collaborating to design and deliver courses together. Each team was supported by a SFU teaching and learning development grant.

First up was Dr. Elizabeth Marshall from our own Faculty of Education and Dr. Rob Kitsos from the School for the Contemporary Arts.  They presented on their experiences in an interdisciplinary class they co-designed and taught twice – entitled Challenging “Normal” in which students used fairy tales and composition training principles to examine the idea of perception and how to see difference.

Through course readings, compositional practices, and interdisciplinary collaborations, undergraduate students from a wide range of faculties re-formed fairy tales, such as the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” into embodied texts.

Some of the practical challenges the teaching pair spoke about included structural administrative issues like listing the course in two different systems, booking rooms, and grading.  The teaching duo explained that it was often difficult to convince administration that teaching together did not mean half the work, in fact it often meant more work.  Dr. Kitsos spoke to the adaptability of interdisciplinary instruction and noted that as a team they learned to negotiate and to veer from plans as co-teachers as the student projects developed.

In planning the course, the instructors intentionally experimented with space and time. In the first iteration of the course, 1 day was scheduled at Harbour Centre in traditional classrooms followed by 1 day in the studio-space style room at Woodwards. Reflecting on the experience, Marshall and Kitsos explained that this often broke the flow of the course and that they decided during the 3rd week of the class to teach the entire course in the same open studio-space room. The move to the flexible studio space was an especially important structural shift for non-performing arts students as Dr. Marshall mentioned that some were initially unsettled when entering the collaborative studio to see that there were no chairs or desks. 

Throughout the course, undergraduate students from various disciplines were paired with performing arts students and all  had the opportunity to collaborate and to make as a way of thinking to create fresh and provocative interpretations of fairy tales. For more on Dr. Kitsos’s and Dr. Marshall’s project, read their article co-written with their research assistants Linnea Gwiazda and Rowan Shafer entitled Embodying Fairy Tales: Composition Training in Narrative, Image, and Performance in the peer reviewed journal Theatre and Performance Training

Dr. Dara Culhane, Faculty of Sociology & Anthropology and Dr. Peter Dickinson, with a joint appointment from the Department of English and the School of Contemporary Arts presented next. In the Spring 2019, they co-taught a course entitled Performance, Place, and Sensory Ethnography. The course also had a strong focus on recognizing First Nation sovereignty and drew on Indigenous scholars like Dr. Vanessa Watts on place-thought and agency. One of the aims was to help students see beyond colonial cartographic models.

Students were asked to take four walks on the same route of their choice throughout the semester while reflecting on the following:

1. What did they notice?

2. What did they taste, smell, hear and see as they repeated the walk? – using a sensory ethnography approach

3. Outside of the Western notion of 5 senses, what were they noticing at a kinesthesia, intuition, or emotional memory level?  What were they noticing at the “plus” sense level or what Freud would call the “uncanny”?

4. What were they noticing at the more than human level?

For students from an anthropology background, sensory ethnography was quite a radical concept and a departure from conventional anthropological approaches which often focus heavily on theory and textual analysis. By and large, conventional anthropology is as Dr. Culhane put it “embodied from the head up only.” The concept of bodily and sensory input is largely ignored and often left undocumented.  This was where students really benefited from interacting with the Arts students where sensory embodiment is something that is taken for granted.  

Students were also invited to submit proposal for a group or individual final project with a theme of “Doing by Making.”  Dr. Culhane and Dr. Dickinson echoed some of the same challenges as the first set of presenters around grading and managing student expectations.  With students from diverse backgrounds, there was also a mix of skill level for different art forms. Students were concerned about whether they would be evaluated based on the quality of the art produced and also had questions about the expertise of the instructors to evaluate their work as well. Students were encouraged to do detailed journal entries throughout the term to document their reflections and learning, which was eventually included into part of the evaluation process.  This translated into a lot of grading for the instructors.

With regards to the collaborative process of developing and co-teaching the course, Dr. Culhane and Dr. Dickinson both agreed that it was only possible to document and plan for the starting point of the collaboration. The idea of unpredictability and surprise was a theme as the course unfolded.  By the mid-term point of the course, students were invited to come up with their own readings. 

Some key  take-aways from both sets of presenters included:

• Administrative challenges like finding rooms and getting courses listed in multiple faculty scheduling systems

• Convincing administration that co-teaching wasn’t doing less and in fact required doing more. It is common to only being given partial or no  teaching allocation credits for co-teaching

• Managing student expectations around grading and helping students move through the discomfort of the unfamiliar as they pushed through to new learning

• Managing “productive irritants” at each phase of the course as co-teaching faculty work through different views and ways of doing things

Despite the challenges, both set of speakers agreed that co-teaching was generative and productive. Interdisciplinary courses are rich and formative learning experiences for students. By the end of the presentation, I was convinced that the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration for both instructors as well as students far outweigh the cost.  To see more of it, administrators, faculty and students need to courageously work together to normalize this type of learning together.