Friday, April 20, 2012

Da Vinci

We're having discussions these days about how we can give our students "integrative learning"* experiences. One model, of course, has instructors from two fields working together on some level to show how two fields speak to each other, think about a common issue, etc. That can be an expensive proposition if we're thinking of two instructors team teaching or coordinating two small classes. And expensive isn't something that happens here, especially of late.

Another model has one instructor doing something "integrative" in a given course. That's cheap, because the school only has to pay one person.

And, of course, cheap is where we're aiming.

Yesterday, I was at a meeting where a faculty member suggested that since Leonardo had demonstrated expertise in all sorts of fields, we should be able to, too. She also suggested that she'd had a professor once who talked all about the relationship between Shakespeare and Delacroix, and how influential that professor had been on her own learning.

You may be thinking that I was extraordinarily polite in not interrupting to say that Shakespeare and Delacroix couldn't have had a relationship unless Shakespeare had come back from the dead, but mostly I wasn't able to understand what she said well (I have difficulty with her accent; I know this is my failing, so I keep my mouth shut).

I think learning to think in different ways, thinking creatively, and certainly understanding different fields is really important. I'm guessing I've taken more in depth courses in vastly different fields than most of my colleagues. But I also know how well I know my own field, and how little and outdated my knowledge of other fields is.

And I greatly respect other peoples' knowledge.

Now, English lit folks are notoriously unchaste when it comes to dabbling all over. We read psych, anthro, history, you name it. But we don't read in those fields the way experts in the fields do, nor do we read the same things, nor do we keep up in the field. We still teach Freud, for gosh sakes. Seriously, the last time anyone in Psych actually took Freud seriously was sometime around 1953, wasn't it? We still read Levi-Strauss as though he's the latest, coolest thing. And that's sort of okay, so long as we think about what we're doing in terms of teaching literature, perhaps. But if we think we have anything useful to say about thinking in the field of psychology or anthropology, we're probably wrong.

And imagining that we faculty folks here at a regional comprehensive university can somehow reproduce the multi-disciplinary learning of one of the top 10 or so minds in western Europe in the past thousand years? Well, I'm sure as heck not there.

I'm frustrated, too, because some of these folks talk about how exciting and liberating it is to teach all these wonderful new courses, and I can't think of much more exciting and liberating course to teach than Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or a seminar on early modern left earlobe studies. And then I secretly feel sorry for them that they don't get to teach Shakespeare and stuff, and don't seem to be endlessly amazed and fascinated by the stuff they do teach. Shhhhh. Don't tell or they'll all decide they're expert enough to teach Shakespeare and how Hamlet is all about the Oedipal.

* "Integrative learning" is the latest catchphrase here, along with "operational outcomes" or something. It's a way of trying to talk about interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary and just two or more fields of study somehow having something to do with each other without actually carefully thinking about how or what we're talking about.


  1. Zombie Shakespeare FTW!

    No, seriously, I have to watch it when I start getting too caught up in other areas outside of my field because I know that I'm operating out of some ignorance. I might have good ideas, but I don't know the scholarship and the background in which I'm operating.

    You're also right that to expect that we're all going to be Leonardo is silly: rather than us trying to do a lot of things well and failing in many, it's better to do several things well and share the wealth.

    (You're also right that those poor people who have to teach boring other topics, outside the golden glow of late medieval and early modern studies, ought to be pitied *wink, wink*)

  2. I kind of feel like generalists have to be Da Vinci, too. This year in my new tenure-track gig, I've taught exactly two Shakespeare plays and a couple of EM poems. That's it. I've taught WAY, WAY, WAY outside my field though. Young adult lit? 20th century female playwrights? Hello!? Before teaching these classes, I knew nothing about them, but I had some interest. Interest doesn't mean intelligence, though. I had to make up everything as I went along.

    (And don't get me started about what I DON'T know about writing, even though I've been teaching it for a long time.)

    The good thing is that I'm well trained to figure this stuff out. In other fields, though? I'm not trained at all. I suppose that we can bring new perspectives in by reading new fields like we do literature, but admittedly, our perspectives are limited.

    And the other inherent contradiction is that PhDs are pushed hard and fast into specialization, but then many of us have to be generalists if we ever get jobs. That's not a complaint, necessarily. I had fun teaching my out-of-specialization classes. But I didn't feel like I was qualified to teach these things by any means. Oh well.

  3. We are trying to create integrative capstone seminars *within* the major. The thing to remember is that for an integrative experience to work, students have to bring things they have learned and want to integrate. So DaVinci is all well and fine, but if students don't know what ze is pulling together, there won't be any integration.

    End of rant.

  4. this is killing me. my college had a multidisciplinary course of study for select freshmen -- satisfied all the core requirements -- and the beauty of it was that we had several main professors and lots of visiting lecturers. nobody can teach everything; but it is so important to draw connections among disciplines. sadly, that program is now long dead, but it was absolutely the best education. we got all the experts!

    i think it would be hard for individual teachers to take this too far in individual classes.