Forty ACM faculty gathered to explore Opportunities and Challenges in Place-Based, Interdisciplinary Learning in Chicago on January 11-13.
The faculty participants included those who participated in the Seminars in Advanced Interdisciplinary Learning (SAIL), funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; in the Luce Initiative for Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE), funded by the Henry Luce Foundation; or who have a broad-based interest in interdisciplinary, place-based pedagogies.
Through plenary and concurrent sessions (see agenda), participants explored various dimensions of these pedagogies, including:
- In what ways might faculty assist students to make connections among the various aspects and contexts of their learning, and not just across disciplines?
- Should problem-based learning – i.e., “wicked problems” – play an important role in interdisciplinary teaching and learning?
- How should faculty think about authority when teaching on the edge of (or beyond) their disciplinary expertise?
- What are the benefits and opportunities of interdisciplinary work in terms of professional development? What are the challenges or pitfalls of doing this work?
- How might the ACM colleges build a network around these pedagogies (as evidenced by SAIL and LIASE) in order to sustain the momentum these initiatives built?
Reflecting on the SAIL curricular projects created, the conversations were substantively rich, revealing both a significant appetite for interdisciplinarity among ACM faculty and a firm belief that liberal arts colleges are distinctly situated to excel in delivering on these types of pedagogies.
Evaluator: interdisciplinary pedagogies move faculty to collaboratively rethink approaches to teaching
One outcome of the SAIL and LIASE experiences was the emergence of communities of practice around “teaching and learning as community property.” The phrase was introduced by Dr. Patricia Hutchings of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, external evaluator for the SAIL initiative, who participated in and helped facilitate the three-day conference.
Hutchings notes a shift in how SAIL participants have been encouraged to think anew about themselves and their colleagues as teachers and scholars, and about how their professional development is facilitated via shared syllabi, curricular project descriptions, and best-practice pedagogical approaches.
Hutchings observes that experiences in interdisciplinary, place-based teaching encouraged faculty to “rethink authority and expertise.” Although experts in their discipline, participating faculty described being thrust back into the role of “learner” as they taught in settings that called disciplinary boundaries into question. In this context, they realized that the “expertise” they bring to the classroom in that setting must include “knowing how to negotiate a complex problem, how to manage ambiguity, how to think one’s way toward meaning and understanding – some of the very goals they seek for students in undertaking interdisciplinary work.”
Faculty also developed a willingness to “let go” of the pre-constructed syllabus and be open to emergent opportunities for learning in the field. This, of course, is related to the expanded notion of “expertise” that faculty can bring to their teaching, understanding when to modify their plans in some situations to adapt, improvise, and seize emergent opportunities that present themselves in the field.
These forms of professional development, Hutchings observes, are important outcomes for “faculty development in the age of evidence,” with its attendant emphasis on measuring and evaluating impact on institutional and program effectiveness.” While measurable outcomes are undoubtedly important, it is also wise to view faculty development as a “leap of faith.” Dr. Hutchings notes: “This aspect of faculty development needs to be lifted up and valued, and SAIL has done that.”