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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of "Rethinking Science Education"
March 24, 2006

Al Albano and Peter Briggs
Promoting Cross-Disciplinary Discussion among Freshmen

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensionAdditions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Participants: Al Albano, Peter Briggs, Sharon Burgmayer, Anne Dalke, Wil Franklin, Paul Grobstein, Rachel Horton, Azade Seyhan and Sandy Schram.

A decade ago, a faculty conversation about how to do freshman writing led to an agreement that Bryn Mawr might well help students understand the differences of intellectual commitment and methods among various majors by "nudging" faculty in the direction of cross-disciplinary clusters. One of the good outcomes of this subsequent arrangement in co-teaching was that "it got us to think about pedagogy." Peter was here today to (among other things!) lament the fact that that cluster system has broken down: it was more work--but also more fun, and more instructive, than teaching alone. He taught twice with Al, once in a course on "The Human Consequences of Technology: The Ethics of Progress," and once in a course called "Playing with Light." He shared with us the syllabi for those classes, along with another one he offered with Karen Greif, "We Live Here: Humans and the Environment." These reading lists drew on the rich range of contemporary popular science writing, which makes sophisticated science available to lay people. The syllabi were "deliberately eclectic, in a way not justifiable in an upper-level course, because they zig and zag all over the place." "It's okay to be experimental with freshmen, who have no sense of where the course should be going."

The trick to doing this kind of work effectively with freshmen is to get them to think about personal impacts. They have not yet learned to think of themselves as intellectuals, or to frame things in general terms; "putting ideas in more human terms makes them more discussable. All freshman would like to be anthropologists." For example: you can get them to think about technology by inviting them to think about the Amish turning down technology; you can turn stories about light into stories about how you use it in the theater or church; this gives them more to focus on and talk about. And all of this is of course intertwined with writing.

Peter's goal was always to get freshman started on what they should be doing the rest of their lives: thinking about science not as professionals, but as citizens who will need to be making medical and political choices based on an understanding of science--so they might as well get used to that sort of conversation now! One good way of opening intellectual avenues is to emphasize how differently a biologist, economist or philosopher would frame any particular question. One of the fallacies of this form of instruction (particularly as we move away from clusters, and lose the ability to consult with other colleagues, in other disciplines) is that a single teacher is "much more vulnerable"--and may not "have a clue" how to answer--when a student asks an off-the-wall question about something not in his discipline.

Al joined Peter in lamenting the decay of the cluster system. Not enough faculty signed on to teach in the College Seminar program, and we were hiring a lot of adjuncts. It is unquestionably a lot more work, and there may have been a general reluctance on the part of any department to admit that they had any "labor to spare." Many faculty members were "reluctant to break their disciplinary fences." A lot didn't think it would be worth their while. Particularly puzzling was the reluctance of the whole of the social sciences to subscribe to the College Seminar program, since social science lends itself so well to just the kinds of discussions that program facilitated. It's too bad: they missed out on a lot--including the rare opportunity of learning from each other.

Why did this experiment fail to work on an institutional level? Faculty members here are "finely calibrating their energies"; they couldn't see the pay-off either in fun or intellectual activity. Since the vote to institute the College Seminar program "just squeaked by," the institutional decision was made "not to force people to teach in it, but let them volunteer." This meant that two issues arose, as Al and Peter framed them: Half the faculty started the experiment without actually doing the experiment: they never had the experience. Why did they not want to get into the experiment in the first place? Then, what happened to the remaining faculty, who did not continue to invest their time and energy in this program? Although the provost's office was willing, in theory, to play around with incentives, they "never found a package that worked with enough people"; there was not enough of a perceived pay-off.

We then turned from our shared lament to examine (and celebrate!) the kinds of things that went into the seminar on "light" which Al and Peter had offered. They read, for instance, Catching the Light; The Entwined History of Light and Mind by Arthur Zajonc. Elizabeth Stevens, the third instructor in the course, was directing the student production of Antigone that year; this offered the opportunity to hold a workshop on theater lighting, in which the students could play with the way the colors of light could be used to change the mood of a scene, and so forth. They gained a great deal of appreciation for the stage effects they perceived in the theater, by participating in the design and execution of scenes. In fact, a great deal of what the course "did about light was as something that could be manipulated"--and it was cheap! There were physics labs, which made available various kinds of optical set ups, for students to play with in pairs; they were instructed to "pick up one particular toy to explore further." They learned how they could manipulate light. They participated. And then they wrote up what they learned.

All of these experiments--in reading, in the theater, in the lab--led to similar speculative questions. "At a certain point you are supposed to know something, but not in freshman writing. You don't have to have answers." Every so often, the whole class would meet as a large group, in which the students could see all their professors exploring and participating--if not leading--in fields where they weren't trained. (Faculty members who knew nothing about poetry "learned a lot about poetry.") To introduce the physics lab, students read Calvino and Newton. They compared the way Calvino described water, waves and sunshine (for instance) with how Newton described his experiments. The writing was very similar: each offered careful, clear descriptions of what they had observed. Calvino then related it to the human condition, while Newton related it to....whatever Newton related it to. (He was trying to explain all his observations in terms of a corpuscular theory of light.) The instructors also discovered specific areas where the students knew more about light than they did. For instance, they knew a lot about film, and were capable of looking at movies in ways their professors were not: as manipulations of light and camera angles.

Class discussion often involved acquainting students with, and giving them opportunities to practice, looking at things from different perspectives. Regardless of whatever they were going to major in, they should learn not to shut out other angles of vision. The class talked a lot about light as a metaphor, which easily traversed various fields. There was a little of the intellectual history of light. There was some "chasing of metaphors," and asking what light had to do with morality. "Why is enlightenment a good thing? Why is the heart of darkness a bad thing?" There was discussion of The Time Machine, which described the space-time continuum "years before Einstein." There were some speculations about the nature of evolution. Could humans have evolved in different ways? All of these topics had a metaphysical impact.

At the end of the course, participants created "a museum of light of their own." Faculty and students assembled a collection of artifacts, explaining why each one was important. They included a passage from the Bible ("Let there be light"); a strikingly unusual picture of the Milky Way and the earth (taken with a long exposure); Mary Oliver's poem "Sunrise"; a vivid photograph of sunlight streaming into a railroad station; a passage from C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew: one of Ansel Adams' photographs of the Teutons, and so forth...

In response to questions, it seemed as if the course did not, however, question the value of light--did not, for instance, explore Nietzsche's claim, in The Birth of Tragedy, that the Greeks "needed both Apollo and Dionysis," both light and darkness; without protection from looking directly into the sun, you will go blind. (See also Moby-Dick: "Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!....the glorious, golden, glad sun...hides not...the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth.")

Participants then shared some of their own experiences in the College Seminar program. A student described, for instance, what it was like, "as a freshman with no preconceived notions," to experience the pleasure of doing interdisciplinary work in philosophy, political science, and economics around the topic of "utopian worlds." She also described her resentment of having to fulfill a second semester CSem requirement, at a point when she wanted to be doing more work in her major. Is it really true that students, like faculty, "just don't have time" to engage in this sort of work outside their department? Must they "stop asking speculative questions," as they begin engaging "with more substantive material in upper-level courses"? Why are faculty--even those who enjoy teaching College Seminars--not comfortable doing that kind of teaching for four years? Does it not accord with our sense of the intellectual discipline of which we are members? Peter said, for instance, that he teaches the history of literature, as a system that develops. "You can't zig-zag around in it." This is "not particularly constraining, but just one of the realities of the intellectual framework" within which he lives. Working in accord with one's sense of the field is another framework within which we can have fun.

We were put in mind of our discussion, several weeks ago, with Victor Donnay, about alternative approaches to math education in high school. That discussion posed "content and coverage" over and against "thinking." Alternative approaches to teaching were described as "enhancing the ability to think mathematically." The word "speculative" is sometimes used as an epithet: it seems to evoke work that is not serious, analytic, or disciplined; it is too experimental. But a lot of our own work is about "how to think about social things. Are we supposed to be teaching students to learn different things from what we learn? Do we get to think, while they just get to learn information?" Shouldn't more courses get them to make unusual connections? Many more cross-disciplinary interpretive approaches are being experimented with in the social sciences; one might, for instance, use the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to suggest notions about political uncertainty. Shouldn't we be teaching students more the ability to do those kinds of things? Should we be "wasting class time" covering how the federal system is set up, when they could go read about it? But in order to see connections between two areas, you have to really understand one of them. There is a reason to be developing depth in a particular area, in order to understand homologies. The opposition is a false one. For instance, students appreciate learning how to read Hamlet; then the play can become the source of endless speculation.

The opposition may be false in principle, but it is still quite clearly being enacted in practice. Nobody is teaching in clusters anymore. The experiment of teaching collectively has failed. This opposition may be theoretically overcome-able, but it is not irrelevant to the failure of this local experiment. One does have to decide how much time one is going to invest in different styles of teaching, and the outcome of the College Seminar Program clearly reflects the "bothersome" way we operate at Bryn Mawr. There are significant institutional questions on the table here about allocation of resources. Individual departments are arguing vociferously about the needs for coverage in their disciplines, without any consideration of what might be "good for the whole."

It seems particularly important here that faculty don't feel free to make these decisions in terms of their own intellectual interests; they are making them in a political context. Can we alter the context? Faculty members seem convinced that they would be doing a disservice to their major by offering "dilute" courses like College Seminars. The "demand for specialized people" comes both from the bottom up and the top down. Even granting agencies which say they are interested in interdisciplinary work "don't go beyond science." Biomedical science agencies push interdisciplinary work only in terms of team models of science. No funding agency has ever offered to fund a realignment of departmental structures. Nonetheless, it is worth making the point that both administrators and funding agencies trying to promote interdisciplinary activity are frustrated with the deep conservatism of faculty members, and recognize that attitude as the fundamental problem. Would faculty be less conservative if transplanted into different structures in a different political climate? We are stuck in a positive feedback loop. Where might we break it?

One important way to get at these questions is to think about them in terms of economics. We are going broke because we can't afford to have specialists in every area. We are overstaffed; we are too specialized. All professional organizations use the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, but it doesn't get enacted on the ground. Conservatism comes in, in the insistence on specialization, and in the claim that it would "not be fair to the students" to fail to offer specialized instructions. Isn't this a fallacy, based on an assumption that student can't learn by themselves? We really can't afford to hire someone who focuses on a tiny area. There is incredible rigidity here; even "the spanning appointments don't span." Some other colleges do this much better.

During the debate on the College Seminar Program, faculty said, "let us do our own scholarly work. Don't ask me to change." Such comments don't recognize that the use of different models could produce better books. Even the publishers "won't do monographs" any more; they want books with a broader appeal. But this significant change in the zeitgeist hasn't quite registered at the level of many faculty members, who continue to "pull back and fortify the borders." Bryn Mawr is a special place, where the model of the teacher-scholar arose in a strong tradition of emphasizing scholarship for women. Over time, a lot of momentum has built up around specializing in particular areas of expertise. There has been a valorization of the disciplinary. Is it time for this to be changed? Can it be? How? There are student perspectives on these matters that should be a part of these calculations as well.

The discussion continues on the on-line forum, and will resume in person on March 31, when Peter Beckmann will talk about "Teaching Physical Concepts Beyond the Boundaries of 'Standard Culture' and Language Abstract."

Return to Brown Bag Series on Rethinking Science Education

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