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Time to Share Roots and Branch Out

AquamarineAura's picture

In nature, the span of a tree’s branches is often limited by the span of it’s root system. In a classroom, the spread of the ideas that are discussed and developed is limited by the basis of knowledge that the students bring into the class. The directions this knowledge is spread and allowed to ‘grow,’ however, also depends on the way in which these students are being encouraged to think. It’s very important to consider interdisciplinary classes as a high priority because it is these classes that will allow the trees of each discipline to really flourish and become connected.

When students are taught to interact amongst the school departments and to work together, they will end up creating much more solid ideas and solving problems more realistically than if each department were to remain isolated. Unfortunately, this sort of problem solving and applied form of thought is currently missing from education. Michael Maniates uses environmental science programs as an example and goes so far as to claim that “current ESS programs undermine student capacity to navigate a turbulent world.” (256) Though he is talking about environmental science specifically, Maniates’ thoughts could easily be applied to other academic areas such as english or history with a little bit of thought. As the article continues, Maniates goes on to explain that there are several different ways of teaching environmental science, none of which are quite adequate for what students will encounter outside a purely academic environment. I’ll use these methods as an example to explain my own thoughts on how programs of all kinds can benefit from a blend of teaching so I think it’s most useful to quote Maniates examples first.

He believes there are three ways that ESS is taught:  

  1. one way is with “a general trend toward urgency and alarm, coupled with a focus on the inability of prevailing systems”

  2. another requires students to “ critically assess them and carefully evaluate competing solutions” through the use of “applied research and hands-on problem solving”

  3. finally, he points out that most programs and campaigns are locally focused, “with the hope that these small-scale interventions will scale up to match regional, national, and even international challenges”

There is nothing inherently wrong with these methods of learning, and I personally believe that they all contribute to a better understanding of environmental issues. The trouble, however, stems from the fact that these programs are often used independently of one another, teaching students one way to approach environmental systems and leaving them to “cobble together their own theories of social and cultural change” with little classroom guidance. (259)  The current system doesn’t take full advantage of the chance to combine disciplines and that is what leaves students floundering. This is easily solved, however, by creating more classes that cross between the many subjects taught within a college and thus encouraging students to use multiple methods to solve problems and understand new information. This might also encourage students to more often take classes that range outside their immediate interests. We tend to be more open to the familiar, so if relatable subjects are mixed in with new topics, students are more likely to explore the newer areas with passion rather than doing it simply due to requirements.

To end this thought I leave you with two example classes that have already brought students together across subjects that are not typically combined. The first example is a class that focused on the historical effects of new chemical processes on art. Over time, new pigments and materials were discovered, affecting what paints artists had at their disposal. this is a subject that combines the chemistry of the actual pigments (a science focus) with an interest in art (humanities) and history (social sciences). The second example is our own class, Ecological Imaginings, which has garnered the interest of students interested in english, geology, and several other majors. As we work through class we are simultaneously learning about how to read different types of writing (english) while discussing human’s effects on nature (social science and environmental science) and at the same time some of the students are able to direct the assignments even further towards their own passions (such as the geology of the buildings) while still learning the same new skills that the rest of the class is learning. This fluid sort of curriculum that pulls from many different areas is very beneficial in the end, because it keeps the students more engaged in the subjects less interesting to them by pulling on their interest in the other subjects that are being touched on, ending in a much more full collection of knowledge, branching in all directions.


Anne Dalke's picture

Thanks for beginning with a metaphor, Aquamarine. I’d like to know if it IS the case that “the span of a tree’s branches is often limited by the span of it’s root system” (what’s your source for that observation…?) And then I’d like to see it actually figured as an image (and so give you one…

and then (loading this) I notice that it has no roots!

Which leads me to a classic essay by Giles Deleuze, "Rhizome Versus Trees”—which argues (much more complexly than this, of course, that our conscious thinking is tree-like (=branches, creates binaries), while our unconscious thinking is rhizomic  (more multiple, lateral and circular, rather than dichotomous).

In a tree structure, no piece of any unit is ever connected to other units except through medium of unit as a whole. Deleuze argues that “binary logic is the spiritual reality of the root-tree,” but that “nature doesn't work that way; taproots . . . are more multiple, lateral and circular systems of ramification, rather than a dichotomous one...a system of this kind could be called a rhizome. . . “

“…any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other...This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order... a rhizome operates by variation, expansions, offshoots”; it’s
nonhierarchical and lacks a center.  Using a rhizome, rather than a tree, as an image for ecological education, would get us a richer description of the sort of “networked sociality” that we’re trying to construct in this classroom and on Serendip…

Okay, sorry, that was quite the pedagogical riff—and took me away from the two concrete examples you posed, as forms of interdisciplinary learning already being enacted on this campus: the course we’re in now, Ecological Imaginings, and Sharon Burgmayer’s The Stuff of Art (have you explored this site, traced its various tree-like and rhizomic associations?) What might you imagine that isn’t already here? How expand this thought….?

Abby, Celeste & Aquamarine –you should check out one another’s work on course design.