Students at small, regional, liberal arts colleges usually do not have the option to experience interdisciplinary courses like the ones listed above. This lack of access is due in part to the challenges that face faculty interested in creating such courses. Developing interdisciplinary courses at a smaller institution is problematic due to the size of the faculty, limited funding, and insufficient time (more teaching commitments with fewer course releases). To alleviate some of these pressures, one effective strategy that faculty can use is an interdisciplinary teaching circle, which is a group of three to six instructors from different disciplines (or different fields within disciplines) who are interested in pooling their knowledge and expertise.
This presentation will explain the benefits and challenges our teaching circle experienced as we created an interdisciplinary humanities course focusing on the 100-year span from 1850 to 1950. We will provide the history of teaching circles at Murray State University, share the way our teaching circle was formed, and present the findings of our teaching circle, comprised of faculty from German literature and culture, history, American literature, art history, and British literature. As we set out to create the course, our interest was to learn how different disciplines characterize the period, to discuss common patterns and ideas, to agree on issues and ideas critical to understanding this period, and to search for important moments that illustrate these ideas and the connections between disciplines. We hope to use this information eventually to create a course that will provide students a balanced understanding of the significant events, concepts, and expressions of this period of time so that the emphasis is placed on the ideas rather than on the disciplinary divisions.
History of Teaching Circles at Murray State University
We like to think that the idea for Teaching Circles was born in an elevator. An elevator is, after all, one of the more dependable vehicles for faculty interaction during the teaching day. At least at a small state-assisted institution like ours, limited funding and heavy schedules leave few opportunities for sustained, thoughtful conversation about what we teach and how. In our experience, an exchange of ideas on teaching is less likely to occur at departmental and college meetings than on the trip from the second to the seventh floor. We can imagine that, in such a trip, one colleague mentioned to another that it would be wonderful to have more, and more reliable, chances to talk about their work in the classroom. And maybe that wistful comment, that substantial need, grew into Teaching Circles. A Teaching Circle, after all, exists exactly to encourage such conversation among colleagues and, even more, to encourage just such growth of good ideas from small gatherings.
We know now that, even if this idea had been born in an elevator, it was an elevator on another campus–at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, to be exact. In 1993, Murray State University history professor Ken Wolf visited UNC-A during a sabbatical to study strategies for linking general education courses. At UNC-A, he found not only an impressive example of interdisciplinary curriculum development but also an appealing project, sponsored by the provost, for fostering faculty discussion of classroom teaching. In the spirit of colleagueship that is the very point of Teaching Circles, Ken Wolf brought the concept home with him. Five years later, as the newly appointed interim dean, he invited faculty of what was then Murray State University’s College of Humanistic Studies to propose Teaching Circles of our own.
These were to be, as the call for proposals explained, groups of three to five teaching faculty who would meet because they wanted to get together. The purpose of their meetings would be to discuss ways "to become better teachers," whether the focus were the academic content of their courses or the pedagogy. Circles could propose to engage in any activity and to consider any topic that would involve talking and working with each other to improve teaching. Compelling proposals would receive modest grants ($400-$1000 per circle) to purchase meals for meetings and materials that would facilitate the circle’s discussion. In a Teaching Circle, no one would earn a stipend; no one would receive release time; in fact, everyone would invest hours and thought–in addition, of course, to the time and effort already spent on teaching, research, and service responsibilities.
And yet, in that first fall, seven circles met, engaging thirty-five faculty members. Since some circles accomplished their goals within the first semester, the dean sent out a call for additional proposals for spring semester projects. By the end of that academic year, more than 40% of the College faculty had participated in an ongoing, focused discussion devoted to improving their classroom teaching.
In late April of that first year (1999), Teaching Circles not only submitted final reports to the dean but also convened for a Closing of the Circles, so that each group could exchange with others–and with anyone else who wished to join the audience–reflections on what they had accomplished. The enthusiasm of participants, and their conviction that the experience had been productive as well as inspiring, led to a new cycle of grants for the following year. The idea and practice of Teaching Circles has survived the reorganization of the university’s academic college structure and the appointment of a new dean–so that, in 2000-2001, seven new circles, some more diverse than ever before, have been meeting to spend a little money, to enjoy each other’s company and ideas and perspectives, and to discover better ways to teach undergraduates at our institution.
Over the three years, circles have spent a total of $13,600–on average, $4,500 per year or approximately $655 per circle. Many circles have not spent their grants even on the meals allowed for meetings. Instead, they have elected to invest their dollars in materials and supplies that would supplement their courses. Circles have been narrow in discipline (five members of the Department of Psychology, for example) or broader (representing history, music, English and philosophy, for instance, or our own circle, which draws us together from history, art history, modern languages, English and philosophy). Over the years, circles have considered the particular and precise (the new Crito study) as well as the sweeping ("Meaning and Form to Art and Language"). Some have pursued practical considerations–to study the teaching behavior and other factors that might account for the decline in the number of psychology majors from their freshman to senior years; to improve composition instruction via computers; to develop methods of encouraging and evaluating electronic discussion to enhance the traditional classroom. Others have contemplated more abstract issues: critical theory across the humanities; "Ways of Knowing" across the humanities and social sciences.
The consequences of these circles have varied as well. From some of them have come products we can point to and see–like a website for the humanities program, where both students and faculty can find links to a variety of resources related to the curriculum. New materials–videos, films, books–have been added to program libraries and, better yet, have been selected on the basis of serious consideration by people who are likely to make thoughtful and consistent use of them. Other circles have influenced changes in practice–from the way a particular novel or theme is taught in a course to the way an entire degree program is structured and promoted, especially to incoming freshmen.
In addition to the end-of-the-year Closing of the Circles, some groups have disseminated their findings or accomplishments to other audiences on campus. Chairs have asked particular circles to demonstrate or discuss their Teaching Circle work with members of their departments. Several teaching circles, having examined the use of technology in the teaching of humanities, have offered presentations in the university’s annual Technology Forum. And, just as we at Murray State adopted a promising idea from colleagues in North Carolina, some of us have carried our Teaching Circle experience across state lines.
The most common consequence of the Teaching Circle, though, has been an increased energy and confidence in accomplishing change in what and how we teach. These come, we think, from the chance to do again what so many of us hope for in scholarship and teaching–to consider ideas together, to be part of a community working–cheerfully–toward discovery and solution and appreciation. The value might be measured best in the fact that so many teaching circle participants have wanted to do it again. Often, in fact, in the process of pursuing a goal, teaching circle members discover a new possibility that deserves to be pursued. That has been our own experience, as we will explain, in our effort to design an interdisciplinary course.
The Creation of Our Teaching Circle
We came together as a group because of our mutual interest in a particular time period and the fortuitous reorganization of the colleges on our campus. Murray State University has for many years offered a two-semester Humanities sequence and a two-semester World Civilization sequence. During the fall of 1999, several instructors from the Humanities program approached the art historians with the intent of expanding their course content to include some art history. At that time the course was, and still is, basically a literature course with a little philosophy interspersed, and it is taught mostly by members of the English Department.
These early discussions were informal and unstructured. We shared our frustration with students who seemed to willfully flaunt their exasperating inability to connect ideas covered in one class to those same ideas when discussed in another context. We realized, however, that we first had to be sure we ourselves could identify those affinities. As we more or less randomly shared the cultural themes that we each emphasized in our own classes, possibilities for linking our disciplines began to emerge. Ideas were flying everywhere as we leapt from Plato to Blake to Bergson.
While those early encounters were very exciting for us all, there was no possibility at that time of significantly restructuring the Humanities course. At that time, the English Department was in the College of Humanistic Studies, and the art historians were in the College of Fine Arts, making any attempt to work in an interdisciplinary format very difficult. We didn’t even attempt to deal with logistical problems or actual course structures. Also, it was evident early on that several other disciplines needed to be brought in: history, music, philosophy, and perhaps others. With our campus-wide reorganization in 2000, the two colleges merged to form the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. The new college has the departmental structure we would require to pull off this extensive curriculum revision. It includes the Departments of Art, English and Philosophy, History, Modern Languages, Psychology, and Theater and Dance. Additionally, our dean, Sandra Jordan, is supportive of interdisciplinary teaching.
Slowly, through informal interactions, we decided to revive the idea this year and proposed a teaching circle. After some discussion, we chose to focus our attention on a relatively short period of time rather than to jump directly into the construction of a multi-course sequence. At that point, we approached the history department to see if any faculty member were interested in joining the process, with the possible outcome of devising a four-course sequence that was truly multi-disciplinary to replace both the Humanities sequence and the World Civilization sequence. Since, purely by coincidence, our areas of specialization roughly coincided, we chose the period 1850 to 1950 as a test case. We were thinking completely hypothetically at this time and were not making any assumptions about what actual time periods these potential courses would cover.
Our goal, therefore, was modest; we wanted to start small. We saw ourselves as a "test case," and our function two-fold. First, we wanted to share our content areas and approaches to teaching, while searching for the common threads that ran through all of our disciplines. From the beginning, our intent was to educate ourselves so that we might better educate our students. Second, we wanted to devise a working model for scholarly and pedagogical cooperation that we could expand beyond our group and that would become the model for other groups to employ when constructing the various courses in this sequence.
The Idea-based Approach
We believed we could best accomplish those goals by, first, giving individual presentations on how our disciplines covered this time period. Then, after hearing everyone’s presentation, we would come to a consensus on what we each believed to be the seven or eight major themes that had emerged. Next, we would re-evaluate our own areas, giving priority to the thematic structure we had agreed upon rather than the discipline-focused agenda that drove our initial presentations. Our final objective was to construct a syllabus that loosely mapped the themes and readings.
Our continued enthusiasm for the material and for creating such a course should be attributed to this design we selected: the idea-based approach. Beginning this project by focusing on each discipline's characterization of the period then finding specific commonalties and inter-disciplinary patterns before actually structuring the course fostered our excitement about the material.
For example, "presentations" by members were often interrupted by comments about a cross-disciplinary similarity, followed by affirmation from a different member in yet another field. When Meg Brown shared an excerpt from Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz to illustrate the new ways German authors were using language to reflect the passage of time, chaos, and change, Staci Stone mentioned that British writer Virginia Woolf’s novels experiment with language and time in a similar way. Examples of visual representation of the ways that the past, present, and future fuse can be seen in works by such painters as Erst Ludwig Kirchner and Henri Matisse, as Peggy Schrock noted. Marcie Johnson joined in by pointing to American writers Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings, and William Faulkner, who seem to fuse time by juxtaposition. This imaginative, artistic investigation occurred against the historical backdrop of rapid industrialization and the impact of World War I, as Terry Strieter emphasized. These divergent conversations revealed more than our engagement with the material–many possible themes emerged from discussions that took place during an individual's presentation.
We believe this idea-based approach should be the model for future Teaching Circles that explore interdisciplinary humanities courses for different time periods. In fact, the members of this circle have even expressed desire to participate in such Teaching Circles next year and hope that this Circle continues to meet, as well, in order to address unresolved issues. These plans further reveal our commitment to and enthusiasm about this endeavor.
Challenges and Success Encountered by Our Teaching Circle
The challenges of developing an interdisciplinary humanities course, at first glance, appeared to be formidable. The first challenge we faced was the easiest to overcome: how to find the time to meet on a regular weekly basis. As most university faculty are aware, comprehensive universities–such as Murray State University–demand much of their teaching faculty members. We must balance service and scholarly expectations with demanding teaching loads. Thus, when we found ourselves in a teaching circle devoted to the theme of creating an interdisciplinary humanities course covering the spectacular developments of the one-hundred year period 1850 to 1950 in the Western experience, we knew it would take numerous meetings and long discussions. To find the time in the busy schedules of five faculty members was not an easy task. Once we hashed out our best meeting time and began the weekly meetings, we found the rewarding discussions well worth the preliminary efforts of rearranging our schedules to fit in these new weekly meetings.
The greater challenge to developing the humanities interdisciplinary course, however, was to find a suitable framework of reference in the terminologies of our various disciplines to make our presentation of a unified course comprehensible both to ourselves and to an average undergraduate student. We had to discuss extensively what we meant by terms such as Poetic Realism, Romanticism, Naturalism, Impressionism, and High Modernism since these terms have different meanings in the fields of German, British and American literature, Art History, and History. By sitting around a table and talking these issues out, we discovered we could alter our own discipline’s long-cherished terminologies in order to make terms have commonly-accepted definitions. We found that, indeed, we could work out our differences. Compromise, as we often hear politicians proclaim, is part of the art of politics. We might add, compromise is also a central part of the artistry of constructing an academically sound interdisciplinary humanities course.
Perhaps our greatest challenge came in choosing what themes and topics were to be included in our course and what must be left out. Academics love their particular fields of expertise, and each discipline we represented could by itself easily fill every hour of the sixteen-week course we envisioned. How were we to trim down to the core our various disciplines so that each would have a proper representation within an interdisciplinary framework? We are still struggling with this task and plan to address this issue further in our presentation.
There are additional challenges we have yet to face that will require considerable dexterity and perseverance. These are the administrative trials of working out exactly how the five of us might implement our course given the long-hallowed traditions of our schedule of classes and departmental teaching loads. Since we have not yet dealt with these administrative issues, we are unsure how the course might be run. In fact, we have been discussing the possibility of forming another Teaching Circle next year in order to address such concerns. We assume that, with good intentions and administrative support from our dean, this course will come to fruition and become a reality. The challenge of getting the course on the books is not insurmountable.
We believe we will find the appropriate balance of generalization to handle the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Although at the beginning of our endeavor we faced the challenges posed by the volume of knowledge of this era with either naive notions or with timidity, we think we will develop a course students will enjoy, a course with the interdisciplinary content teaching faculty will find rewarding.
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