Field Notes from the Classroom: Interdisciplinary Teaching and Communities of Curiosity

A snapshot of the front cover of my pedagogy notebook from 2019-2020 (coffee stain was a later addition).

Travis Chi Wing Lau // This morning, I had the joy of attending a workshop with the growing Science and Nature Writing initiative at Kenyon College. During this interdisciplinary conversation, we discussed different approaches to pedagogy at multiple levels of undergraduate teaching: integrating a writing component into an intermediate science course, creative writing that interwove science into personal memoir. The stakes, it seemed, are about how and why we are bridging writing and composition with STEM coursework. Does this work vice versa in terms of integrating STEM into humanities-based classrooms, and does this reciprocity really end up more theoretical than practical when we do the work of interdisciplinarity in the classroom? Who are we inviting to do this work, and whom does this work serve and address?

This returned me to my pedagogy reflections over the past two semesters while still at The University of Texas at Austin, teaching both in the English Department and as an invited lecturer for the College of Natural Science’s (CNS) Honors Seminars series. Open only to CNS majors, these seminars are usually run by CNS faculty on special topics, but due to the generous advocacy of one of my dual major students, I was invited to teach health humanities and narrative medicine topics. In the first incarnation of the seminar, I opted for a generalist approach emphasizing breadth, which allowed students new to or skeptical of humanistic approaches to medicine to engage with shorter, more accessible works while developing what Sari Altschuler has emphasized as “humanistic competencies.” This first attempt at teaching to an audience of exclusively STEM students demonstrated to me the great extent to which they wanted to work with literary texts and think critically about their own fields. Inflected inevitably by my experience of being simultaneously on the job market, the course embodied my pedagogical development goals were at the time: to be deliberate in my conception of a survey, which is so often understood as a watered-down, cursory sampler course rather than one that invites students into a discipline and its conversations. Thinking back to my own undergraduate years, I realize now just how important survey courses are as they are often the only impression of a field or historical period or method that students, especially non-majors, get. Especially given my outsider status as a literary scholar, I felt a particular ethical obligation to approach this course not as a talking down to STEM students who may be resistant or unsure of the humanities—a strategy that only furthers the divide—but instead as a powerful opportunity to learn from them and their responses to works that I’ve found so fundamental to my own scholarship and teaching. What could my STEM students teach me about my own assumptions and biases as a health humanist? How might I model interdisciplinary collaboration by engaging in difficult dialogues about topics like gene editing, palliative care, or race-based medicine with students who are trained in profoundly different ways to think about these very same questions?

This past spring semester, I decided to follow the lead of some of my colleagues and explicitly center my course around a central theme: pain. While this seminar introduced key texts in narrative medicine and health humanities, I also implicitly designed the course to teach both my students and me about intellectual formation. I drew on both the spirit and the practical classroom exercise, “Where Do You Know From,” designed by Eugenia Zuroski to encourage self-reflection about one’s position in a learning environment and among other learners. As Gena puts it, this exercise prompts us to question “academic intellectual authority—what we think it looks, sounds, and feels like; where we think it comes from” as it perpetuates forms of exclusion and hierarchy. Rather than doubling down on my intellectual authority as a health humanist, which would promote a defensive stance among students invested in defending their own intellectual authority, I wanted us all to think about how we arrived at what we know. To acknowledge the fundamental gaps in knowledge that we in fact all have. The problem is when we shut down the conversation there, when we begin to dwell purely on that lack of knowledge instead of building bridges to collective knowledge-making that challenges the very conditions that we have become accustomed to accepting as “learning.” Such norms become that much more ingrained and also invisible as we specialize in a discipline or subfield.

I was advised against lengthy and demanding assignments given the elective nature of these pass/no pass honors seminars, so I created two major assignments that would have students reflect on “where they know from” while developing ways to extend the conversations beyond our classroom. To get a baseline of student writing and to encourage students to think about the stakes of why health humanities might matter, I assigned early on a “Letter to a Colleague”:  

Letter to a Colleague

For this first written assignment, you are to compose a 2-3 double-spaced page letter to a colleague in your field. Drawing together at least 2 readings from the course so far, what key concept(s) would you share with your colleague? How do these sources shift the ways you and your colleague have been trained to understand pain? How do social, cultural, and literary understandings of pain impact or even challenge biomedical ones? How do these two sources speak to or even conflict with one another?

  • Avoid writing a letter that reads like a laundry list of summaries of the readings we’ve already done. Think of this as a position paper that convinces your colleague of why and how these readings are useful.
  • You are welcome to quote from other sources, but this should not be the bulk of your letter—I am much more interested in hearing your voice and your engagement with the material.
  • Don’t take up too much space with the formalities of the letter (i.e. long greetings or closings) but focus on the arguments + ideas you want to articulate.
  • Think about the sources you are choosing—what are the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments? What might be implied in their particular approaches?
  • Anticipate potential counter arguments. What might your colleague take issue with or be skeptical about?

This assignment encourages both a synthesis of readings with an attempt to answer the “stakes” question: Why does what we’ve discussed matter? Who might benefit from what you’ve learned? Why should they care? The result was a series of moving letters often addressed to real colleagues, peers, PIs, department chairs, mentors, friends, and family about pain. Because the assignment requires the designation of a recipient (real or imagined), the students used accessible language to explain complex ideas while also drawing on their own disciplinary background to anticipate responses by the recipients. My students were not just training themselves in how to talk across the disciplinary aisle but also how to meet their audience halfway. In reviewing these letters, I learned a wealth of rhetorical strategies for talking about literary approaches to medicine and health to lay audiences. Without ever being foregrounded as such, this assignment became an exercise in public writing.

Despite the sudden shift to emergency remote teaching, I was still able to assign the concluding exercise of the course:

Case Studies

For the final written assignment in this course, you are to research 2 different sources on the topic of pain that were not already assigned for this class. Your sources can be a piece of journalism, a scientific paper, a literary source, film, or artwork. Using frameworks from our class, analyze the source in 2-3 double-spaced page reflections each. These sources should be preferably peer-reviewed or from credible publications, but if you are concerned, don’t hesitate to get approval from me before writing.

In your reflections, consider the following:

  1. What is the primary argument or message of the piece? How does it contribute to our discussion of pain? Does it correspond with readings from our course or does it offer something new? How might our readings complicate or challenge the source’s ideas?
  2. How does the source make its point? What kinds of evidence and methods does it use and why? What gaps do you notice? What kinds of counterarguments could you make in return?
  3. If it is a piece of literature or film, what kind of form or genre does the author use to explore issues of pain? Does it explore other issues that intersect with pain?
  4. What kinds of assumptions does the author make? Does the author have a certain bias or agenda? What are the consequences of this bias or lens and does the author acknowledge them?
  5. Would you include this source in a future version of this course? Why or why not?

Using the first exercise as scaffolding for this one, I had my students look for their own sources related to the issues of chronic pain, pain management, or pain studies. This assignment gave students the opportunity to share work from their own fields of study while also prompting them to reflect on how the course’s emphasis on literary, cultural, sociological, and philosophical approaches changed their own impressions of research in their fields. As a kind of close-reading assignment of secondary sources, the “case studies” helped students understand scientific writing as writing with its own sets of rhetorical conventions and structures that can be close-read. Often, students chose qualitative studies and paired them with art or literature—a juxtaposition which not only foregrounded differences in style but also in method and evidence. Again, students found themselves reckoning with what they did not know and what they might know now that the studies they were looking at did not. This assignment produced brilliant pieces of interdisciplinary analysis while also generating a whole new bibliography of sources for further study and for future incarnations of the class.

As I look back on my year’s worth of notes hastily scribbled after each class session, I see the ways in which I wrestled with my own anxieties about not offering students something they would find valuable or relevant to their work and life. I also see how much I feared, especially at first, what I didn’t know about science and accounting for what my students may not know about literature. But starting with those gaps at the level of course design and at the level of classroom praxis profoundly transformed how I understand interdisciplinary teaching. Continuously asking about where we know from and about what we don’t know created a community of curiosity that wasn’t invested in the answers and who has them but about how to ask the questions together.

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