The Colgate Scene
Faculty collaborations continue to flourish
By Gary E. Frank and
Jess Buchsbaum '03
Chris Vescey, Charles A. Dana Professor of humanities (front center), and Tim Byrnes, professor of political science (rear right), lead a discussion in a liberal arts core seminar for high distinction that they team teach. The goal of the course is to complement the work of students in various departments and programs by giving them the opportunity to consider the broader, interdisciplinary context of their respective honors projects. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
It's near noon in a Persson Hall office on a weekday in late March, there are about six weeks left in the semester, and Colgate faculty members Tim Byrnes and Chris Vecsey are waxing enthusiastic about a class they teach together.
"I've learned more from these students this semester than anybody I have taught in years," said Byrnes, a professor of political science. "I've learned that honest discussion across disciplinary boundaries can actually take place in an environment of trust and goodwill. I've learned that disciplines relate to each other in much more profound ways than I had thought."
"What an education for us all!" exclaims Vecsey, Charles A. Dana Professor of the humanities in the philosophy and religion department.
The course that excites Byrnes and Vecsey is a liberal arts core seminar for high distinction. The goal of the course is to complement the work of students in various departments and programs by giving them the opportunity to consider the broader, interdisciplinary context of their respective honors projects.
"The students' assignment, in a sense, is to introduce us to their discipline with something that they think is either emblematic or evocative of the discipline," said Byrnes. "Some of them are fairly straightforward descriptions of what the discipline is, but we have seen such creative readings. This is one of the things that has excited us so much about it. Each week we get to read three things, which have been given to us by very intelligent students who say, `This is what I think my field is about and I'm going to come to class tonight and talk about my field with other people in terms of how it touches others.' What happens so often is that fields that I have never thought of intersect with each other."
"There is a book that I've been looking at that talks about the disciplines as tribes; meaning groups of people with a shared set of symbols, a shared territory," said Vecsey. "There is a language, there are certain attitudes that each discipline has, but I have to say that Tim is right. These students are very much open to jumping out of their tribe."
The seminar taught by Byrnes and Vecsey is but one example of the different ways that Colgate faculty members are reaching beyond their respective disciplines to enhance the educational experiences of students and teachers alike. From team teaching seminars and courses, to linked courses, to less formal arrangements, collaboration across academic disciplines continues to grow and flourish at the university.
"I call people who go into academics `intellectual nomads,' because wherever we are, we are trying to move on," said Provost and Dean of the Faculty Jack Dovidio. "What we are trying to do here is provide those kinds of opportunities by allowing people to grow, not only within their own directory of expertise, but with the support of other people who share their expertise."
The university's new strategic plan emphasizes interdisciplinary collaboration, Dovidio said, as part of the institutional goal to produce graduates with the liberal arts skills necessary for the 21st century -- both the traditional skills (written and oral expression, information literacy, foreign languages, quantitative analysis) and emerging skills such as fluency with technology, cultural competence, and community building.
"For years, education was about gaining knowledge, getting information. Therefore, you had a particular focus that allowed you to maximize getting information," said Dovidio. "Now, the problem is that information comes so fast, and it comes from so many different directions, that part of it is creating new knowledge. As we move forward to create new knowledge, we have to manage more different types of information around us. I think that's what brought the realization that one discipline can't answer all the questions anymore. It's too narrow, and yet what you need to have is what one discipline adds, complemented by what other disciplines add."
Professor Michael Coyle, who teaches a course titled Modern Irish Poets: Inventing Ireland, approached Professor Morgan Davies with the idea of linking with his course on the early Irish narrative tradition because he wanted to place writers such as William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Sean O'Casey, and others within the context of the development of Irish nationalism.
Reviving ancient traditions
"I think [students] have to get the sense that through the linked course, this is a living, breathing thing that has two homes which form one," said Byrnes.
Although not strictly interdisciplinary, linked courses taught by English professors Michael Coyle and Morgan Davies during the spring semester offer an example of two homes forming one. Coyle, who teaches a course titled Modern Irish Poets: Inventing Ireland, approached Davies with the idea of linking with his course on the early Irish narrative tradition because he wanted to place writers such as William Butler Yeats within the "context of the development of Irish nationalism." When Yeats, James Joyce, Sean O'Casey, and other Irish literary figures of the late 1800s and early 1900s sought to legitimize Irish literature to the rest of the world, Coyle explained, they turned to the native Irish literary tradition of the Middle Ages, which contained the kinds of epic, heroic, and mythological materials that would enable them to place their own tradition on an equal footing with those of other Western European nations.
"That's why I went to Morgan," said Coyle, "because that is the stuff he is teaching in his class. He is teaching the material that Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, Joyce, and the rest of them thought they were reviving."
"In a way, they were," said Davies. "It was the Irish literary tradition, and I mean literary in the narrow sense. Written works pretty well went underground in the 18th century, what we call the early modern period. In that stretch of time, the last sort of native cultural support for that kind of activity was being eradicated. Then in the 19th century, the Irish began to rediscover this stuff."
Although Coyle and Davies teach their courses separately, the same students are enrolled in each class. At the end of the semester, the two professors are leading their students on a three-week extended study visit to Ireland.
"I think there is a kind of ethics involved in approaching literature from the past, just as there is kind of an ethics in approaching literature from any sort of different world from the one you happen to live in," Davies said. "It involves a kind of discipline in trying to understand the world that literature comes from, and the literature itself, on its own terms without being too quick to judge it ethically, without imposing your own values on it, whether those are literary values, ethical values, or cultural values.
"In general, when I teach early literature, that should be one of the things that comes out of it for students," added Davies. "But it's something that can be extended to other kinds of reading, not just literary reading. I am also interested, though, in why in some other respects it might be worthwhile or relevant to look at stuff that old, in what ways it has a claim on us, because I think it does.
"It's always true that the study of literature is serving pressing historical cultural needs, but our students can see it here with especial clarity," said Davies. "Part of what could happen is that one hopes, as our students keep reading, they will begin to think about these questions with regard to what they read from their own time. What is the relation of literature to civic life? What is the relation of literature to history? What is the function of literary study in shaping a culture?"
Meika Loe (center), assistant professor of sociology and women's studies, works with Lauren Schuler '04 (center right) on a final assessment of her time spent at Crouse Community Center in Syracuse. Students from Loe's Women, Medicine, and Health class volunteered at five regional community-based organizations dealing with women's health issues. Concurrently, students from an introductory photography class taught by Linn Underhill, assistant professor of art and art history, worked on documentary projects at the same organizations.
"Whatever gets us there the best way, is the way we should do it."
A waiting list of 40
The community-based organizations include Community Memorial Hospital in Hamilton, Crouse Medical Center in Morrisville, Planned Parenthood in Syracuse, Ophelia's Place in Syracuse, and AIDS Community Resources in Utica.
Loe's course analyzes the role of women throughout medical history, and peels away layers of historical bias to reveal women's plights and accomplishments in a historically masculine profession. But despite the often forgotten role women have played in medicine, Loe claims that everything in history -- every "layer of the onion" -- is related to women's health.
"Women's health is so broad," she said. "Women's health issues are not unrelated to the wage gap, gender equity in the home, and other economic and social problems."
Loe initially came to Colgate because of its commitment to service learning courses. At first, she anticipated that requiring 20 hours of community service (in addition to reading eight books, taking exams and keeping a journal) would scare students away from the course. She was surprised to learn there was a 40-person waiting list for the course this past semester.
She speculates that the popularity of the course is twofold: it gives students the ability to integrate community service into coursework, and it provides firsthand experience on how to make a tangible impact in healthcare. The course also helps students think about their career choices, healthcare-related or not.
"Not enough students are exposed to the abstract fields they want to be a part of, like healthcare," Loe said. "They need real-world application and to be in the field to see what arises for them. That way, when they get into the real world, they're not just reading a script, but they're actually acting out those changes they devised."
While the students in Loe's class are applying social science theories to make a difference in healthcare, Underhill's students are learning to use photography to document a part of society they might not have previously been exposed to. Underhill has no particular tie to healthcare; the five community-based organizations are a means by which she can teach students to come to grips with some of the problems inherent in documentary practice.
"The students need to learn to contextualize photography and work out a relationship between themselves and the subject," Underhill said. "It's a collaborative effort. The photographer attempts to discover where the story lies, not impose their own thoughts on how the picture should be."
It is up to the photographers to negotiate with representatives of each community organization about release forms from subjects and other related issues.
"I want students to understand the politics of taking pictures, and to understand those power relationships between themselves and their subject, and to respect them. I want them to be sensitive to their own privilege," she said.
Though the salient goal of the class is to build links with regional communities, Loe, Underhill, Terhune, and the students have felt the vitality and strength of the communities being built in their respective classrooms. This, they say, is the greatest reward.
"In larger introduction courses, you don't get to know your classmates as well," Loe said. "This course, with its supportive environment, builds a sense of confidence in students. There is a sense of safety and trust. It helps [students] learn about themselves and how to work well with others."
Paul Kelley '04 (right) interviews protestor Carol Thomas, of Bridgewater, N.Y., outside the Planned Parenthood office in Utica, N.Y. Kelley created a photo documentary about the protestors as a final project in a photography class taught by Linn Underhill.
"I have taught classes at 8:20. It can be a tough thing, especially with first-year students, to get them awake," Vecsey said. "Tim would start lecturing, and I would watch him and think, `Wow, they are not giving back any energy at all.'"
Vecsey admitted that if he had been teaching the class he might have become frustrated with them and started yelling something like "Why don't you get more sleep?" Brynes, he said, continued to lecture without a break in the 80-minute session.
"About halfway through the class, he would start throwing things at them, based on what he was saying -- `How would you deal with this particular problem?'" recalled Vecsey. "Their eyes would start to wake up, their arms would start to move. By the end of the class, the students were going back and forth with Tim, and saying, `No, no, give me a minute more,' or `Hold on, I have something more to say.' I saw a teacher who was able to present material, lay out data, and although the students were listening, they had been very passive. Then, he was able to get them to engage tremendously."
"I have a lot to learn about letting a classroom breathe," Byrnes confessed. "In a class I teach with 110 students, we just spent a half hour arguing with each other about the First Amendment and I can do that, even with a lot of people, but I'm not so good at letting a room breathe. Chris is very good at that, by preparing carefully, reading closely, and saying to students -- with the assumption they have done the same -- `Okay now, you've read this, what do you think? Take us to that page.' There is calmness to that and a confidence to it that I admire, and I would like to learn to do more."
Padma Kaimal, associate professor of art and art history, has collaborated with colleagues three times and believes that collaboration among faculty members can help revitalize one's approaches to instruction and lecturing.
"When you are collaborating with somebody who pops you out of old habits, it helps you come up with new solutions and get a lot closer to where the students are and how they are approaching the material," said Kaimal. "You hear from your colleague what they did not understand or what they wondered about next, or you find yourself in the student's position and you realize how difficult things can be."
Kaimal was involved in bringing to the Picker Art Gallery an exhibition of Asian art from the Arthur Sackler collection that included bronze sculptures from China. She reached out to some faculty members regarding ways to potentially connect their courses with the exhibition. Patricia Kay Jue, an instructor in the chemistry department who teaches the Core course Art and Chemistry, proposed a connection to Kaimal's Arts of Asia course. Normally, Jue explained, the course concentrated on two-dimensional works, but after receiving an e-mail from Kaimal, she recognized there was an opportunity to expand the course's focus.
They encouraged students to take each other's classes, and some enrolled in both. In addition, there has been some overlap between the two courses, due in part to some of the students enrolled in Kaimal's class during the spring semester having already taken Art and Chemistry, Jue said. Although the two instructors covered the metallurgical issues at different times this semester, some students have started making the connections between the two courses, said Jue.
Padma Kaimal, associate professor of art and art history, believes collaboration among faculty members can help revitalize one's approaches to instruction and lecturing.
"We're having a great time with the students, doing things that I don't think I would have attempted by myself, such as pollen analyses," said Burnett. "But with Tim's help, and our shared pool of experiences, we're really pushing the envelope. I think the students are enjoying it. I know I am."
Leventer has taught the introductory ENST course twice before, with Frank Frey and Randall Fuller of the biology department.
"It's an incredible amount of fun. I've learned as much as the students when I've sat and listened to lectures from biologists," said Leventer. "Sometimes, I felt as if I had more questions than the students. I'd have to hold myself back from asking and let the students have their chance first."
Burnett believes that environmental studies is one area where students readily grasp the interdisciplinary nature of the issues.
"The students are not boxed in intellectually like I think I was boxed in [as an undergraduate]," he said. "They recognize at an early age that the problems and processes in the environment are not the sole domain of one discipline."
Leventer and Burnett are among six co-editors of the recently released book Antarctic Peninsula Climate Variability: Historical and Paleoenviron-mental Perspectives. Published by the American Geophysical Union, the book is an outgrowth from a conference on Antarctic climate changes held at Hamilton College two years ago.
"It's an exciting project because it represents multidisciplinary perspectives on a problem that's fairly significant -- the Antarctic Peninsula is warming significantly and we wonder what the cause is, whether or not it's the result of human-induced climate change," said Burnett, who wrote the proposal to the American Geophysical Union for the book.
Colgate's strategic plan calls for the construction of an interdisciplinary science building, which will go a long way toward encouraging collaborations, Burnett said.
"It has the potential to be something really quite different. We'll have the geography department in this mix, and the geography department includes individuals with strong ties to the social sciences and the humanities," said Burnett. "The new building will bring together people and ideas that span the full range of academic divisions at Colgate. I'm very excited about these linkages."
Continued emphasis on teaching collaborations and interdisciplinary studies doesn't mean that all faculty must move in that direction, Dovidio cautioned.
"We have to balance those things. Some people, such as a mathematician working on some theoretical issue, is going to do it by himself or herself, or an English professor writing a book will do the definitive work by himself or herself. That should be allowed and supported," he said. "You have to keep in mind, the ultimate goal is the acquisition and transmission of knowledge. Whatever gets us there the best way, is the way we should do it."
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