Interdisciplinarity and the Classroom

Interdisciplinary! It’s not just a buzzword—it’s a way of life! Or maybe it’s just a buzzword? I’ve been thinking lately about the ways in which interdisciplinarity, which seems relatively easily saleable in the context of job applications and administrative newsletters, relates to teaching, and especially to teaching upper-level courses.

In recent years, undergraduates have been encouraged to select a major at earlier and earlier points in their college careers. This has arguably been a contributing factor to the sense of crisis pervading the humanities, as young students who might previously have drifted into an English or Religious Studies class out of curiosity and then been induced to stick around and major or minor in the subject are now segmented earlier on into semi-professional tracks that leave them with less time to explore and fewer electives with which to do it.

In my lower-level introductory classes, this means that I see a large number of pre-law, pre-chem, and communications majors, who have been attracted primarily by the opportunity to fulfill a core requirement. Much would seem to depend, in those courses, on whether I can facilitate the kind of learning that interests these students in potentially taking 24 more credit hours of Religious Studies, spread across Western, Eastern, and North American regions (as my department currently defines them), with at least 15 of those being upper-level classes. By the same token, however, this means that upper-level courses are perhaps even more intensely populated by highly motivated students who really want to be there.

Of course, I said “populated”; I didn’t say “filled.” Enrollments are still an issue for most of us in the current humanities. And this is where interdisciplinarity seems like it can make its first, purely bureaucratic contribution: cross-listing. If I’m teaching a religion class that’s also about political theory, I have a good case to persuade the Political Science department to cross-list my course. And if I emphasize Judaism to a significant extent in the course, I can cross-list with Jewish Studies. Now I’m drawing from three subsets of students instead of just one, and increasing the likelihood that the course will run.

interdisciplinary_440pxBut it’s at this point that I start to wonder about the way interdisciplinarity plays out in the classroom. It’s one thing to draw students with three related sets of interests; it’s another to design and teach a course that gives all of them enough of what they came for while also surprising them a bit. Step one has to be syllabus design, since while any number students might be attracted to a course called “Religion and Political Theory” (or “Judaism and Political Theology,” if I get to cross-list under two different names), the syllabus has to keep as many of them there as possible. You have to pitch a course like this on its first day, far more than a large, 100-level course that is included in the university core curriculum, which no one is going to drop because they’re only there for the credits anyway. And you have to pitch a course like this more than one that sits squarely and comfortably on top of its obvious material (e.g. a reading course on The Critique of Pure Reason, in which students will…read the Critique of Pure Reason). “Religion and Political Theory” could mean many things. It could mean a review of recent Supreme Court jurisprudence, or a discussion of theories of religious freedom and the impossibility thereof; it could mean analysis of the history of European church-state relations or the anthropology of sacred kingship. Students who show up expecting to read classics like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, only to discover that they are going to have to imbibe a huge amount of recent secondary literature on the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, may not show up for the second class.

Assuming I have managed to somehow craft a syllabus that has something for everyone, or at least enough to intrigue those who were attracted to the title, without also being an incoherent hodgepodge, the next issue is really that of discipline. In an upper-level course in history, I might be expected to “think like historians” with my students, or to introduce them to resources for historical research; in anthropology, we might explore methodological problems related to fieldwork. eusebius_of_caesareaIn an interdisciplinary setting, though, it’s not obvious what exactly we are training ourselves to do—which means it’s less obvious what assignments and in-class activities are appropriate. For undergrads with strong interests in the material but no need to acquire a disciplinary profile, this might be exhilarating; for grad students, even beginning master’s students, it might be frustrating. Raising the question, repeatedly, of how different approaches cast the same material in different lights is the only way I have found to address this question. So, for example, if we discuss Eusebius of Caesarea we might examine his position with respect to the emperor Constantine in our capacity as historians; lay out his theory of Christian empire in our capacity as political theorists; and compare his ideas to the royalist ideology of the ancient Davidic dynasty or to other ancient Near Eastern sacred kingship ideologies, in our capacity as comparative religionists.

I don’t have any grand proclamations to make on this subject. I hope that raising it may help some readers with the inevitable muddling-through that interdisciplinary teaching entails. On a final note, though, I’ll just mention that this class is notable for the extent to which it has brought students to my office hours to discuss, not their grades, or paper requirements, but the actual material of the course. It is as though the interdisciplinary approach has highlighted, in a way that some of my other courses might not, that the world itself isn’t “disciplinary” at all.

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