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The subject was dirt: Nipissing’s first undergrad interdisciplinary course

How two course designers launched their university’s first-ever interdisciplinary undergraduate course – and gave students the intellectual ride of their lives.


It was an appropriately messy theme for Nipissing University’s first interdisciplinary undergraduate course in the spring of 2013: Dirt.

Dirt as in soil and how to clean it up after industrial contamination. People who are considered worse than dirt, making them marks for genocide. “Dirty” desires. The landscape of human interaction with dirt as exemplified in a cholera map of 1850s London. Urban dirt and the advent and politics of sewage systems. Dirt that students could dig their hands in at a sustainable food garden.

Such an attempt to link the perhaps far-flung dots between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Sudbury’s smelter-impacted landscape, while also coordinating the efforts and expertise of 10 faculty members from eight disciplines across the arts and sciences, might seem like an invitation to chaos. But it is the sort of intellectual hodgepodge that Nipissing interdisciplinarians Sal Renshaw and Renee Valiquette revel in, and one that they had hoped to bring their students into as well.

“We had long thought that a course taught by many faculty members could be successful,” says Dr. Renshaw who, like Ms. Valiquette, teaches in gender equality and social justice/philosophy at the three-campus university, based in North Bay, Ontario.

“People have shown reticence in the past about questions such as ‘How do you get coherence?’” she explains. “That was probably the biggest obstacle: How can this be anything other than a whole bunch of people doing a version of whatever their perspective might be on a topic?”

But the pair knew that with the right coordination, that concern could be overcome. When the call came in early 2013 from the interim arts and science dean for ideas to expand the faculty’s options for undergraduate breadth courses (that is, courses outside of a student’s major program of study) in the coming spring term, they spied their opportunity.

Dirt, created in a mere eight weeks, “exceeded all our expectations,” says Ms. Valiquette.

Interdisciplinarity thrives on the messiness of the world and the multitude of approaches that try to make sense of it. At its most basic, it is the collaboration of two or more disciplines in pursuit of answers to a broader question. In practice, it challenges the notion that the world will obediently conform to intellectual labels and systems of knowledge, and it seeks to integrate different disciplined modes of thinking to produce new knowledge. That makes it particularly well-suited to “wicked problems”: dilemmas that defy solutions because of their complexity and changing nature.

“When you’re studying in an interdisciplinary context, you’re not in a process of learning something that has already been figured out,” says Ms. Valiquette, who usually teaches at Nipissing’s Muskoka campus but travelled to its main North Bay campus to deliver Dirt. “You are exploring something that needs to be figured out still. And you are being invited to be a participant in the figuring out.”

Throwing second-year students from business, accounting, English, geography and psychology into that kind of stew might seem foolhardy, but those involved with Nipissing’s inaugural experiment say the approach promotes the innovative thinking that many believe university graduates must have. “We need people who are capable of thinking what hasn’t been thought yet,” Ms. Valiquette says.

After the interim arts and science dean, Ann-Barbara Graff, put out the call for new spring-term course proposals, the idea for an interdisciplinary course was put to a committee selection process. It didn’t hurt that most of those who sat on this committee were interdisciplinarians too. Dr. Renshaw and Ms. Valiquette were adamant this course wouldn’t merely skim the disciplines but rather would offer a deep, integrated engagement with the material. The course’s formal title was “Introduction to Cross-disciplinary Analysis.”

Dr. Renshaw credits her university’s commitment to innovative teaching as part of the reason the course got the green light. The fact that Nipissing is a smaller university made it easier to set up meetings and quickly get approvals, consult with potential faculty and students, and generate excitement about the course. And, after she and Ms. Valiquette had spent so many years considering how a course like it could happen, much of the prep work for its structure and pedagogy had been done.

Offered during the shorter, more intense spring semester, the six-credit course was programmed for four days a week, three hours at a time over six weeks. All arts and science faculty were invited to offer lecture proposals. Participating faculty would have their efforts counted as service and could, but were not required to, attend lectures they weren’t delivering. To set a framework around what was to come, the first week’s lectures focused directly on interdisciplinarity and what it is, asking students to reflect on the traditionally disciplined nature of most higher education and the challenges and possibilities interdisciplinarity poses.

While traditional thinking in one discipline is valuable, says Dr. Graff, “one of the things you get in specialization is a kind of blinkering: ‘We don’t ask these kinds of questions.’ Well, why not and what happens when you do?”

Dr. Graff, a Victorianist who considers her own specialization interdisciplinary, says the aim of a course like this one is to make students “really excited about their own disciplinary work because of the possibilities of refining or tweaking or asking different kinds of questions.”

Ms. Valiquette was designated to be the glue that held everything together, a role considered critical to the course’s success. As the coordinating course director, she was responsible for making the linkages among the material from other faculty.

Half of the scheduled sessions were given to guest lectures and half were run by Ms.Valiquette, sometimes as lectures and sometimes as opportunities for students to discuss and digest what they’d heard from guest speakers. As interesting a theme as Dirt was, the course ultimately was about learning to look at ideas in an interdisciplinary way. The non-guest lecture times were the opportunity for students to develop and practise those skills, guided by Ms. Valiquette and sometimes with Dr. Renshaw.

Intrigued by the concept, English professor Cameron McFarlane chose to give two lectures on notions of social disruption and “unclean” fantasies in Dracula, following a stimulating planning session with other faculty. Besides his metaphoric link to infection, Dracula’s character also had a material connection to the course theme: the only possessions he brings with him to London are his coffin and 40 boxes of Transylvanian dirt.

“Disease, filth and contamination were going around the table and I thought, ‘Dracula, that’s the thing to do,’” recalls Dr. McFarlane. “Whatever concerns I might have had, like how well will all these things fit together, totally disappeared.”

Geographer James Abbott kicked off the first guest lecture with a discussion about physician John Snow’s mid-19th century map of a London cholera epidemic. Students learned how the map helped challenge the prevailing theory that cholera and similar diseases were spread by inhaling “bad air,” instead of drinking infected water. When his turn came three weeks later, Dr. McFarlane linked one of Dracula’s manifestations as fog back to what students had learned about previous miasmatic beliefs around disease.

Biologist Jeffrey Dech’s discussion of soil recovery in Sudbury from the nickel mine tailings and smelting activities was followed by fine arts professor Susan Cahill’s lecture on photographer Edward Burtynsky’s industrialized landscape images. Political aspects of cleanliness were taken up by political scientist Serena Kataoka, in her lecture on differing attitudes towards management of human and animal waste, and by historian Stephen Connor’s talk on modern genocide. A field trip to a local vegan farm-stay operation called Piebird got students mucking around in the gardens, learning about the politics of sustainable food production.

The interdisciplinary approach to learning helped students see how “dirt” is a values-based concept, used to reinforce social and cultural standards and boundaries. During Dr. Dech’s lecture on soil recovery, students learned that he would never use the word “dirt” in his world because it would be considered derogatory. That prompted a discussion of key understandings and principles in biology that students would not have encountered in a traditional biology lecture.

Students who had skeptically signed up to fulfil breadth-course requirements gradually became converts to what Dirt had to offer.

“It has created an appreciation for disciplines that I haven’t studied before, that I otherwise may have thought of as useless,” wrote Stephanie Dickson, an accounting student. “The course has rekindled my curiosity in the world and all the things I may one day come to know.”

The presence of one consistent professor along with other guest professors who openly engaged one another in debate and dialogue “set a standard for the students” to ask their own questions, wrote Julia Robbins, a student in history, gender equality and social justice. “The intimidation that most students feel was no longer there, for the hierarchies between professors and students, as well as among disciplines, [were] being broken down in front of our eyes.”

Students were expected to keep an electronic reading-and-lecture journal for critical reflection on each set of readings and lectures, which was marked weekly for 30 percent of their grade. They had to integrate what they had learned by writing a paper (worth 20 percent) on interdisciplinarity or one using an interdisciplinary analysis. A final team-based debate (10 percent) gave students a chance to show their integrated thinking skills on their feet, and a final exam accounted for 30 percent. Ten percent of the grade was based on participation. Ms. Valiquette was responsible for all evaluation.

To some, Dirt represents a return to the traditional idea of what a university experience ought to be about: a place for the free-flowing exchange and growth of ideas among people with different viewpoints, grounded in fundamental knowledge. Gillian McCann, a professor of religions and cultures who lectured on gender, purity and Hinduism, says there were times teaching or sitting in on someone else’s lecture when she could “almost feel the brush of my invisible toga. There were many points when I thought, ‘This is exactly what Socrates had mind: put thoughtful people together in a room, ask some really interesting questions, and let the fun begin.’”

As Dr. Graff puts it, students, are “getting the intellectual challenge that’s rumoured to take place at university but often doesn’t. It’s about conversation and about active thinking.”

Where there might have been initial reticence among faculty the first time around, there has been no such hurdle for the course’s next iteration this spring. Faculty have been enthusiastic, submitting ideas for potential themes, proposing lecture subjects and how those could fold in around other lectures. This year’s winning theme? Sloth.

There is also the hope of embedding the course in the regular academic year – delivered weekly for three hours at a time – as well as adding courses at other levels so that students can develop their interdisciplinary skills across a continuum. An upper-year course could have students working on a wicked problem such as climate change.

As they continue to plan and blue-sky about what will come next, Ms. Valiquette and Dr. Renshaw are learning more themselves about the limits and possibilities, and delighting about what they too have yet to find out.

“Does interdisciplinarity just mean a conversation between English and cultural studies? Or can you have a conversation between mathematics and poetry?” asks Ms. Valiquette. “What it means to teach interdisciplinarity – I think we’re still working that out.”

Moira MacDonald, based in Toronto, reports and writes about education at all levels and is a frequent contributor to University Affairs.

Moira MacDonald
Moira MacDonald is a Toronto-based journalist.
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  1. Monica Waterhouse / March 12, 2014 at 14:53

    Kudos to Renshaw and Valiquette for spear-heading this interdisciplinary project and to Nippising for having the vision to let them run with it! From those of us who also believe in the power of interdisciplinary “rhizothinking” for taking on the complexity of “wicked problems”.

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