Monday, May 31, 2010

My Dream Student

So, over at Both Wearing Black Masks there has been a post or two about "My Ideal Student." Here is mine:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Writing in the Disciplines, Disciplinarity, and Threshold Concepts

Here is a bit a text I am working on as part of my participation in Thresholds of Writing, "a multi-year initiative to study and transform the way we teach writing as an integral part of a liberal education in the 21st century." We are holding a colloquium with faculty across the college, and we will soon be discussing "reflections" as a pedagogical tool. This bit of text is designed to place the practice of reflections within the broader concept of writing in the disciplines, disciplinarity itself, and threshold concepts. For the uninitiated, threshold concepts, drawn from theorists Jan Meyer and Ray Land can be defined as,
an approach to disciplinary thinking that proposes there are certain foundational ideas that serve as gateways to subjects that students must understand in order to progress in that field. These thresholds are more than just core concepts but often serve an integrative function within fields.
One of the primary goals for the project is to promote writing as a way for students to move through such threshold concepts on their way into their discipline.

Here is what I have so far:
As we talk together of writing, we necessarily confront our disciplinary differences and similarities: what about writing can we agree upon and what about writing in our own disciplines creates unique challenges and opportunities. Likewise, the interdisciplinartity effort of fostering writing in the disciplines necessarily involves a discussion of threshold concepts: what are the defining portals (or ways) into our disciplines that constitute them as unique. As portals they must be somewhere along the walls around our fields of study.

In light of this double move, we would like to suggest that thresholds of writing serves as a catalyst for writing in the disciplines, which brings into sharp relief the boundaries of those disciplines and then discovers those boundaries as threshold concepts. Thus, we as a colloquium enact this coming-to-thresholds-through-writing in much the same way we hope our students might. In having to articulate what exactly we do, what makes us different, and what difference those differences make we come to articulate our threshold concepts. As we have discussed, and as Randy Bass has explored in his work on visible knowledge, we must be able to articulate the threshold concepts of our disciplines if we are to have any hope of bringing students through those very portals.

This moves us then to reflection. We see reflection enacted in a variety of ways, places, and times depending upon the discipline and the task at hand. Students can be asked to reflect upon the significance and implications of a philosophical text, they can be ask to describe and justify rhetorical moves made in a set of technical instructions, or they can be asked to articulate their methods and discuss the results of an experiment in a lab report. Reflection need not be soft, holistic, and after the fact; it can be down and dirty and in media res. In can be a highly detailed post mortem or brief cover memo attached to an assignment.

Reflections can also reveal a student’s struggle with threshold concepts. A student who is unable to articulate a choice he has made with respect to word choice or document design is a student not yet through one of the key thresholds of rhetorical activity. A student who can describe the procedure of an experiment while being unable to explain how the process works or the experimental design itself, maybe struggling with troublesome knowledge and a threshold concept. Reflection need not be extra work for either students or teachers when made part and parcel of the task. Reflections so integrated do not necessarily add work; they might, in fact, make less work for teacher and student by demystifying the aspects of the course, materials, or discipline students struggle with.

As a colloquium, our emphasis on writing stresses its inventional qualities. That is, writing is not simply (or only) the communication, transmission, or delivery of information. Writing is itself a coming-to-know and the chief method we have for generating ideas. Reflections should be no different. Ostensibly about describing work in progress or products completed, reflections are likewise places to generate new ideas, new processes, and new ways forward. More specifically, for students and teachers reflections can become a way to grapple with troublesome knowledge and invent ways to move productively through thresholds to become scholars deeply integrated in the values and methods of a discipline.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Blog from the iPad

So I have had my iPad for a little over a week now, and we are settling into our cyborgian relationship nicely. I have been exploring the features most likely to be useful to me as a professional (which is not to say that I haven't been playing), and I am so far pleased with the experience and the offerings. I have found reading and annotating PDF files works very well, as does email, note taking, and dictation. At some point I will post a more lengthy review, but as of now it works quite well for a variety of tasks.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Swapping Disciplinary Genes*

So this recent story about the possibility of early hominid species interbreeding has got me thinking again about a conversation I had with my graduate students last week about interdisciplinary work (and its obstacles). First off, I am quite fond of interdisciplinary work. My research moves in and out of several disciplines, and I am currently collaborating with a psychologist who works on, among several things, how humans self-cultivate within a complex matrix of biology and culture. That said, the above story, and the nature of species themselves, both invites and challenges interdisciplinarity.

At the most basic level, species are distinct when can no longer share genetic material or produce viable offspring. "A common definition is that of a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring of both genders, and separated from other such groups with which interbreeding does not (normally) happen" ("Species"). We are distinct when we can no longer exchange genetic material and produce something together. This suggests that once disciplines become particularly specialized they will no longer be able to share with other disciplines and produce viable offspring (e.g., successful students and viable, publishable scholarship). In this case, intellectual work that moves in between disciplines maintains a vital flow of information that would not be possible otherwise. Interdisciplinary work keeps us related enough so that we might do things together that will make sense and work.

However, the species analogy (tenuous as it has already become) suggests the need for such disciplinary divisions. A diverse set of species seems to be the key to healthy ecosystems. Even within species, the deeper the gene pool the more robust the population. This, for me, has always been the strongest argument for diversity in a variety of contexts. Part of the value in different, specialized disciplines is that they do speak different languages, privilege other methods, and promote competing values.

Thus, the tension for interdisciplinary work lies in the value of diversity and the challenges of specialization. I would argue that the boundaries of disciplines must be maintained to allow for the diversity that specialization (a term in evolution, I believe) affords. However, interdisciplinary work is intellectually vital if we hope to connect to other fields and to learn from them, which is to say the work of interdisciplinary is valuable precisely because it ought to be difficult.

As difficult, I imagine, as a Homo neanderthalensis hitting on a Homo sapien.

*This the second version of this (I like the first one better, but my own offspring pushed the right sequence of buttons and deleted it).