Blog Post

07. Transdisciplinary Pedagogy and the Methodology of Interdisciplinary Thinking

Right after college in 2002, I had a part time job teaching elementary to high school kids English as a second language in Malaysia, even though I wasn’t professionally trained as a language teacher; I was a physics major who almost minored in mathematics, and had only taken three courses in English Literature. Quickly, I realized that learning the mechanics of how grammar works and then plugging them into ready-made sentences were far from helpful to the young students.


Mind you, these children were not exactly disadvantaged, given that their parents were paying for expensive lessons not only in language learning, but also in other areas of skills enhancement and development. However, I have to teach to kids who came from different backgrounds, none of who are native speakers of English and therefore have varying levels of command. Added to that, they ranged from 7 to 11 years old in at least one elementary school class that I taught. Therefore, beyond writing on whiteboards and teaching the logic of language, I decided to use a style of learning I found to have worked well with myself: to connect certain visual entities to certain blocks of grammar. I also got the students to perform narratives (such as through puppet shows, skits, and other forms of performative show and tell that get them moving in the classroom) that would be the starting point for thinking about sentences at the level of formulating short essays. We also used music as a way of connecting rhythms to concepts. Of course, mechanical drills were still part of the curriculum, but these drills are no longer tedious for both the students and teacher, because everyone now had a better idea of the purpose of those drills.


Fast forward a few years, I have a MA now. I was an adjunct at a satellite campus of an international university. One of the courses I had to teach was an elective in American popular culture and music from late nineteenth century to the twenty-first century. Once again, the students were mixed level, but working with higher stakes. The class contained students with some exposure to formal music training to those who were complete illiterates. Additionally, the students were all non-Americans, mostly Asians from around the South East Asian region and Malaysia, one or two Australian exchange students, and one person from Latin America. None have had any primary relationship with the culture or cultural elements of the class other than as cultural imports. Most did not have sufficient background in American political and cultural history necessary either to give contexts to the musical genres and practices involved.  By necessity, the class involves playing excerpts of music and having the students identify the kinds of genre (call-and-response, minstrelsy, the different forms of jazz, blues, ragtime, disco, rock and roll, electronica etc).  This means that I had to give the entire class a crash course in music, sounds and rhythms, as well as American history. You would think that the students who are taking this as an elective would be motivated but that was not always the. They took the class thinking that it would give them an easy grade or because none of the other electives seemed sufficiently enticing (there were not too many choices to begin). What makes it even more difficult was the size of the class, which actually was big enough to require two recitation sections (we refer to them as tutorial sessions at the other side of the ocean).


While I use the lecture as a method for providing the students with the background and context from which such music genres emerged, the recitations involve working through a critical sampling of the music and underdeveloped sonic database of melody, rhythms, riffs, and musical embellishments (I wished I had something equivalent to the sonic dictionary back in the day but available digital pedagogical platforms were in their infancy back in the day and required hours of hair-pulling to get to work). But just listening would not work for most of the students, so I suggested diagramming the musical excerpts they were listening to as a way of imagining the cadences and meter, the way one would a work of poetry. We also tried to deconstruct the instrumentations and the range involved since that would provide better clues to how the music developed. One of my regrets is that we did not have a proper audio lab, nor the time, where I could bring the students into the studio and have them recreate the sounds using a digital keyboard, with the aid of a software, as that would have given them a hands-on understanding of shapes within the musical movement, then illustrating them with historical and cultural contexts. I believe that this could be done, even when resources are lacking, if we can use various open source composition and sound design software, download the musical excerpts, and reproduce the visual demonstration during the lecture (however, if one has blind students in the class, this would have to be modified where sound markers can be used as a audio visualization technique) with actual group work done during the recitation period. In a much smaller class, one might be able to do this on a writing board, with students coming to the front of the class during a lecture demo and working out the problems, as one would a mathematics problem.


At Duke, I was a TA for a film theory class. I have minimal training in film theory (or production, for the matter) but had done much of my MA thesis on psychoanalytic theory and semanalysis from which much of film theory is based. However, this involves going through very dense material and it was left to us, as the TAs for this class, to break down the theoretical concepts to the students, though the film production aspect of the class is handled by the guest lecturers who also happened to be practicing film-makers.  One of the things I tried to do in class was to take a small portion of the text, highlight some of the dense parts, put it up on the projector, and then have the students work together on deconstructing the paragraph in my class section. I also drew graphs to show the connection between the technical terms used that are borrowed from corpus linguistics and psychoanalytic theory.  This was to supplement the use of wikis and blogs by the students to engage with the films and materials that they were reading. Of course, sometimes this falls flat and fail to work, but it provided some learning to the students who tried to avoid doing the reading as much as they could. It is also useful when one, as a teaching assistant, has little control over the direction of the class, or the pacing.


Over the first half of the summer of 2013, I was a helproom TA for a low-level physics course for non-majors, with students who came from varying (or minimal) mathematics and physics backgrounds.  I have not worked with physics at that level for a long while, and there were certain things I was not sure of. As a way of working through the problems, I had to draw a lot of pictures to immerse myself in cognitive models I had not seriously considered in detail for a long while. While I made mistakes on my way, and even wrong assumptions, my learning mistakes helped me help the weaker students. In the process of being confused and also confusing my students while helping them to solve a problem, and in discussing the problems faced with the main lecturer of the course, I realized what is needed is the building of a systematic model for thinking about the problems, and what are the important elements for solving the problems. It was good that in the course, animations were used to reinforce understanding. But even, they only show the students what to expect rather than the whys of the expectations. So, a different method is required.


In the process of helping students grasps concepts even as I am training my brain to retrieve memories of its former training, I had to figure out best ways to make concepts, elevated to a metaphysical level, have real physical resonances, especially for the less-prepared students for whom such levels of translation between ‘logical’ examples and ‘curve-ball’ problems are much harder to get at. Even though the problems of physics are different in their intricacies and conceptual difficulties compared to critical theory, the students have to build mental models to help their see the relationships and to ground their foundations as more information are added into the boundaries of their knowledge content. What the mathematical equations and dense verbally constituted theories have in common would be how one could represent them as non-abstract visuals, in simple geometry. How can one build an architecture of the narratives involved using minimal equations or words except only in areas where it is entirely necessary, but juxtaposing them against pictorial cognates, sort of similar to what we were taught to do as a study technique back in school, but with increasingly complicated representations that require more than regurgitation of techniques of problem-solving but original approaches when applied against a situation less than ideal within physical and metaphysical contexts.  Since a majority of these students a pre-meds, why should what they are learning have import for their future medical training beyond fulfilling the appearance of just another hurdle?


As I have been interested in teaching methods centric courses that combine ways of looking and understanding across disciplines, I have been using the various experiences I have outlined above as a way of thinking about what it would mean for me to teach as a non-expert in all the disciplines which I may combine with areas that I am an expert at in future interdisciplinary courses.  This could perhaps be a form of collaborative learning process for teachers and students; a kind of team-teaching that goes beyond positioning different experts with their different skillsets and knowledge they bring to the classroom, but one where each side has to deal with, and also engage, with materials that they are less familiar with, and in the process, encourage the students to do likewise, by collaborative learning and teaching. While one might expect enrollment to consist of students who know something, even if not a lot, about the subject matter under dissection, it is also likely that a curious student who has little prior training in any of the disciplines used as method case-study in the class might be enrolled, maybe to fulfill a general studies requirement. Therefore, the syllabus has to take all of that into consideration.


But it is one thing to learn the techniques and shortcuts for approaching a problem that has been set out for you. It requires another level of thinking about the meaning of problem solving that goes beyond flipping classrooms or using more sophisticated technology to address age old problems. Add transdisciplinary approaches to learning a topic into the mix and it becomes even more challenging since students should be able to inhabit more than one cognitive model (and sometimes, the models can conflict in a way that confuses a beginner), and not merely superficially but with a level of understanding that only stop shorts of the nuts and bolts problem solving (imagine visual studies/art history combined with neuroscience as a popular example) in order for them to produce useful interventions.  But, in such a class, one cannot expect the student to be an equal expert in both (and as undergrads, they won’t be ‘expert’ in the sociological sense of having definite grasp of the subject area which they are purported majors beyond the exposure they might have had from coursework. I am not referring to exceptionally gifted students but to the average student who form the majority). However, that does not mean that one cannot help the student learn as much as it is necessary to enable them to address a particular question or problem that has been raised that require knowledge in areas where they have minimal exposure to, including technical knowledge areas. In other words, how do we teach students to approach their learning with the mind of a researcher and innovator, regardless of their scholarly predisposition?


After all, true interventions can only be produced when the student knows what he/she is dealing with, and therefore, reproduce that theory/concept in practice (or a form of useful representation). Moreover, what if one were to add intersectional politics into the picture, such as, for example, a queer theoretical reading of quantum physics that pay equal heed to the conceptual rigors of both fields rather than bending one in service of the other (which, unfortunately, appear to be an increasing norm in the humanities and not in a way that serves interdisciplinary interventions). As we have learnt from studying grammar, one can only break the rules when one knows the rules to be broken. More importantly, I would advocate for thinking conceiving transdisciplinary courses as methods exploration rather than where students are introduced to idiosyncratic content from different disciplines as per the preference of the instructor, as I feel that the latter would do a disservice to a student who would be better served from taking a complete course on a single discipline if they really want to learn more. Rather, such a course should be envisioned along the lines of helping students thinking about how real-life problem solving is interdisciplinary in nature, and require their ability to think socially, textually, and technically across multiple levels. This would enhance their appreciation for disciplines they may otherwise have little engagement with.


While I do not yet have a chance of teaching a transdisciplinary workshop or class, which I would love to be able to do in collaboration, I have been considering many of its pedagogical aspects just by dealing with these issues on a daily basis in my research and dissertation writing. In the summer of 2010, I tried to facilitate a community workshop outside of the university that considers, in an informal way, transdisciplinary and global approaches to thinking about the history of science, as a way for thinking about the methodology for learning across both familiar and unfamiliar, institutionalized and marginalized knowledge forms. The class did not take off as I had to leave down on a research trip and there were some organizational issues unrelated to the class, but I see the thinking behind the class’s curriculum as foundation stone for actually making something that works, once we have the communities and the commitment from participants. A few years later and after more research and thinking, in the spring of 2013, I started producing a triptych of articles through the Scientific American Guest blog[1], with a broader audience as my ‘lab-rats.’ Given that my dissertation inhabits more than one discipline, and neither shall the twain meet because of their seeming gap, I actually am using my work as an experiment for developing a methodology for seemingly incommensurable disciplinary engagement for potential classroom application.


As mentioned above, one of the ideas I have been working on for the past two years has been the idea of using diagram as a way of thinking across disciplines, as represented in my article. However, I am interested in thinking beyond the visual diagram, of lines, shapes, and dots.  As I gave in the example involving my teaching of a music and culture class, one would like to envision diagramming as going beyond what can also involve other senses. While the Scientific American article exhaust the concept of visual diagramming, as much as is possible without writing an overly long treatise, that can be used to create interpolation between critical theory, history of science, media history, and present day scientific issues, another article that utilizes thought experiment as a method and science fiction as a platform for imagining tactility and absences as a way of imagining and working with abstract ideas that may have no immediate perceptible real-world impact with macro-level problems with real-world implications.


In the classroom, we have to begin by providing basic information to get the students started. After that, we have to encourage them to think about the basic information in forms of problem questions and then to pursue their inquiries on their own, following the rabbit hole but knowing when to emerge to take a broad contextual look at what they had been doing, with the teacher acting as a resource to help the student forward should they get stuck, and also to provide debriefing at each pre-determined checkpoints. At the same time, as the person with the most experience, the teacher can also gently point the students to resources that can ease their research experience, and therefore, allowing them to move forward to tackle more complex issues rather than spend too much time on tedious busywork unless that is a pedagogical point to that endeavor. The growth of digital repositories and platforms for tracking learning (blogs, wikis, databases, Github) makes this easier to do, and the labor and research produced by these students can then form part of their learning portfolio, for application in other work or courses that they may do.


I also consider transdisciplinary courses as adaptable and useful to instructors who are imagining along the lines of producing a hybrid making and theory class, and becomes even more productive when the course is taught as a collaboration with guest instructors brought in for different sections of the class, thereby tapping into their various experiences and expertise. I had envisioned such a class for my introduction to media archeology course that takes a hybrid and transdisciplinary methodological approach to considering the meaning of media. Unfortunately, the class did not take off due to lack of enrollment, but I am excited to be able to use my research to expand and develop this class further for me to offer it elsewhere, and not necessarily only within a college setting (or in a resource-rich institutional setting).  However, what I envision for the students is to produce purposive written reports from which they pitch and explain the ideas, coherently and concisely, behind their projects, as it gives more meaning to their work and also prevents eleventh-hour rush of writing that paper just to fulfill a course criteria, which I have witness many times over as a writing studio tutor.


As I work on clarifying the intent and objective of this transdisciplinary form of learning and teaching methodology, I hope to collaborate on a workshop where I can start by working with high level researchers and teachers who are interested in developing methods for working within different disciplines that may be connected or far-removed from each other, bringing in their different interest and experiences. More importantly, it is important to foreground diverse voices already in existent in trans- and intedisciplinary work while highlighting the political core, epistemic or otherwise, that underlie such work.


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