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 big-
gest obstacle: How can this be anything other than a whole bunch of peo-
ple 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 ap-
proach 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 interdis-
ciplinary 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 en-
gagement 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