February 8, 2010

Professors Work to Bridge Department Gaps with Digital Cross-Disciplinary Initiatives

Print More

Yesterday approximately 25 faculty members and graduate students gathered in the Guerlac room of the A.D. White House to consider ways to improve interdepartmental collaboration by bridging gaps between related fields of study at the University.

The dialogue was led by Mary Flanagan, the inaugural chaired professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth University, and Prof. Tim Murray, comparative literature and English and the director of the Society for the Humanities. Flanagan, who has pioneered a similar interdisciplinary approach at Dartmouth, began the discussion by describing instances in which the practice had been successful under her guidance.

Flanagan showed audience members an empty trailer –– dubbed the “playcube”–– that she explained could be customized and outfitted for creative student models. Using a powerpoint presentation and YouTube clips as examples, Flanagan illustrated some of the different projects students have undertaken with the playcube.

One group of students brought the playcube into the middle of the woods and furnished it with DJ equipment — but instead of playing the music out loud, each of the students brought headphones which enabled them to listen to a group playlist they transmitted using one specific FM radio frequency. While the woods were still quiet to outside observers, the entire group of students was able to listen to the music on their chosen frequency and simultaneously dance to their shared playlist. They would call it the “silent disco.”

The silent disco is an example of what Flanagan means by an interdisciplinary approach to learning. Though the student creators were more inclined towards music than design, the playcube allowed them to discover a new field through something they were passionate about.

“The values at play here for the students are creating design tools, humanists [those students studying subjects in the humanities departments] can learn how to design, can learn the tools to design,” Flanagan explained.

Another group of government majors decided to stage a sweatshop in the playcube. Students purchased sowing machines and replicated life as a sweatshop worker, depicting very specific working conditions from countries they researched.

“The people who made the sweatshops were government majors [and] not art majors, so they wanted to explore social and political issues through a field that they were unfamilar with –– art,” Flanagan noted.

According to Flanagan, undergraduate students are beginning to flock to graduate studies in the arts, wherein they can explore their creativity and individualism.

“MFA is the new MBA,” Flanagan pronounced. “It’s [a] really interesting moment where there are groups of people that think that the creative thinking, studio practice and model thinking [of an MFA program] is important.”

Faculty members and graduate students who attended the lecture were generallyexcited to work on building better partnerships across departments and academic fields. Dean Kent Kleinman of the College of Art, Architecture and Planning explained his desire to bridge different disciplines within the school.

“It’s a way to be more instrumental, we’re really trying to invest in a new media and digital arts component in our existing art department,” Kleinman stated.

Others welcomed a more informal approach to learning that could replace, to some degree, the conventional structures of certain classes today.

“I’m a very grassroots believer in working with others [across disciplines] and opening up opportunities, I’m not a top-down type of person,” Associate Dean Barry Perlus, art, said.

In spite of the audience’s uniform enthusiasm for the new initiative, there were lingering doubts about its feasibility. With seven different colleges and dozens of different majors, each with their own individual standards and degree requirements, some were concerned that the size of the University would preclude the effective implementation of the initiative.

“[Cross-discipline studies are] happening at many other schools, they tend to concentrate in individual schools,” said Prof. Maria Fernandez, history of art. “It’s a little harder at Cornell because students have a lot of requirements from their majors. So it’s hard for students to get credit in their schools [for a class outside their majors].”

According to Fernandez, even if a subject incorporated several different disciplines, it would be difficult for the University to approve it being cross-listed in each area, making it less attractive for students to take the class, even if they showed interest in the material.

Other faculty members expressed concern during the question-answer session that in bridging different fields together, the details of each would be lost. Flanagan responded to this criticism.

“We want depth and we want breadth, they’re constantly fighting with each other,” Flanagan said. “We want students to have knowledge as well, so they’re not just connecting, but understanding.”

Still, most in attendance were pleased by the fact that they had started discussing an initiative that Murray, the event’s organizer, said would take a “minimum of several years to begin to realize.”

“That’s part of the reason that we do things like this,” Prof. Kevin Ernste, music, said. “We need to begin the conversation.” Ernste mentioned he has been active in attempting to bridge computer science with music.

Flanagan will speak in more detail about her research and pedagogical philosophy today from 5:15 to 7 p.m. at 165 McGraw Hall.

Original Author: Ben Gitlin