Raw materials on the interdisciplinary paracurriculum

by Carl Dyke

The syllabus is not the class

The process is the goal

A world full of people

Each class picks a little thing about MU to examine. A meal; a bathroom; a requirement; a building. Let’s figure this out, all of it. Faculty get to geek out on their part, but it’s just a part. What’s the food science of this? What’s the literature of this?

Pulling together the classes they’re taking – how do they relate? What do they contribute?

How is this fun? Interesting? Worthwhile?

“There must be some way this is / to make this simple” vs ok it’s just wicked complex

Being in that world vs trying to act on it

“It works when teachers care about the students, not the material.” – Tavares

Caring in education is learning and growing focused. It can’t stop at validation. We love them as they are and as they’re becoming.

How to learn and grow?

Not knowing, but finding out

[Library competency –> research competency, not a class but a project]

Feral connectivity – conspiracy, intelligent design – vs ecosystems, complexity

Wanting to know, wanting to belong, wanting to be ok

BE POSITIVE, opportunities not threats and deficits

Something to do, someone to be, having / knowing your place, connection / community, self/making – the spectrum of identity services. We are MU / Make MU Great +++

Hypothesis 1: people do better when the work is challenging and meaningful. Rising / growing to fullest. (Final potential may be fixed, but we’re not there yet.)

Hypothesis 2: people find ways to drag and shirk when the work is not challenging and / or meaningful.

The reward platter: nutrition vs sugary treats. Feedback logics – how do I get more sugary treats?

Social learning / family dynamics and metaphors. Getting stuck in the child / mom / dad, pupil / teacher, drudge / boss games.

Playing games vs changing games. Partners, colleagues, finders, learners. Relationships and flows vs hierarchies.

Not all active learning has to be kinetic. Sitting and paying attention works too. Miss Marple ethnography vs Indiana Jones. Divide the dispositions and the labor.

In a (civic) ecosystems view, “burn it down” is the dumbest thing anyone can say. But fire is one of the healthy dynamics.

Online makes crossing / blending logistics much easier

– set this up for experiment / piloting opportunities

Why doesn’t interdisciplinarity ever work? It’s a meta-wicked problem.

Surf not grind, infiltrate not attack, wiggle stuck drawers

Interdisciplinary is not the end but a means, dictated by the field of discipline. They will defend themselves. Why?

How is discipline a resource? How can it be queered without activating the defenses?

Material at hand.

Loose goal, local knowledge – what’s the value added?

Ask – what are your challenges? How could this solve a problem for you? Think big!

Stay away from the Center – edges, networks, flows, rhizomes (reinforcing loops, how systems snap to grid)

The enduring problems of the humanities and liberal arts are enduring because they can’t be solved – they are wicked problems. Difficulties, dilemmas, conundrums, impasses.

Especially in the modern world the tendency of the hard sciences and stem has been to think of the humanities and the liberal arts as the soft dumping ground for unserious questions and projects. What wicked problems and complexity offer is the opportunity to rethink the humanities and the liberal arts as resources for recognizing and managing wicked problems. The wicked problems framework frames citizenship as participating in shared complexity (the civic ecosystem) responsibly and intelligently. Not mastering but learning understanding and adapting.

Self centered, personal interest, leaning in to disconnection

Superficial / ignorant problem solving, dopey eliciting exercises

Rubrics, notecards, prompts, citation formats and plagiarism, hoop after hoop, how-to suck passion out of any topic

Everything is fine but the focus is on disconnected technical requirements rather than the project as a developing accomplishment linked to larger systems of attention. This is consistent with the pattern throughout our curriculum and academic support efforts, which features many interventions with no necessary connection to authentic projects and goals.

With this in mind, adding another disconnected intervention is an exercise in path dependent failure. Ours is a pattern of wasted effort we need to break, not multiply.

Ecology / microcosm

A world full of people

Start w/ one of the cameo histories, e.g. cod, lobster, sushi. Read as model for tracing networks. Everyone picks an ordinary object and does the full global history of it – the materials, the compopnents, the assemblages at various scales; culture, society, politics, economics, world systems. History of interconnection, interdependence, embedding.

Complexity: the mobile. Note distinction of functional, aesthetic, moral analyses. How does it work? Is it beautiful? Is it good/bad, right/wrong? Note tendency of each set of questions to try to take over (e.g. function is also beautiful and good).

“I have taught a course called Science and Politics for a number of years and
one year in particular, it was very early in the morning, a big lecture class
at 8:00am. To get to the lecture hall we all passed this little shop that sold
good coffee and chocolate croissants. . . . And just as a way of waking up in
the morning, I would ask people to unpack objects, to take a chocolate
croissant and lead me through flour and chocolate and butter and sugar and
coffee and connect us to world histories that way. I would ask people to pick
an object, the T-shirt that the person sitting next to them was wearing,
what was printed on it, the label, the very fact of labeling, the fibre com-
position. If it’s got polyester, then take me through the history of Purity
Hall and research labs at Du Pont; you know, back me up into nitrogen
chemistry. If it’s cotton, then back me into pesticides and the California
water projects and where cotton is grown and the length of the fibre and
what about what you are wearing on your chest? I would ask people, as a
way of talking about science and politics, to take a pencil, a piece of paper,
the architecture of the lecture hall that you walked past; pick something and
get the class started by giving me an account of it.”
—Donna Haraway, in Live Theory (via Dumit, Implosion)

NB limbering exercise – is that what IDS is for?

How many people had to do their job for you to (x)?

Resources: their experience, networks, previous classes, classes now, instructor expertise, informal and formal research


Hybrid / asynchronous enables all kinds of connecting and blending. Team teaching, project based learning, topic walkabouts. Plenary + breakouts / work teams, multimodal engagement.

To start with use interdisciplinary stuff as connective tissue. Student level, inherently customized, no need for faculty/major involvement.

Process not outcomes. Get curious about something and explore. Understanding vs problem solving.

“It was fun and challenging to work on such an interdisciplinary project. As a physics student studying biological systems, I had never expected myself to use concepts from economics.”


Prompting exercise: use this as a mad lib:

“As an X studying Y, I never expected myself to use concepts from Z.”

Thinking of disciplines as boxes of tools and resources rather than domains / turfs.

Research teams:

Figuring out the life

How did they feed themselves?

How did they think about things?

How did they organize themselves?

What did they do for fun?

How did they care for themselves?

How did they handle disputes?

“What we’re trying to do is to get managers to set up strange attractors, so that you get relevant behavior without somehow identifying a point in advance where you want the system to go.”



2 Comments to “Raw materials on the interdisciplinary paracurriculum”

  1. As you observe, failure of interdisciplinarity is itself a metawicked problem. I’m looking for clues about how you’d deploy the paracurricular raw materials to address it. Some combination of:
    – a process of finding out
    – fun and interesting rather than frustrating and disheartening
    – act on the world from a position inside that world, changing games while playing them
    – infiltrate the periphery rather than storming the castle
    – experiment and pilot…

    …actually the whole list is self-reflexive. You have the autonomy to teach your own classes this way; how’s it going university-wide?

  2. I like that distillation, John, so I will filch it and redeploy it! The back story here is that I’m now the newly created Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Studies. At first this just means I’m tasked with the chore of pulling together, scheduling and programming the disparate bits and pieces of required curriculum that are hanging around from various initiatives over the years. But it’s already all sort of among and in between the regular core and major curricula, so I’m thinking of it as connective tissue. Early days on figuring out how to get it working. The university has been resistant to any larger initiatives along these lines, but if it doesn’t cost anyone anything it could sneak into the hearts and minds.

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