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Reinventing Ourselves: Interdisciplinary Education, Collaborative Learning, and Experimentation in Higher Education

Edited by Barbara Leigh Smith and John McCann
Anker Publishing ( www.ankerpub.com )
500 pages
ISBN: 1-882982-35-5

Reviewed by

Nancy Page Fernandez

California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

In 1997 the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation provided grant support to fund the Evergreen Conference on Interdisciplinary Education. With these powerful and mainstream backers, interdisciplinary studies appears to hold center stage in the academic arena. Yet, as Professor Alexander Astin explains in his "Forward," many faculties remain slow (even resistant) to support interdisciplinary programs and pedagogy despite the growing body of research demonstrating their positive impact on student learning. Reinventing Ourselves, a collection of essays generated by participants in the Evergreen Conference, demonstrates the range and variety of interdisciplinary innovations and explores the complicated dynamics of educational practice.

Editors Barbara Leigh Smith and John McCann divide the work into three predictable but useful sections: "Historical Perspectives and Examples," "Powerful Pedagogies," and "Taking Stock and Looking Ahead." Each section stands independently, giving readers the opportunity to browse the collection according to their own interests and giving me, the reviewer, license to discuss the parts in the order I choose. The project of "reinventing ourselves" necessarily responds to assessment, implements powerful pedagogies, and creates new histories, so I will begin my discussion with the final section of Reinventing Ourselves and work back to the first. Along the way, with much praise for the positive contributions that both interdisciplinary studies and this collection have made to academe, I challenge the widespread conflation of these endeavors with educational "reform"--a practice that marginalizes the role and import of alternative practices. The field of interdisciplinary studies has been and continues to act as a lightning rod for tensions over the purpose of higher education and, thus, reveals lessons about both innovative pedagogical experiments and contests over the university's identity.

The seven essays in Section III, "Taking Stock and Looking Ahead," run the gamut from defining interdisciplinarity today to assessing its innovations and theorizing its epistemological basis. The essays are linked together by a common goal of addressing the current opportunities and challenges facing interdisciplinary studies. The opportunities appear rich: growing interest in the value of assessment and diverse ways of learning points enthusiastically to interdisciplinary programs with their expertise demonstrating the effectiveness of instruction and developing learner-centered pedagogy. Robert Bendetti, in his essay "After the Revolution: New Directions for Alternative Education," observes that higher education, which focused on its research mission during the last half of the twentieth century, has now turned its attention to teaching (439). Challenges, however, arise in the slippage between pedagogical approaches focusing on students and business approaches focusing on customer satisfaction, and between assessment and accountability. The essays in "Taking Stock and Looking Ahead" provide valuable insights for both interdisciplinary and conventional programs about negotiating the demands generated by the multiple publics concerned with education today. In addition, the experience of interdisciplinary studies suggests a larger context for interpreting current jeremiads decrying the administration's micro-management of faculty affairs and embrace of market-based models of education. These lamentations assume a stable identity for higher education, deserving both praise and protection; the history of interdisciplinary studies demonstrates a continuous debate over what the university should do and be in a democratic society. All faculty members may benefit from interdisciplinary studies' history developing strategies to promote academic freedom, enhance learning, and refashion faculty roles.

Part II, "Powerful Pedagogies," has two sub-sections: "Learning Communities" and "Rethinking Teaching and Learning." The editors wisely constructed "Powerful Pedagogies" to be more than a "best practices" section. The essays in the first sub-section address the learning community initiative in Washington State, as well as related experiments such as the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University and service learning programs. As the editors explain, "[u]ltimately the learning community effort is about relationships"; the experiences of different learning communities have much to teach faculty and administrators who struggle to bring increasingly diverse populations together into an inclusive campus community (133). The essays in the second sub-section, "Rethinking Teaching and Learning," consider how different pedagogies, learning styles, administrative structures, and faculty roles may encourage interdisciplinary, student-centered teaching and learning. Reading the essays, I filled the margins of my notes with exclamation points signaling my agreement, arrows reminding me to share an insight with my colleagues, and brief summaries describing techniques that might be adapted for my classes and program. "Powerful Pedagogies" will appeal to instructors (interdisciplinary or not) who are attracted by the notion of decentering the classroom and who wish to explore the philosophical, pedagogical, and practical implications of giving up their traditional roles.

Reinventing Ourselves opens with "Historical Perspectives and Institutional Examples." My disciplinary slip may be showing here (I survived 10 years as an historian), but I found this section disappointing. The five essays in "Historical Perspectives" begin with the 1920s and 1930s, leap to the 1960s and 1970s, and address a relatively small number of interdisciplinary projects. Despite the heterogeneity of the interdisciplinary programs discussed throughout Reinventing Ourselves, other important interdisciplinary efforts are noticeably absent. For example, there is no discussion of the creation of Home Economics in the 1920s, American Studies in the 1950s, Ethnic Studies (as a whole and in individual racial/ethnic groups) in the 1960s, Women's Studies in the 1970s, and most recently Environmental Studies and Urban Studies in the 1990s-to list a few. The authors in Reinventing Ourselves claim no ownership of interdisciplinary studies and, I know, welcome the chorus of interdisciplinary efforts despite the attendant creation of what Julie Thompson Klein identifies as an "overload of linguistic freight" surrounding the term (397). The overload in interdisciplinarity, I think, bears tremendous significance for understanding the history of higher education in the twentieth century.

Despite the vast differences among them, interdisciplinary programs all trade upon a key paradox in the university. As Lawrence Levine explains in The Opening of the American Mind, the modern university struggles with a dual identity. The university serves as a center for inquiry and free discourse; but the university also provides a locus for intellectual authority that cuts off the institution from democratizing impulses. Throughout their twentieth-century histories interdisciplinary programs, of every sort, have confronted this paradox. Their experiences record an ongoing dialogue about the role and purpose of the university and the growing heterogeneity of voices joining the conversation. Interpreting interdisciplinary efforts in this way moves them from the margins to the center of the development of higher education.

Reinventing Ourselves reminds us that the university has never been monolithic or homogenous and that its development has included negotiating ways to accommodate a range of purposes and publics. The collection has much to offer faculty members, new and experienced, hoping to define their own roles and responsibilities as well as administrators seeking models for meeting the demands of increasingly diverse constituencies. I hope that Reinventing Ourselves reaches a broad audience and that its readers find models to help bring the current multiplicity of interdisciplinary efforts together to meet the challenges of the next century.

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Posted August 27, 2001