“That is how innovation happens; chance favors the connected mind”
What’s the most important thing an undergraduate should be doing at college? The answer, I’ve come to believe, is the simple act of drawing connections between classes.
Students walk off with a diploma after taking some forty separate courses. A major forms one point of connection for a subset of them, but the rest – including their eclectic University Core – may strike them as an inexplicable mishmash. Is this perception our fault or theirs?
Consider the newspaper, in its centuries-old, non-electronic format. This paper platform delivers news at various scales (local, state, nation, world), zooming across common interests (food, sports, homemaking, weather), and varied states of mind (from the comics to obituary remembrances of our mortality). Across an ink-stained hour, such reading invites us to cross-fertilize these diverse human moods and levels of information drawn from the world. A university has similar goals.
According to UP’s Mission Statement, we address “significant questions of human concern through disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies of the arts, sciences, and humanities…”. No doubt we’re doing our disciplinary part – but I wonder if we’re following through on our interdisciplinary mission.
Our grad school mentors taught us to drill down deep into our field’s content; as scholars, we’ve come to know our silos well. But undergraduates – who are asked to draw from ten or twelve of our silos each year – are in a unique position to recognize something we aren’t: the adjacent possibilities that arise between their constellation of courses.
Depend upon it: students’ minds are doing such connecting all the time. But few have been taught to recognize this cognitive labor as valuable, or even central to our UP mission. And so these connective sparks fizzle – forgotten as quickly as they appear.
In casual conversations with students each semester, I hear of the exciting concepts they’re learning: some new theory of mind, a fresh phrase to describe our era of biological extinction, a sexy new theological lens. And I wonder why that rich specificity couldn’t have found its way into their latest literature paper, which was so diluted and deadened by generality (of the “man vs. society” ilk).
More to the point: why didn’t I encourage them to explore Gatsby through a concept they recently mastered in another class? Why didn’t I spend part of Friday’s class having them journal a few connections between the day’s poems and what they were learning on Thursday? Wouldn’t that synergy have aided their engagement by meeting them where they’re at that very week?
Hearing them share reminds me that my course is but one piston in the engine of their minds – one that can only work efficiently alongside the others.
Moreover, in our rapidly changing technological landscape, if we are training our students for jobs that in many cases haven’t yet been invented, the best skill we can teach is thinking flexibly. The 21st century’s best inventions come from the creativity of hybrid thinking: Apple’s stylized iPhone, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, etc. What hybrid beauties might develop from nimble minds suturing knowledge on the Bluff? How might we encourage them to cultivate such intellectual innovation?
Certainly, it starts with a trust in the serendipity of connection-making – in creatively pondering the friction within their given network of classes. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Freytag’s Pyramid of plot have sudden provocation for the student who took time to bridge their geometries. Hamlet’s Ophelia might start to resemble the “indicator species” concept drawn from Environmental Studies, giving a student a fresh way of detecting what is rotten in the state of Denmark.
We can cultivate interdisciplinarity as teachers by sitting in on the class of a colleague we admire in another field. Or checking out the library’s copy of Awaken the Stars: Reflections on What We REALLY Teach to read brief essays by diverse UP colleagues and locate common ground with your area. We can seek out common questions – just as our Core Curriculum does – that unite our courses with others. Our Vision 20/20 plan includes a direction to “Increase the number of interdisciplinary co-taught courses,” and I know of a number of faculty eager to pursue paired courses, despite the challenges of articulation and scheduling.
Above all, we can cultivate the habit of bridge-thinking in students through assignments that open outward to their immediate classes – ones inviting them to bring together outside thinking, and rewarding them for the creative synthesis they construct on their own.
For it may be that our students come most alive in our curriculum by doing what we in our silos cannot: innovating connections between their own uniquely varied set of classes. The shape of the future depends upon this generative habit.
-Lars Erik Larson, UP English Department
- Featured Image: By Steve Morgan, CC BY-SA 4.0,