Interdisciplinary Teaching and the 1 or 2 Rule

From Sharon J. Harris, PhD Candidate in the English Department and HASTAC Scholar.

Interdisciplinary work has a kind of X-factor. Perhaps because it inherently crosses or defies boundaries, we tend to view interdisciplinary work as innovative and insightful. But for all its buzz, we risk underestimating the demands of such work. At the end of the academic year I have reflected on the processes of a newly designed course I taught this semester that made use of several different forms of media. I’ve taught two courses now that blend literature and music, and each time I reach a point in the semester, usually an otherwise nondescript Wednesday, where I am gobsmacked at how much work it takes just to prepare class materials.


Besides the lesson planning, grading, reading, note-taking, typing, copying, printing, and student-email-responding I expect to do in the workload of teaching a course, I’m also listening, vetting music tracks and YouTube videos, reading three different kinds of background material (because of three different disciplines), scanning readings (because no single textbook has all the material I need), uploading files, figuring out delivery of electronic materials, writing playlist listening guides, researching technology platforms, and on and on. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying interdisciplinary courses aren’t worth it. They’ve been some of my most rewarding teaching experiences. But I do think that we, as teachers, need to approach the demands of designing interdisciplinary courses with our eyes wide open.

ScalarMaybe this is just an old-fashioned question of form vs. content. The content is exciting, full of new connections. But the form is new too. Are we ready for it? When we push and straddle boundaries of various disciplines, we must be accountable to not only the content of more than one field of study but also the form that information takes. For example, I have assigned my students to create annotated playlists. This project helps them to read music closely, using many of the same skills of literary analysis but applied to a different medium. I have to think through the best format for completing and turning in this kind of work. To do the assignment the students need to learn to use music platforms that can create and playlists and then share them. They also then need to annotate those playlists and find a way to turn all of it in together. The software Scalar advertises that “anything can do anything to anything,” meaning that any media format can comment on and annotate any other. I have also considered SoundCloud because it allows users to place a comment at a designated timestamp in the music. Scalar, however, works best with long-form text-based work and has a slightly steep learning curve. And the drawbacks to SoundCloud include limits on how much music a user with a free membership can post, and a comment format that does not lend itself to longer analyses.

The pros and cons that I weigh to determine what form my students’ playlists should take lead me to the 1 or 2 Rule. I have adopted this rule for myself to manage the labor involved in interdisciplinary courses. The Rule is Pick 1 or 2 new aspects to add to or change about your teaching each semester. As you decide what to add or change, consider the following questions:

  • What is new about this semester? Do you already have big changes happening in your personal life?
  • Have you taught this course before? Do you have a textbook/are the materials already gathered, or will you be creating them from scratch?
  • How many other courses are you teaching?
  • How often will assignments and/or lectures and classes require you to curate multidisciplinary material?
  • Do you need to learn a new technology?
  • Will your students need to learn a new technology?

youtubeIn my case with the annotated playlist assignment, I was developing a new course, which already took quite a bit of work. So I decided to have my students create the playlist on Spotify or YouTube, technologies they most likely knew (but I have also learned not to assume that my students know even what seem to be the most common technologies!), and email their annotations typed in Microsoft Word. This system isn’t as compact or seamless as the other technologies might have been, but it had the benefit of being familiar and easy to communicate as they took on the challenge of thinking and writing about a new discipline.

As I develop my courses more fully, I will be in a better position to expand the forms and formats of my interdisciplinary content. This means that it may take a few years to develop these courses in the way that I would like, but it also helps keep me from burning out so that I can continue to create them. It turns out that learning new technologies takes time, both for me and for my students. We shouldn’t be surprised though: These new technologies are new forms of literacy, and becoming literate takes time. Literacy is worth it though. Twenty-first-century literacy can build skills and knowledge with new content and new forms through interdisciplinary teaching.