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.

Imagining Digital Pedagogy at Fordham

This is your life:


You just finished teaching your American History class. You slam-dunked a lecture on the transcontinental railroad’s influence on national commerce, communication, and territorial expansion. Students nodded, took vigorous notes, and were eager to participate in a lively discussion following your lecture. It was a good class. You think to yourself: tweed blazers with elbow-patches do help you scrutinize the past and question mainstream ideas more effectively. As you make a note to add more iron-on patches to your shopping cart on Amazon, you see a particularly eager student waiting to catch your attention after class.

This student–probably two weeks shy of declaring a history major–stays behind to tell you about her family’s connection to the U.S. railroad industry. As you wipe the dry eraseboard clean, she draws insightful connections between your lecture and her family’s experience in Tennessee. Apparently, this student’s family owned a company that helped establish, build, and expand railroad lines in the region in the 1880s. She’s excited about the connection. She wants to understand her family’s influence on railroad growth in a broader historical context. She’s eager to use the research tools you’ve helped her cultivate. You know, there might just be elbow-patches in her future.

You give a passing nod to the frazzled composition instructor who teaches in the room after you; he’s carrying a stack of freshly graded three-paragraph essays and looks tired. In the hall, you continue talking to the student, asking leading questions, and giving insights–just as you begin to encourage her to explore the topic in her final paper, you realize: “I don’t want to read that.”

Let me rephrase. It’s not a question of what you want, exactly. You care about the student’s development as a writer, and you don’t question their ability to make a convincing historical argument. Rather, this student’s project presents a genre problem. An 8-page research essay on a Tennessee railroad, regional geography, and national commerce could indeed be compelling (hell, I’d read it). Academic prose, however, might not be the most appropriate genre for communicating geographical expansion over time; papers are an inherently limited, linear format. This research is perfectly suited for something more dynamic–like a digital map.

Anelise H. Shrout, Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Studies, shared an experience similar to this in her workshop on Digital Pedagogy on Friday, October 16th. In this session, Shrout encouraged an interdisciplinary group of Fordham graduate students and staff to thoughtfully integrate digital assignments into undergraduate courses.


Not only are some assignments better suited for digital media, but, according to Shrout, an online publication platform will give student work a life beyond the classroom. Student research doesn’t have to be limited to a conversation at the dry eraseboard or a document, stapled with one-inch margins. For example, if the aforementioned student created a Neatline map that tracked the growth of their family’s railroad over time, she could share her final product with her family and circulate it to people within the region of influence. Encouraging students to share the fruits of their research with people outside of academia might just spark intellectual curiosity and critical thinking in the vast elsewhere incorporated by the internet. Believe me, as a kid who grew up with spotty dial-up in the middle of nowhere, access and exposure to quality humanistic work can be transformative. And, yes, I’ll go there: if we are truly committed to “the discovery of Wisdom and the transmission of Learning” as our Jesuit mission would suggest, incorporating digital pedagogy can do a world of good.

Bringing computer power to old questions does not water-down the values humanists hold dear. Instead, digital innovation can help breathe new life into our teaching and research. As Shrout puts it, computers can help free up brain space for us and give us more mental energy to tackle big questions. Why not help our students understand humanistic inquiry through, against, and alongside the digital media that binds many of our social networks together?

Throughout the workshop, Shrout offered useful insights on evaluation and implementation of digital projects based on her extensive experience. She warned teachers that the guidelines need to be clear and evaluation must be explicit and fair. Even if you free yourself from the mountain of three-paragraph essays, you face new obstacles of evaluation. As someone who has enthusiastically embraced digital research and pedagogy, I’m with Shrout–I think these obstacles are worth taking on.

And in case you missed it, she offered several good avenues for the hows of digital pedagogy. I challenge you to take from this grab-bag of stellar digital tools (ranking from easiest implementation to most complex):

Post by: Christy L. Pottroff

Exciting Spring Events!

After a hiatus last semester, the Fordham Graduate Student Digital Humanities Group is back with a bang.  We’ve got a great list of events coming up, and two series going on.

FGSDH Events
Rose Hill Campus, 2pm-3pm
February 4: Debates in the Digital Humanities
February 25: Digital Pedagogy
March 25: Building and Maintaining an Online Profile
April 18: Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon

Topics in Digital Mapping Events
Lincoln Center Campus, 3-5pm Workshops, 2-3pm Meet&Greet
February 11: Thinking about Time with Maps: Timelines/Palladio
March 4: Georectifying/MapWarper
April 15: Intro to CartoDB

THIS FRIDAY (Nov 15) New Directions in Digital Scholarship Event @ Yale

This is a reminder that  Yale University is hosting a New Directions for Digital Scholarship event THIS FRIDAY, November 15, 2013 from 3:00-7:00pm, and Fordham GSDH would like to send you to it!

Registration for the event is free, but you must register in advance.

We are happy to provide round-trip Metro-North tickets between Fordham and New Haven.

So, if you have registered and would like to take us up on the offer (or have questions), email

The schedule is as follows:

3:00-3:10pm – Welcome, Susan Gibbons (University Librarian at Yale University)

3:10-4:00 – “Making Ourselves Indispensable: The UCL Centre for Digital Humanities at Three Years Old” – Claire Warwick (Prof. of Digital Humanities at University College London)

4:10-5:30 – “Showcasing Yale Projects”

Including: “EliScholar: A Platform for Open Access Scholarly Publishing”; “Teaching Across and With Yale’s Himalayan Collections: An Experiment in Crowd Cataloguing”; “Mining Magazine Archives”; New Image Analysis Tools for Manuscripts”; “Photogrammer: A Yale NEH DH Start-Up Grant Project”

5:30-7:00 – Reception

NYC Digital Humanities Inaugural Event, Saturday, 9/25


The NYCDH Inaugural Event took place last Saturday at the Humanities Initiative at New York University.  Many attendees faithfully live-tweeted it at #nycdh, including a significant Fordham contingent: @kmapesy, @ecornell1, @mickimcgee, @diyclassics and @FordhamGSDH!

The two morning sessions on Building NYCDH were led by Lynne and Ray Siemens, two visiting professors from the University of Victoria, currently at NYU.  They discussed the process of building and running a digital humanities center, and the importance of dialogue, discussion and re-discussion, and interdisciplinary and inter-departmental (or inter-institutional!) work for the success of any DH project.  I can’t summarize their talks better than the working notes, so let me just say my biggest takeaway was that we may fail to conclusively define the digital humanities — and that’s okay, as long as we keep talking about it and trying to re-define it.

A summary of lightning talks on a variety of topics can alo be found in the working notes: the range of projects was fascinating, and a wonderful reminder of how lucky we are to be in a city like New York.

After the morning’s traditional conference presentations the afternoon was an unconference.  It was the first time I’d been to an unconference — I’ve heard a lot about them, but hadn’t ever attended one.  As it turns out, my unfamiliarity with the format ended up giving me a bit of a surprise!

During lunch, we wrote topics of interest on a whiteboard, and after lunch, we voted on which topics the group wanted most to discuss.  I was excited that other people wanted to talk about “metadata and DH project sustainability,” and it got through to be one of the final four sessions.  Then I found out I’d be leading it!  Fortunately, it was during the second time slot, so I had a little bit of time to prepare.  I have to admit, though, the first unconference session on pedagogy and DH drew me in pretty fast, and hearing the ways in which different people use DH tools in their classes, or even teach entire classes on the digital humanities, was fascinating, especially since I’m TA’ing this semester, and will be teaching my own classes next year.

The session on metadata was a small one, which isn’t all that surprising: not everyone is excited to talk about cataloging, project hosting and formatting our projects with the future in mind.  But we had a good variety of people in the room, library school students and academics, those with years of experience with DH and with technology and programming and those who were just coming to the field.

We ended up talking not only about metadata and its importance (why create something, if no one can find it?) and the persistence of projects, but about the role of digital humanities more broadly in the world of scholarship.  Questions of citation and of numbers of authors credited for a project came up, and the observation was made that the sciences seem to handle multiple-authorship more gracefully than the humanities.  We also discussed the question of the tension between open access and traditional scholarly publishing, and whether the digital humanities have any obligation to be open access, especially when they draw on open access sources.

The conference’s closing remarks included a list of recommended resources, which are listed in the conference notes (linked above).  At 5:30, we retired to the Swift Hybernian Lounge, just around the corner.

I would encourage anyone in the NYC area to join and be part of the process of creating the NYC DH community!  As a newly-formed group, the options for where it might go are still very flexible, and it promises to help draw together expertise and opportunities in really beneficial ways.

Photo of Alisa Beer
–Alisa Beer

Omeka Workshop Was A Success

The vast digital humanities tent can seem overwhelming at times. The easier path would be to sit by the pleasant campfire at the site next door and toast marshmallows. But as 15 Fordham University faculty and graduate students learned during the Omeka workshop on April 3, the barrier to entry into the tent is quite low. Alex Gil, Columbia University’s Digital Scholarship Coordinator, did a terrific job leading the workshop.

Alex Gil, Digital Scholarship Coordinator, Columbia University
Alex Gil, Digital Scholarship Coordinator, Columbia University

Omeka, as Wikipedia defines it, is a free, open source, content management system for online collections. It was developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and was given a technology collaboration award by the Andrew Mellon Foundation.  Omeka is used by researchers, archivists, museum curators, students, and teachers.

For this workshop, Alex showed us a few notable sites–or exhibits, as they’re called–that use Omeka, including “Lincoln at 200,” a collaborative project involving the Newberry Library, the Chicago History Museum, and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. Then he carefully walked us through the procedure for creating an Omeka exhibit. Workshop participants brought a diverse collection of material to work on: from medieval manuscripts to pre-Columbian art to personal photographs.

The group felt so enthusiastic about Omeka, that a few participants have decided to reconvene in a few weeks and help each other develop their work. Marshmallows will be served. If you missed the workshop and want to learn more about Omeka, you’re welcome to join us. More details coming soon.

The Omeka Workshop was sponsored by the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Fordham Graduate Student Digital Humanities Group.

Omeka Workshop Participants
Omeka Workshop Participants