Reflections on Going Interdisciplinary

by Robin DeRosa, Professor of English & Interdisciplinary Studies
& Danielle Marie Carkin, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice

Today at our annual start-of-school meeting for faculty and staff, our new president announced plans to transform our small, regional university into an interdisciplinary institution centered around the ideas of clusters and open labs.  We represent two very different positions inside the university.  Danielle is a brand new hire in the Criminal Justice Department, recently out of graduate school. Robin has been at the university for fifteen years, teaching in the English Department and chairing the Interdisciplinary Studies program.  Despite coming from very different fields and being at very different places in our careers, we found ourselves asking some common questions as we embark on this journey.

We are both avid fans of interdisciplinarity.  Here’s a bit about the investments that each of us had walking into our conversations today:

Robin: I’ve been teaching at Plymouth State since I finished my Ph.D. in English.  As an early Americanist, I have always had a sense of myself as an interdisciplinarian, working as I do mainly with historical texts and, back in my dissertation, with methodologies drawn mainly from anthropology and tourism studies.  My undergrad work was in Women’s Studies, which is an interdisciplinary field. So in my years at PSU, I’ve advocated for students who want to work across departments, and I helped to develop the curriculum for our current Interdisciplinary Studies major. When our new President announced the move to an interdisciplinary model, I was excited…but nervous.  When I began teaching interdisciplinary theory, I realized that my own cross-disciplinary work had really not prepared me to understand the complexities of bringing competing methodologies and epistemologies to bear on a problem or concept.  So my concern in moving to the new framework is simply that we need to take the time and make the space to do the work to understand the challenges that present themselves when we try to collaborate across the academy. Additionally, I really want to see us use this as an opportunity to develop a strong sense of ourselves as a public university, and identify ways to talk about our public mission so as to strengthen our “brand” and ultimately rebuild the funding that we so desperately need in order to serve the public need. I want to see us build our clusters from a position that is informed by the field of Interdisciplinary Studies, in critical dialogue with the trends in higher education today, and rooted in a sense of public mission that is true to our strength as a teaching institution. I feel grateful to have had a chance to begin these conversation with my colleagues today; I hope faculty will be central to the planning and conceptualization of our clusters, and I welcome strong leadership from our new President!

Danielle:  First, let me say that I am very excited to have found my place so quickly upon completing my doctorate degree. Plymouth State University has embraced me in and in return I am ready to offer all that I have back to the PSU community and the surrounding communities. With that being said, I have seen the benefit of interdisciplinary work firsthand and have used that to get myself where I am today. I have a Bachelor’s in Social Science, a Master’s in Community Social Psychology, and a Doctorate in Criminal Justice. The combination of these degrees have allowed me to see the world (and my particular research interests) in varying lights. With that in mind, I am so excited to be a part of a community that is looking toward collaboration amongst departments/programs because it will truly benefit not just our faculty, but our students. It will provide them with the opportunity to be fully rounded students with more than just “one track” minds. The concept of clusters is intriguing and certainly exciting, but to be able to develop them after a brief introduction (for those of us who did not attend the retreat) was a bit too difficult. Our leadership is definitely heading in the right direction and I am proud to be a part of the change and innovation. I graduated from UMass Lowell with many ideas about how I can reach out to the local community and how I can collaborate with colleagues and students alike. The possibility of doing exactly that is what made my choice to come here so easy. Today, I was very lucky to be apart of the group discussion that I was because it allowed me to ask questions and gain a better understanding of clusters, interdisciplinary collaboration, and PSU. Ultimately, I welcome and look forward to working with my brilliant colleagues here at Plymouth State! And I second the sentiment Robin mentioned: I look forward to working under the guidance of our new President and cannot wait to see where the collaboration and clusters take PSU in the realm of Higher Ed.

Despite our excitement about the possibilities, and our belief that interdisciplinarity opens some exciting pathways for both teaching and research, we found ourselves wanting to explore some more foundational questions before we launch into a reorganization of our departments and curricula.  Here are some of the questions and ideas we are thinking about, which we offer here to our colleagues and to a broader audience in case folks want to jump in and share their thoughts about how to develop interdisciplinary initiatives at an institutional level.

  1. Some common terms emerged throughout our day, and these are terms that we think have diverse meanings to our faculty, staff, and students.  We propose that we develop a common language around these concepts, and work on defining these terms by understanding how they are used in the field of Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS), in the landscape of higher education right now, and in our institution.
    CCBY Frank Hebert

    CCBY Frank Hebert

    • interdisciplinary
    • multidisciplinary
    • transdisciplinary
    • cluster (research cluster, cluster hire, etc)
    • open laboratory (makerlab, etc)
    • frameworks for integrating knowledge (problem-solving, contextualization, conceptualization, etc)
    • impact
  2. What is the role of problem-solving in our university’s interdisciplinary model? And how are we articulating our partnerships with entrepreneurialism and with business partners? What can we do to nurture emerging business partnerships, applied entrepreneurial experiences for students, and the productive symbiotic relationship between the economy and the university without necessarily making this the only model for interdisciplinary work? As we develop entrepreneurial clusters and pathways, what interdisciplinary work does not fit this model? How do we measure “value” and “impact?” Will these metrics always be tied (only) to the economy? How is this entrepreneurial approach to “innovation” and “discovery” and “product” development similar to or different from other related initiatives in the state, such as competency-based programs that are rooted in partnerships with local business?
  3. Does it matter to our transformation that we are a public university?  If so, how? Do we serve a particular public, and if so, who do we imagine that to be? How can our transformation into an interdisciplinary institution work to strengthen our public mission, and how can we use our marketing energies to explain how our new model works for the public good? Relatedly, how can we build a case for rebuilding public education in our state, or are we choosing instead to develop private partnerships and tap donors to solidify our reality as basically a private institution?
  4. What is the connection between interdisciplinarity and pedagogy? When many universities institute clusters, they are understood as research entities that often don’t actively involve courses or students. How can we develop clusters in such a way that they draw on our strengths as a teaching institution and on the engaged pedagogies that Interdisciplinary Studies has developed? How can our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning help us develop a model that retains our teaching focus and capitalizes on the learner-driven pedagogies at the root of the field?
  5. What is the relationship between interdisciplinarity and networked learning? How do we understand technology’s relationship to a university that aspires to be globalized, collaborative, and transdisciplinary? Across many campuses, faculty are unaware of what each individual is working on. What tools do we need to build both personal learning networks as faculty, staff, and students, and to build cluster networks? And what digital literacies will we need to learn to conceive of our university’s relationship to the digital world, to use tools wisely and productively, and to harness the power of technology to advance our public mission? Will we position ourselves in relation to popular digital trends like open badges, since they are often linked to programs that disaggregate learning from traditional majors? Or will we want to distinguish ourselves from skills-based competency-based programs that use badges by rejecting badges or rethinking them from a new angle?
  6. What is the role of collaboration and sharing in an interdisciplinary university? What does this mean for our relationship to the other state colleges in our system? Should we develop a rhetoric of cooperation to accompany a collaborative working structure? How does the rhetoric of global or regional competition conflict with the ethos of interdisciplinarity, if it does?
  7. What are the expected outcomes of clusters? Is the purpose of a cluster to:
    • build a better relationship with community partners?
    • provide students with the opportunity to gain real-life experience in the world realm?
    • collaborate on research with colleagues across the campus?
    • A combination of two or three, or all of the above?
  8. Could we potentially develop larger clusters that have smaller factions within the clusters? These larger clusters could be goal oriented, i.e. service learning cluster, career development cluster, research cluster, advocacy of public policy/needs cluster. Then within these clusters develop a means of communicating with other faculty interested and/or already doing work within these goals so that collaboration amongst departments can occur. Should each cluster have its own vision, or should clusters follow one vision?
  9. How do we collaborate with community partners, i.e. non-profit organizations, businesses, entrepreneurs, etc. without putting our students in a dead end situation, where we set them up to obtain an entry-level position where there is no opportunity for growth? What do we need to inform our community partners of and ask of in return so that our students have the ability to achieve their full potential within their organization? How do we facilitate the discussion to ensure that the organization(s) are not just obtaining cheap (or no cost) labor from our students during the learning component of the cluster? With student success/value as an outcome, we need to ensure that our community partners want the same success/value as a result of our collaboration. Are there successful measures in place for this? Can we, as academics, do a better job explaining this aspect to our esteemed partners? How do we prepare our students for the new knowledge economy, where simple job training is likely to leave them unable to excel as the content in their fields rapidly changes?  How should our career services model shift to accompany this new interdisciplinary structure?

We invite you to use the comments below to chime in.  What are the challenges that professors and universities face as we increase our interdisciplinary collaborations? What are the potential benefits and rewards that you see to working in inter- and trans-disciplinary ways? What should the first steps be for universities if we want to scale up interdisciplinary work and transform our most basic structures to support interdisciplinary collaboration? We invite you to ask more questions, answer some of these, or take things in a whole new direction!



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The University of New Hampshire Open Educational Resources Ambassador Pilot

I am happy to be serving as a consultant for the University of New Hampshire on their exciting Open Educational Resources pilot.  I will use this space to curate blog posts and other materials that I create for the pilot.  Keep checking back for the latest updates!

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My Go-to Sites for Open Access & OER Info

I was going through my bookmarks related to Open Educational Resources (OER) and Open Access, deleting some and organizing others into groups, and it occurred to me that maybe other folks would like to take a look at this annotated list of reference sites that I keep at hand to help me when I have to make presentations on these topics.  This is not an exhaustive list of links, but just the ones that I am finding I return to the most often for basic background info on all things open.  Feel free to use the comments to tell me which sites are your tried-and-true sources! Continue reading


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Beyond the Buck: An Expanded Vision for Open Access (Text Version)

You can watch a video of this presentation by checking out my last blog post:  For those of you who prefer a text version, here is a slightly modified version of the presentation that I gave at the University System of New Hampshire’s 2015 Open Educational Resources Unconference on January 9th.  It’s a basic intro to some of the ways that we can broaden our thinking about open access, using OER as a springboard to rethink pedagogy and academic publishing.

Title Slide

Today I want to talk with you about how we can use our commitment to OER (Open Educational Resources) to springboard into deeper thinking about pedagogy and academic publishing. If you are new to the idea of using OER, or if you are just starting to learn about open access in general, you might want to catch up a bit by watching David Wiley’s TEDX talk, “Why Open,” or check out this quick vid about how OER work.  The work here begins with a tiny shout-out to OER, but we will try to move past that and look at how OER offers us a philosophy that can revolutionize our teaching and our scholarly processes. Continue reading

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Beyond the Buck: An Expanded Vision for Open Access

Here is the presentation that I gave at the University System of New Hampshire’s 2015 Open Educational Resources Unconference on January 9th.  It’s a basic intro to some of the ways that we can broaden our thinking about open access, using OER as a springboard to rethink pedagogy and academic publishing.

Beyond the Buck

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Student-Centered in an Open World

At my university, we use the phrase “student-centered” all the time.  Sometimes it’s in non-controversial ways (mostly we all agree that collaborative classrooms are student-centered, that internships and experiential learning opportunities are student-centered, that thinking of how policies will impact actual students is student-centered).  Other times, we don’t seem to have consensus about what it means to be student-centered (is it student-centered to excuse certain kinds of class absences for students? or is it student-centered to use attendance penalties to help students understand the repercussions of missing class?).  At the recent OpenEd14 conference, I attended a number of sessions focused on what it means to centralize students in a classroom informed by open access pedagogy.  I found these sessions useful not just in helping me think about how to increase my use of OER’s in my classes, but also in helping me interrogate the term “student-centered” more rigorously than I am accustomed to doing. Continue reading

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MOOCs & Badges: Interrogating “Open”

When I first got introduced to the world of OERs, I was skeptical.  Despite being a pretty avid user of technology in my English courses, I have also generally been one of those intellectually whiny faculty members at my university who always throws a wrench into online initiatives by worrying (way out loud) that we haven’t done enough theorizing about the pedagogical implications of moving our teaching practices into the cyberworld.  But the more I have learned about OER’s, and the more involved I have become in the world of open access activism, the more excited I feel about the possibilities.  For me, it’s really not just about saving my students money, which is, of course, centrally important to me, given that I teach at a state school where most of my students do struggle to make ends meet.  But the more I learn about open access licensing and the movement to bring research out from behind paywalls, the more I realize how much scholarship has to gain by going open: more interdisciplinary collaboration; more global access to knowledge and more cross-cultural conversation; more public benefits from university intellect; better peer-review protocols to improve research quality; the list is really impressive, and seems almost endless. Continue reading


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What Does Campaign Finance Have to Do With Open Access to Education?

Just left Lawrence Lessig‘s keynote talk “Walking While Chewing Gum” here at OpenEd14.


Lawrence Lessig, CC BY

It was inspiring, and I found myself reevaluating my goals as an academic in much the same way as I did after hearing Cable Green speak at my home university recently.  Both Lessig and Green are Creative Commons guys, leaders in the movement for Open Educational Resources (OER), and both are refreshingly idealist in their approach to thinking about higher education, the public good, and the role of knowledge in the cultural marketplace.  While Green’s talk was pointed about the hypocrisy involved in keeping research– so often funded with public dollars– behind paywalls that exclude all but the most privileged scholars in the world, Lessig asked Americans to take a step back and look at the democratic process that lays the foundation for all decision-making related to the dissemination of scholarship. Continue reading

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Rethinking “Student Engagement”

Faculty Day 2014, Plymouth State University
Robin DeRosa

If I have a guiding principle in my own pedagogy and scholarship, it’s probably related to the idea that the question on the table usually masks conflicting and more compelling questions underneath. I always value it when a student undermines one of my well-intentioned assignments because she’s figured out that the terms of that assignment were limiting or problematic. In that spirit, I want to take a stab at subverting the terms of the discussion just a bit, and undermining the familiar definition of “student engagement.” Continue reading

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Practical Examples for Plymouth State University

Here are some practical ideas to go with the more theoretical vision I laid out in my 2014 talk at Plymouth State University, “Rethinking Student Engagement.”

How can we reintegrate knowledge so that the historically constructed boundaries between fields can be made porous?

  • Develop cooperative templated majors that partner multiple departments together, which students could select easily;
  • Create an centralized support system to grow the current IS-majors;
  • Reinvigorate current inter/multidisciplinary majors;
  • Centralize interdisciplinary programs (majors, certificates, minors, IS courses, INCOs, etc) to increase visibility, resources, and impact;
  • Examine and (re)define the role of interdisciplinarity in IS1111 and build a curricular framework which values interdisciplinary connections going forward from that foundation;
  • Educate faculty about the IS degree at PSU, and work to integrate IS majors into departments where appropriate in order to increase conversations around similar themes and material.

Can we insist on team-teaching in an institution that can’t figure out how to organize that? Continue reading

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