Category Archives: Collaboration & Learning

Designing for Interdisciplinarity

“Talking to colleagues across disciplines is not for the faint of heart.” [1]

Last weekend I picked up a copy of Interdisciplinary Conversations, published last month and authored by Myra Strober, a labor economist and Emerita Professor at the School of Education. I was curious what she had to say about collaboration in the particular context of academe and interdisciplinarity.

In short, Strober’s argument goes as follows:

Firstly, we are faced with an increasing complexity of knowledge. While its volume and intricacy requires high disciplinary specialization, problems often cannot be solved by a single discipline, but requires insights from multiple disciplines. Secondly, there is evidence that interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge, perspectives and methods fosters creativity.

Yet interdisciplinary conversations fail to a large extent. Strober thoroughly reviews and analyzes extensive interviews with participants of interdisciplinary faculty seminars at three different research universities. Four out of the six seminars she studied “blew up”.

By bringing in theorists such as Geertz and his notion of disciplinary cultures [2] Dewey’s and Margolis’ concept of habits of mind [3] and others, she outlines ways to understand the background of the failures in interdisciplinary conversations: “By analyzing the altercation in the science studies seminar between an economist and a young scholar from religious studies, as well as the discomfort that a mathematician, studio artist, and dramatist experienced in seminars run by humanists, we begin to understand the power of disciplinary habits of mind and disciplinary cultures in impeding conversation across disciplines.” (Strober 2010, pp.48-49).

Strober not only asks us to acknowledge the benefit of successful conversations and collaborations, but also starts to unravel some of the possibly less evident reasons for the failures. If we are able to understand why interdisciplinary conversations fail, we might be able to better teach our students how to become scholars in an increasingly interdisciplinary academic environment. Of course, Strober acknowledges, interdisciplinarity is not the silver bullet that will solve all the world’s problems. But “if we want interdisciplinarity”, Strober says, “we need to design for it.”

More than 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in an interview with former President Don Kennedy about a class he was teaching (at the time) in the Human Biology program. “Stanford students are incredibly bright”, he told us, “but they don’t know how to collaborate.” Our attempt then was to mesh technology with pedagogy and to design exercises that would facilitate collaborations between students around “policy challenge” questions.

Only a few weeks ago, during the Nov 4th Meeting of the Faculty Senate President John Hennessy spoke to the second part of his address on the Ten Challenges in Higher Education. Here is what he had to say about challenge number 7, ‘Information Technology in Teaching’: “Here, I think, quite frankly, we have a failure of the imagination, coupled with a rapidly growing generation gap. The failure of the imagination is that we have failed to think creatively about new ways to use technology in how we educate students. We use e-mail, FAQ’s, blogs, various things like that. And some of us make the mistake of using PowerPoint, which I don’t think necessarily contributes to the educational process, except on occasion. But we really have not thought outside the box about how to do this.”

Today students come in with a technology exposure significantly different from 10 years ago. Today’s incoming students will also be faced with significantly more complex problems once they enter the job market. So what are, then, the implications for education? Obviously, being versatile in navigating social networking environments does not necessarily go along with collaboration. But can we leverage such technologies in a creative way to pick up on Hennessy’s remarks and apply some of Strober’s lessons learned? It seems some have already begun.

[1] Strober, Myra H. 2010. Interdisciplinary Conversations – Challenging Habits of Thought. Stanford University Press 2010, p. 4

[2] Geertz, Clifford. 1983. “The way we think now: Toward an ethnography of modern thought.” In: Local Knowledge: Further essays in interpretive anthropology. New York Basic Books.

[3] Margolis, Howard. 1993. Paradigms and Barriers: How Habits of Mind Govern Scientific Beliefs. University of Chicago Press.

Making the iPhone talk to Coursework

I recently was asked about ‘scanning’ capabilities of the iPhone, which brought me to this – currently $0.99 – application, called JotNot Pro. I was very impressed with this one. It launches the camera to take pictures of documents, steps the user through some adjustments, then processes the picture and removes what it sees as clutter or gray areas, so the end result is pretty clean. It generates PDFs and can combine several pages into one document, if so desired. The PDF document can be forwarded per email, per fax (at a cost), or uploaded to Google Docs, Evernote, Dropbox or

The interesting part though, is that JotNot also has WebDAV connectivity, which brought me to the idea to directly upload into the Materials section of Coursework. (Disclaimer: Please do not violate any copyright and fair use regulations when trying this!)

Use the “i” button to open the Settings panel of JotNot:

Scroll down to Sharing and open Webdav/iDisk:

Enter Stanford Username and password, turn iDisk off and enter the Webdav URL for your course:

Go to the document to upload and hit the forward button:

Choose WebDAV/iDisk, which will open your Materials folders on coursework, then send:


Here is the view in Coursework:

JotNot lets you also access your camera roll directly, so any photos stored there can similarly be uploaded.

There are some little inconsistencies in the folder and file naming between the coursework website and how they show up in iPhone. Secondly, it is only possible to set up one WebDAV connection up at one time, which is annoying if you have several courses. Other than that it worked like a charm. I’d love to know if anyone else has tried something similar.

The Collaborative Lab

I just finished teaching a course that introduces Anthropologists to Geographical Information Systems. Labs form a part of many science courses, and this is not different in my class. What may be different is that I make the labs part of the class instead of part of the homework. And probably quite different is that the labs are being worked on collaboratively.

What made this project possible is a newly designed Academic Computing classroom in Meyer 220, called Flex Class. The goal of the Flex Class is to support collaborative pedagogies that integrate the use of large- and small-group shared displays and collaborative software in an environment that maximizes ease of use and minimizes on-demand support (McCullough 2009).

This is an example of what we often see in a traditional lab setting.

January 29, 2010 by vancouverfilmschool (CC)

This is how it looks like in my class.

So what makes the difference? Here are a few observations. First of all, I am tapping into the pool of knowledge of the class as a whole. “If we are stuck as a group we can have other groups look at our screen to help us out”, one student commented. Secondly, students are actively engaged. Instead of presenting me with basic how-to questions students often had discussed various solutions in the group before bringing me in to comment and questions tended to go deeper into the background of the material. Thirdly, students enjoy what they do. Asked how much they enjoyed learning in this classroom compared to a regular classroom on campus, 85.7% of the students stated “Very much” and the remaining stated “Quite a bit”. And lastly, it was more evident than in prior iterations of this class, how lab content informed the students’ final projects and improved their quality.

Collaboration also might help against cheating. From Jeffrey R. Young in CHE: “Mr. Pritchard, the MIT professor, did find a way to greatly reduce cheating on homework in his classes. He switched to a “studio” model of teaching, in which students sit in small groups working through tutorials on computers while professors and teaching assistants roam the room answering questions, rather than a traditional lecture.”

This project depended, of course, highly on collaboration. I am indebted to my colleagues Beth McCullough, Alex Schorsch, Surajit Bose, Dustin King, Kim Hayworth, Helen Chen, and the students of my class for their enthusiasm and critique.