Tuesday, January 25, 2011

White Whales and Octopus Experts


Someday I'd really love to teach a seminar class in literature that is cross-listed with a science course. I took a seminar like this in community college, a co-taught class on farm literature and the ecology of food production: "Seed, Soil, and the Soul", it was called. The professors were good, and the books were okay -- but even with some average materials and some less than interested classmates, the class turned out to be amazingly challenging and even life-changing for a few of us (it was the very next year that I became a vegetarian). The novels kept us humanities types interested in the difficult science work, and the science (both natural and political) behind what happened in the novels helped the bio students get some context for their work. This is how good interdisciplinary classes should work at the lower levels of undergraduate study.

Early interdisciplinary study is important as students explore possible majors, and is helpful for students who do not look forward to taking general education requirements in disciplines where it might be difficult for them to do good work. Co-taught, crosslisted, six hour courses seem to me like a great approach to this. The only other incarnation of undergraduate interdisciplinary work I have experienced was a three hour course listed as IDS (Interdisciplinary Studies), on the topic of wellness. We read awful, mass market paperback books and argued about health insurance. Wellness is important, I guess, since students are often taking care of themselves for the first time, and learning how their decisions affect their health and the environment. But how was that an interdisciplinary study? And how is interdisciplinary studies a field of study that has its own three-letter acronym in the course catalog, along with ENG, PHL, MAT and the others? There has to be some ENG, PHL, MAT, PSY or whatever making up that IDS. Otherwise it's just some kind of self-help or potpourri course you'd take at the YMCA.

Unfortunately for the community college kids of tomorrow, the college where I took that awesome English-Biology mash-up course had to tighten its Honors Program budget, and stopped doing the seminar classes. Were those cross-listed courses a weird thing?

I hope the seminars come back to College of DuPage, and I hope other schools are offering similar opportunities. I mean, the class had enough of an impact that I still think about it. The IDS Wellness class on the other hand, was mostly forgettable, except the really annoying parts that just made me angry (like having to write in APA style even though I was a declared English major -- what a waste of paper).

So I had one of those rare shower epiphanies about what I would want to teach. An "Introduction to Literature" course cross-listed with marine biology or marine ecology. I think marine biology and other oceanic sciences are going to be pretty important as the globe continues to warm. What better way to get bookworms interested in what's going on with the planet and its watery denizens? And what better way for budding biologists to explore the history of man's fascination with the sea? This would probably be a sophomore level class -- so they already know how to write, but aren't too busy with major requirements to really get into a class. The reading selections would be pretty obvious. Just in case the little scientists don't take any more literature, at least they'll end up with a few books to put on their display shelves. And each text serves a purpose (a porpoise - ha!).

Rime of the Ancient Mariner
-- to expose students to British literature (you would be surprised how many start college having read only American authors), to get them used to reading poetry, to get English students to start thinking about recurring maritime themes in literature

Selections from Moby-Dick -- No one's going to read the whole thing while they're busy memorizing stuff out of the biology textbook! But everyone can stand some exposure to great books. We won't have them read the chapter entitled "The Crotch." And we can have serious discussions about whaling.

The Old Man and the Sea -- It's short, and it will provide some 20th century relevance that doesn't come in a paperback with soft-focus, sad looking little girls on it. Maybe we'll talk about overfishing.

Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us -- This'll be the glue that holds it all together! A literary sort of book by a real live marine biologist.

And last but not least, Some Marine Biology Textbook.

Of course in order to teach this class I'll have to befriend a marine biologist -- an octopus expert, a sea cucumber connoisseur. Preferably one who also likes white whales. There's a catchy course title in there somewhere.

It seemed like a good idea in the shower anyway.

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