My partner, Ted Hardin, and I will be in New Orleans on Thursday for the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) meeting on general education and assessment. (We’re just missing Mardi Gras, darn it!) We are helping to deliver the keynote speech with biologist James P. Collins on “Learning and Discovery in an Era of Change.” We’ll be focusing on environmental issues and how interdisciplinary practices affect new forms of teaching and student learning.
I experienced a moment of mild panic when I was informed that the audience could be as large as 850 people--chairs, directors and deans connected to teaching and learning in higher ed. I’ve taught Public Speaking before, so I should be fine. Right?
Collins holds the Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment position at Arizona State. He has been the director for the Biological Sciences for the National Science Foundation and directed numerous grants committed to ecological and evolutionary forces affecting amphibians. He has done important scientific data gathering that forms the basis for environmental political decision-making while I’ve been blogging away and making films over in the humanities.
My nervousness is not just connected to my speaking anxiety, but to the fact that I will be sharing the stage with an endowed professor who is involved in “real science” — in contrast to the writing/filmmaking/blogging work that my partner and I do. (Collins has been very nice in Skype sessions with us…)
My humanities anxiety lies at the heart of what the AACU has been committed to changing over the last decade—a bias against the humanities vs. the “more important” areas of study. (‘Who needs anthropology?’ says the governor of Florida.)
But this bias is exactly why two filmmakers will be on the stage with Collins, particularly since we are discussing the environment. After the scientific data is collected (and published in an academic journal), it needs to be publicized, pushed to legislators and translated rhetorically into vocabulary that non-experts can interpret. This second part of the process—distributing the research and persuading audiences—is not always given the academic respect it deserves.
If we want environmental change to happen (and teach students how to make it happen), then we need to introduce students to multiple research methods. We should talk more about systems theory thinking (which kids get from video games already) and ask them to become confident writers, thinkers and speakers. Students should specialize in a disciplinary area (interdisciplinary thinking does not preclude focused research practice), but with a goal towards change.
As several Mama, Phd writers have commented on lately, good teaching is not simply about having the latest, greatest multimedia presentation, but about being able to communicate your sincere enthusiasm to students, engage with their differences and allow them opportunities to connect more directly with you and their communities.
Trying to save the environment seems like a good place to start…