Going Nodal

March 1, 2010

A year ago in October, on a Saturday morning when the sun would not show its face, a group of about 30 faculty members sat around tables in a classroom that looks out on a restored prairie. The view from this window was already interdisciplinary; this piece of land not only serves as a site for scientific research, but is also presided over by the austere profile of a limestone cairn designed by British artist Andy Goldsworthy.

Helped by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, we came together to talk about nodes. It’s not often that language in a grant proposal captures the imagination of a campus, but this has happened with the idea of nodes. Several of our faculty members in the sciences — led by a chemist, Mark Levandoski — came up with the idea. A node is a term used in more than one field: words like boundary, equilibrium, scale, transfer, model, energy, preservation. To learn what it means in other contexts might enhance the ability to understand and explain the concept in one’s own discipline. Hence the quest to identify such concepts — or nodes — in our undergraduate curriculum, and to discover how we can teach them more effectively.

The aim is not to develop a list of must-have concepts in the sciences. Some years ago our curriculum shifted to a focus on investigative skills and processes that largely replaced coverage of specified content. Instead of making a list, we want to discover where these intersections are occurring, and capitalize on them to help students learn. In the first phase of the grant, we took advantage of time freed to enroll in each other’s classes, the better to learn what students are hearing from our colleagues. Ultimately, the plan is to draw attention to the nodes and be clear with students about complementary perspectives across disciplines. As a result of examining nodes, interdisciplinarity — the relationships between disciplines and how each constructs knowledge — would become part of what we teach, even at the introductory level.

At the Saturday retreat on the prairie, some of the initial goals were already shifting. For one thing, there was no way we could limit this idea to the sciences. At least one economist, a philosopher, and a librarian had been invited, and some of the liveliest discussion arose at their tables. At a college where every faculty member teaches the required first-year tutorial, in a campus climate that invites exploration of new technologies and proposals for team-taught seminars, we share the territory.

A biologist declared, startling the economist and physicists, “To us, equilibrium is death!” Another biologist became restless as the librarian at her table extolled the node of preservation. She thought of dusty books, and wondered what she, a molecular geneticist, could do with this node. Suddenly it came to her. Fundamental to her work is the paradox that the material of biological inheritance must resist change in order to preserve hereditary information, while also being open to change in response to new environmental and evolutionary challenges. “I can’t help but think,” she reported after the session, “that a longer, deeper discussion with a group of non-biologists about preservation would freshen the way that I think about this idea and the way that I teach it. It turns out that this concept comes up in every biology course I teach.”

The models node has already provided a basis for early efforts at coordination between our intermediate-level biology and chemistry courses. After taking a summer workshop supported by the HHMI grant, chemistry professor Steven Sieck and biology professor Shannon Hinsa-Leasure developed a plan to present students with the models of penicillin used in their two fields. On the first day of class, Steve led his students through an outline of this molecule’s synthesis, which includes about 20 different chemical reactions. Toward the end, Steve again presented the same synthesis, highlighting the fact that most of these reactions had been covered in the course. Meanwhile, students co-enrolled in Shannon’s Biology 251 studied the mechanism of action for this same molecule — how the drug inhibits the ability of bacteria to synthesize cell walls. And in both classes, students were encouraged to go and see penicillin represented in works of art featured in "Molecules That Matter" on exhibit at the college’s Faulconer Gallery.

As a dean trained in literature and writing, I recognize that nodes have been around for a long time, and that another word for them is metaphors. An influential book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980), asserts that all conceptual thinking relies on metaphor.

In the spring, invited to lunch with a visiting group of statisticians, I performed a small test. I asked them what they thought about the word ambiguity. They recoiled. Ambiguity is bad. It confounds data and must be expunged from survey questions. What about in my field? I let them in on the fact that literary critics find ambiguity fascinating. How else could we examine the same novel or poem for centuries, without agreeing on — or even wanting — a final, definitive account of its meaning? They began talking among themselves again, about ambiguity. Maybe it was a richer concept in their field, too, than they had realized. I sat back, relieved. I had wondered what I could talk about for a whole lunch meeting, alone in a room of statisticians, a dean from the English department who had never taken a statistics class. But there would be more than enough to fill the hour. We had just begun to explore a node.


Paula V. Smith is dean of the college and vice president for academic affairs at Grinnell College.

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