College Scaffolding: The Intellectual Web of Discovery (Otherwise called “Interdisciplinary”)

When I was an undergraduate student I noticed something about my learning that has stuck with me since, and continues to play a major role in my teaching. When I took an anthropology course and learned about evolution as a way to understand the development of human culture, I simultaneously learned Darwin’s theory of evolution. It happened in an Intro to Anthroplogy class at Kingsborough. The professor, a tall woman with short bleached blond hair, wore interesting necklaces and blouses and decorated her office with exotic vases and tapestries, stuff I imagined were gifts from the tribes and cultures she observed, while collecting data for the ethnography she would soon write. She was no BS. Her policies were clear, her objectives outlined, reading excruciating and discussions challenging– she was not doing anyone any favors. We had to want it to get it– whatever “it” was.

One day she brought in model skulls and separated the class into groups. Each group got a different skull, with different instructions. With our partners we had to figure out, through a clear set of scientific processes, which stage this skull belonged to on the evolutionary chart. Wait… Did I just learn a scientific method in a cultural anthropology course? I kind of did. Yeah. In a philosophy course, we read Utopia and I would not put that book down. I read it at work and I read it at home. The thing just came alive. My Anthro professor then decided to assign a paper in which we were to create our own society, using appropriate anthropological language and facts. My own Utopia! I got an A. But the best part, were the words she wrote  at the bottom, “I didn’t want it to end.”

When I was a student at Hunter, I took a Sociology course called “Work and Society.” The professor started to talk about hunters and gathers (something I knew a little about from that Anthro course), feudalism and indentured servitude. He assigned a reading called “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism.” I agonized over this reading, highlighted every sentence, annotated every damn paragraph and asked questions in the margins, until I had no room to write anymore. In this particular text, I started to envision the world before there were clocks. A world where work was not about selling your time,  but a necessity navigated by the sun’s cycle. I was reminded of the skulls and the Neanderthals and how they navigated this world and then how they progressively evolved and became the clock maker… You see, I wasn’t learning history from traditional history classes and I wasn’t building my literacy (reading comprehension) through English class, but rather, I was letting it all wash over me and allow it to lead my curiosity  and determine my exploratory path, until it became part of me. What I didn’t realize was that they were scaffolding–Building on my old knowledge to bridge my new knowledge. The fascinating part– my professors had nothing to do with each other. There were no structured “learning communities” where instructors were collaborating on assignments across disciplines. The academic web just intercepted and merged as my new knowledge continued to build on itself.

This was my first glimpse at unguided student centered learning. The web was connecting, weaved from various types of threads and I saw the points of  interception clearer than ever, through my own revelations, guided by clever teaching.