Interdisciplinarity and Access, or Inviting Everyone to the Party

The author with Futures Initiative Teaching Fellows and administration at the Year-End Celebration photo booth


As a Fellow for the Futures Initiative, it’s hard not to be forward-looking — the prospective horizons of higher education are not only suggested but contained in the name. And there is a lot to look forward to. Despite sometimes staggering inequities for students and prospective faculty alike, I can’t help but sense that we are on the cusp of amending some injustices. Though we, as a culture and society, still take agonizing steps backward, I believe these are indicative of gaining real ground, and it is inspiring and rewarding to feel like I am part of a force for good in some small part of my community with the Futures Initiative.


As much as I am future-minded, I am also a student of medieval and renaissance literature, always comparing the present to the 14th and 15th centuries. I like to take a long view in my analysis, and make unusual connections — like where paleographic abbreviations and texting intersect, or how Carolingian minuscule evolved to Times New Roman font. Add to that that one of my undergraduate majors was in the fine arts (I like color darkroom photography, daguerreotypes, etching) and that I also picked up an MSc in the computer sciences (finally giving in to my early hobby of handcoding HTML and JavaScript in 1990s text boxes), and I am either an unusual mix or quite interdisciplinary.


A view from our HASTAC2015 session


Disciplinary intersections pave the way for innovation

Interdisciplinarity is sometimes thought of as a bane — how can the interdisciplinary contribute real knowledge without the depth of specialization? But I contend that it is at disciplinary intersections that visionary departures and innovation can occur. It is because in this frame of mind you begin to connect seemingly disparate elements into a more cohesive and rich whole. That is why successful software projects are done in teams with not just programmers, but designers, writers, and usability experts who use neurocognitive and psychological approaches. It is so unlikely that computers would have been user-friendly without humanists and other non-programmers (though please do explore the command line!) — so why not invite everyone to the party?


When we invite others to the party — to work on an interdisciplinary project — we are taking down barriers to access that knowledge. There are more entry points to enter the discourse, and a more open attitude to accept the views of others. This allows people to be empowered by their own areas of expertise — there is no longer a “correct” view or favored discipline. In the classroom, this looks like student-centered and peer-driven learning. In broader society, this is translated to collaboration and building together.


Interactive HASTAC2015 Tweet Wall, see more of my HASTAC2015 photos here


Changing the way we teach and learn

As part of my fellowship role with the Futures Initiative, I work with the HASTAC team on the website — the central hub of the network’s activities. Being a part of the HASTAC community, and participating at the HASTAC 2015 Conference (read about what I presented here) have been among the most fruitful and rewarding experiences of my graduate career. Working with people equally motivated to teaching and learning (and doing this with public-facing digital tools), being part of an interactive long-table discussion conference session rather than a traditional panel, and creating a group to bring together digital humanists in the classical, medieval and early modern periods through online connections has shown me the real depth of what can be accomplished through innovative and accessible methods. Through HASTAC I have been able to find resources for merging my interests and skills, others with similar or altogether very different specialties, and a general sense of acceptance and collaboration — everyone being invited to the party.


Mapping the futures of higher education

I played a behind-the-scenes role to the Spring 2015 course “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education,” co-taught by Futures Initiative Director Cathy Davidson and President Emeritus William Kelly.  Twelve graduate students from both science and humanities departments were enrolled in the course, which considered how to enact change in the higher education landscape. These graduate students in turn taught 365 undergraduate students across 8 campuses in the CUNY system, each having an independent course website tied to our site. This network of course websites provided a means for students from different campuses and in different locations to connect with each other online in a meaningful way.



My fellow Fellow, Danica Savonick, works on her final poster for the Mapping the Futures course


Interested in how site-based student interactions were carried out, I have been analyzing our web-based network. I presented my first phase of this research at the Digital Humanities Conference in Sydney this past summer, showing the work I conducted to analyze and visualize the website. (This was done in the programming language R and the D3 JavaScript library by pulling data via SQL queries off the same server that hosts the text you are reading right now.) What became significant to me, as I was completing this work, was that students were engaging with their own course websites, but also wandering into the websites of other courses. This is what can happen when you lower barriers to entry and make information accessible, enjoyable to interact with, and easy to contribute to. This is how we can use technology as part of public engagement and for continuous learning (the Greek term eudaimonia for “happiness” or “human flourishing” comes to mind).

[embedit snippet=”FIBasicNetwork”]

Above is a small interactive visualization of our site network as of Spring 2015. To see a visualization of our user network from that time, click here.


The University and the City of New York

Having attending the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, I have been intimately familiar with CUNY for some time now. Like any other institution, it is not perfect, but it is an educational community committed to serving the public of New York City (which, after all, is a city that in its best iterations has invited everyone to the party). At CUNY, students can graduate over 80% of the time with no debt, and work on projects with classmates who hail from every corner of the globe (pdf). The perspective and experience that can be gained through learning at CUNY does not come just from academic courses but in the connected learning that can be fostered in all the nooks and crannies of a college education.


For me, the Futures Initiative’s commitment to equity and innovation is not reflective of a contradictory dual-pronged approach, but in how equity serves innovation and how innovation propagates equity. After a long summer abroad studying 15th-century manuscripts in austere libraries — and very aware of the particular privilege it was for me to be admitted — I returned to New York for the Mentoring Workshop that we hosted for undergraduates who had participated in the Mapping course. The two-day workshop was truly inspiring and enriching, making me feel very much a part of something with a real potential to spread positive change. And in some ways, what I was seeing in New York was no different from what occurred at the desks of scholars doing original research in London or in Rome — the CUNY undergraduate students grappled with poetic texts and historical moments of activism with every bit of grace and intelligence with which a medievalist would approach bound parchment in those quiet libraries. Except maybe, at CUNY, it was a little more of an industrious party.