Roughly three decades ago, in my final year on the faculty at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I participated in an exercise to rethink the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. I took that as an opportunity to, you know, actually rethink how education was done. So I designed a modular approach to structuring an introductory interdisciplinary course in the humanities and social sciences.
At that time online learning didn't exist. But the modular approach I developed back then could certainly be applied to connected learning and co-learning could certainly be incorporated into course design as well. It is in that spirit that I direct you to that document, Policy, Strategy, Tactics: Intellectual Integration in the Human Sciences, An Approach for a New Era. I've appended the 21st century introduction I wrote for that 20th century document.
* * * * *
Remarks from the 21st Century
My first and only faculty appointed was in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, a very good engineering school, the oldest in the country. During the summer of 1985 the school of Humanities and Social Sciences embarked on one of those periodic soul-searching exercises academic units undertake in order to revitalize their mission and–hope! hope!–increase the budget. Accordingly, the school offered a number of faculty small stipends to develop innovative brand-spanking new courses that they would present at a faculty retreat.
I took one of those stipends despite the fact that I would not be returning in the Fall and developed, not a course, but an approach to curriculum design which is camouflaged as a strategy for designing a large lecture-based introductory course. I understand that such courses have been getting a bad rap, and I even understand why, I think. Nonetheless if I had to do it again in this new millennium I would. But that’s neither here nor there.
What’s important is the method I used. It’s a method that could be used in designing any course in the human sciences whatsoever, though its interdisciplinary nature is particularly suited to the large introductory course as that’s the kind of course the could most readily command the participation of faculty from a half-dozen or more disciplines. But the method could also be used in planning a suite of modules to be offered online and which individual students could organize into individualized programs that nonetheless met a coherent set of overall curricular goals.
The scheme is designed to organize materials according to three high-level criteria:
- interpretive (hermeneutic), social and behavioral scientific, and structural (in the style of linguistics) approaches are all represented,
- historical (diachronic) and structural/functional (synchronic) approaches are represented,
- material from other, preferably non-Western, cultures is presented.
Thus each module would employ either an interpretive, a social scientific, or a structural methodology and would be either historical or structural/functional in character. A student’s suite of modules would have to represent each of the three methodological styles, include both diachronic and functional topics and include materials from a range of different cultures.
This, I know, is all rather abstract. But I flesh it out in the full report by designing two versions of a course, Signs and Symbols, having 12 modules. I call one-version of the course “top-down” because it is organized in a fairly conventional way as a selection of different topics under the general rubric of sign systems and communications. That is, it proceeds from some conception of how knowledge is structured and generates topics from that, top-down. Obviously there are a zillion ways of designing such a course and no double half of them have already been offered at one time or another. What’s important is the overall distribution of topics, not the specific topics themselves.
The other version of the course is rather different. I selected a specific text, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and generated the 12 modules from that text. The modules are somewhat different from those in the top-down version of the course but they satisfy the same distribution requirements, covering the three methodologies (interpretive, social scientific, structural), both diachronic and functional topics, and a variety of cultures. Were I to redesign that course today I’d be inclined to swap Disney’s Fantasia for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The collection of different topics would change, of course, but the same design criteria would be met.
But one needn’t use a text. Why not use the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair as a case study? Little Egypt performed on the midway; the Japanese sent a delegation, their first to America; the Ferris wheel was invented and available for rides; electric power was put to large-scale use for the first time; Cracker Jacks, Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, and Pabst Beer were introduced to the world; and all in white temporary structures designed in Beaux Arts style.
The possibilities are endless. What stays the same through all of them is the overall set of cognitive goals: methodological diversity, historical and structural/functional thinking, and cultural diversity.
Of those I would particularly emphasize methodological diversity. People need to think about problems in a variety of distinctly different ways. The inability to do so is perhaps the single greatest weakness in specifically humanities education and practice. You really can’t understand human life only through interpretive methodologies. You need to understand how social and behavioral scientists construct models and test them against evidence. And you need to understand the structural and computational models used by linguistics and cognitive science, for those models are our best chance of gaining a deeper understanding of the human mind.
I’m particularly struck how, despite the apparent flourishing of digital humanities, these digital humanists confine computational thinking to their software and seem uninterested in or incapable of thinking about computational models of the mind. But that’s where the deep stuff is. Yes, we need tools that allow us to grapple with big piles of data, but there’s not much point to that if we don’t think more deeply and creatively about how the mind works, both individually and collectively.
At the moment the digital humanities seems headed along a track parallel to that taken by the neurosciences in the last two decades. Those folks have devoted enormous time and effort to developing sophisticated tools for imaging the brain and for analyzing tons of data, but they’re still thinking about mental operations in terms much like those from 50 years ago. For all practical purposes they’re thinking about homunculi passing messages back and forth.
But I digress.
The only way to get past that conceptual logjam is to learn distinctly different methods of thinking and constructing models. That’s what this paper is about, a scheme for organizing those methods into a coherent overall pattern of instruction and learning.