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Conversation #39: Robin Runia on Interdisciplinary Team Teaching

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Robin Runia

A conversation with Dr. Robin Runia of Xavier University of Louisiana on teaching, learning, and interdisciplinary team teaching.

My experience of the biology and literature course, especially in the first half of the semester, was very multidisciplinary. First we'll have some biology content, and then we'll have some literature content, and then we'll somehow magically blend them together. I was aware of this challenge and concerned about it from the beginning.

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Berntsen: Hi! This is Jason Berntsen from the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana. It is my pleasure to be here today with Dr. Robin Runia, assistant professor in english at Xavier University and I’m here to talk today about interdisciplinary teaching. Dr. Runia let me start off by asking the basic question, what interdisciplinary classes have you taught?

Runia: I’ve actually had the pleasure of teaching two interdisciplinary classes. The first was biology and literature with  Dr. Martinat and biology. We kept the course title open so we can potentially have different themes. For this first iteration we had the theme of disease. We thought it would be particularly interesting to our students since we have so many pre-med and pre-pharmacy students. So that was really fun. The second class I taught was writing, women, and race with Dr. Bailey from history. In that class we were particularly examining the lack of biographies available of women of color and also empowering our students to engage in the writing of said biographies. And so it was really interesting to look at fiction and nonfiction of women's lives and also talk about the writing and research techniques a biographer may use. So two totally different classes but both really exciting and I hope valuable to students.

Berntsen: Both sound like really great classes. And you’re team teaching them right? So are you both going to every class? How does that work out?

Runia: Yeah! Well for both classes my co-teachers and I were at every class. For biology and literature class, this was the first example of not only our class but my experience of team teaching. So at first, we were just kind of playing it by ear. We knew we wanted to go to every class because we felt like we were learners alongside the students because our disciplines were so different, and we were interested in what the other individual was bringing to the conversation. Also the commitment to developing a relationship with the students together as a team. So for that class we both went, and at the beginning of the course, we imagined that it would be fairly simple to switch off. So there would be some biology content and then some literature content. And then at the end of the class we would bring them all together. That was more or less successful. With the history and literature class, we have a smaller group and the similarity between the disciplines and I think the similarities between my teaching styles and Dr. Manly’s the teaching was sort of like a discussion based seminar. We sat around and had discussions, leaders, and questions. And so for that one, it sort of formed more organically. I will say that i taught this course and the history course after my experience with biology. So it was already sort of primed that we would need to get to that disciplinary divide and how smooth the course ran.

Berntsen: How did the students react to having two teachers in the room, which would be unusual for a lot of them?

Runia: A couple things. I think at first the student reaction was surprised, and confused. Maybe a little excitement. But also how is this going to work? Who do I go to for questions? Is there a hierarchy? So i think one of the joys and challenges of working in a team is that you have to have good working relationship and that proved true for both of my teaching partners. We negotiated a lot and talked about everything before any decisions were made. And so we were as a team resources as opposed to having one individual decide a certain grade or decision maker.

Berntsen: I see. Now I’m wondering, students could take the biology and literature course as either a biology or literature course. So then did you find that students taking it as a biology course go to Dr. Martinat more or people who took it as a literature course go to you more? How the interdisciplines blended? You hear a lot about interdisciplinary versus multidisciplinary teaching. And sometimes I think I know what that means but I’m not always 100% sure. Can you speak on that a little bit.

Runia: so my experience with the biology and literature course for the first part was very multidisciplinary which you might have been able to pick up, first we’ll have some biology content. Then we’ll have some literature content. And then we’ll somehow blend them together. I was aware and somewhat concerned about this challenge from the beginning. So I instituted regular and anonymous reflections asking the the students every two weeks, how did they feel about the blending of the course content. Do you feel they go together? Why or why not? Are there certain activities that you felt enabled you to better see the connection between these. As a result of that, I was able to present feedback from these assessments to the association for interdisciplinary studies. That’s where I not only became aware of not only the resources available to find these terms but also, tips and strategies from others engaged in this challenging work and what I learned from the evaluations was that the students felt that the writing assignments were really thoughs of which they felt they were able to connect the factual objective and language they use. It’s so amazing, the language they use and also how it changed over the weeks. So that was a challenge from the beginning. And after the AIS conference and discussions and meetings with my co teachers, it was clear to us that we were going to have to design assignments that would promote linkage. And also because so many of our students were biology and science students with a couple of literature students, it was important to develop projects that benefited both of them because this was also a operant division class. So we developed a poster presentation based assignment that required them to think about all of the disciplines, not just literature or biology or all of the cultural problems that all of our literature readings and all of our scientific information were exposing and also identifying all of the entities involved and then identifying or examining the relationship between the entities and based on research coming up with solutions to the problem in this case disease. So it was definitely a learning curve for us, but I think ultimately continuous feedback from students helped develop something really useful to the students and understanding their role as future health professionals navigate the larger cultural issues. So that really laid the groundwork for my work with Dr. manly and I was further convinced that we have some sort of research based project that would demand they use the knowledge from each discipline and use them. And so the students were engaged in a variety of assignments that lead up to their own mini biographies. So choosing a woman of color in this case going on the course title and identifying the reasons why this life needed to be written. Identifying the events that would correspond to that historically, and incorporate their own historical research in order to support that and also being able to identify their writing choices as biographers and how they would situate this life within current scholarship. So I was definitely second iteration even though it was a totally different class. It was a lot smoother.

Berntsen: Was it more challenging to work with someone from a STEM discipline? Was it harder of perhaps more rewarding in a way. I don't want to make a value judgment but can speak on the differences there?

Runia: For me personally, the number one factor in determining whether you  are going to engage in an interdisciplinary team situation is personality. So it was not hard to work with one or the other. It was interesting how both cases, I was surprised about what issues would be problematic for the person or for me but it turned out we all had very open and functional working relationships. So definitely not with other teachers. The challenge was with the students expectations. Our STEM students are incredibly used to a lecture mode and our objective testing mode. So when they were required to do the writing which they acknowledged was important for them to successfully understand the connection between these, there was some hesitance. So i will say from both us there was some cheerleading like look at this great work you have produced. Yes this was a different style of teaching and assessment that the students weren’t use to. But it wasn’t about the instructors and working relationships, it was was really about the student expectations. And if we can teach this class again, we want to make that clear from the beginning that there will be this kind of unusual work but it will be great and productive.

Berntsen:  Right! And you mentioned a culminating project. So the way I’m thinking about it is, you have a question or problem that needs to be solved, you have to be literate in both fields in order to answer that question. So was it harder or easier to do that with a history colleague than a biology colleague? I’m wondering how did that pan out? Or what was the actual cumulative assignment?

Runia: So basically we had a  number of group work discussions and activities based on our reading of fiction, nonfiction, and lectures on biological foundations of disease. Students brainstormed variety of categories that could be the cause of these problems. So we started off with writings about plague both fictional and nonfictional. And then we learned about the plague as a historical entities and the biological organisms responsible for it. And when we were teaching this course ebola, one of the most exciting assignments we did were based on all these interviews that were coming out of the western african countries by health workers and victim units of the disease. And so we had the students do first person narratives that incorporated some of our readings and their research to justify. So they would write this first person narrative as a person involved in the crisis.  And then write a separate analysis of the decision they made in writing and also the research they used to justify their approach. So that was really great. We also did AIDS. So at the end of the semester we had a number of conversations trying to circle around what is the problem of disease or why is disease still a problem for us in the 21st century for us with all of our amazing science that can solve everything. And the students through discussion came up with environmental factors that may or may not be the issue. So are there environmental factors that cannot be negotiated? Or are there governmental agencies that impact whether or not these environmental factors continue to impact the disease's spread? There’s just scientific knowledge in the state of what we know and what we don't know. And then there’s also human behavior. And this I think is the most relevant through all of our literature readings we came to see that people tend to react to massive outbreaks of disease in particular ways and that all of these other factors feed into or could not depending on if there was someone in charge. So basically they recognize that there are these factors, they had to identify the relationship between them and they had to identify recommendations for a particular disease epidemic and how they would deal with it. So it was fun but it’s incredibly difficult. I don’t know if I answered your question.

Berntsen: I think you did!  I’m just trying to get a sense of how you can find that organic unity between a english and a science, biology in particular. History and english is a little easier to understand to me. But it sounds like a great class and a lot of fun.

Runia: For both of my classes, it really seemed to hinge on human behaviour. What does literature tell us about how people react and how does science of disease come out people studying how people react. So human behaviour for us.

Berntsen: Wow! Do you think the students begin to understand  science as not just something being out there but as a self product of human culture?

Runia: Definitely and we had a couple of public health majors that were the most interested in their conclusions about the importance of awareness of governmental responsibility and I think it was really exciting and I hope it helped them in their future career paths.

Berntsen: Wow! It sounds like a wonderful course. Thanks for talking to us tonight Dr. Runia.

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