Fostering Interdisciplinary Learning: University Seminars

Phil Gay


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Interview Participants
The biggest challenge that I’ve had has been trying to deal with the three hour block that I’m forced into teaching. And so I’ve devised various different ways to basically come up with a solution that allows for a more, to create a more interactive environment for students. For this course, the Urban Experiences of Mexico City, the first two hour part incorporates a 30 minute visual presentation
of this magnificent document that was published by the Mexican government, the Minister of Culture in Mexico. What it is, it’s basically a visual encyclopedia of Mexico City. It runs through every letter of the alphabet and every letter of the alphabet will have according to of course the visuals and the letter, a number of images or videos or poems or various different things.
It’s done through an interactive DVD. It was a wonderful way also to start class because they had no access to this material and so they knew that if they would show up late they would miss that letter. Then, that would be immediately followed by an hour and a half lecture on the specific topic.
So, for instance, if I were speaking about the urban urbanization of Mexico City, it would be a lecture in which it would focus both on an urban analysis, a visual urban analysis of how the city developed over time and I would break it into historical segments. So, pre-Hispanic, colonial, modern, that’s sort of how I would move through it. And at the point, at the end of the first two hour presentation,
we would take a break, a 15 minute break, come back and discuss both the visuals, but especially the readings as they were tailored specifically to that topic. And it was interesting because of course the class was scheduled for three hours but it would always run three and a half hours long just simply because, there were so many bells and whistles and things that we had to do
and the students were always so happy. I’m often challenged in my interpretation of a certain image. That gives the chance for the students to really feel like they can contribute right from the beginning. They don’t necessarily feel that. You know, ‘I know nothing about Mexico City, I don’t really understand architecture’ which is typically a comment that I might get,
and it’s interesting how often I will sit with students when they come to me in office hours and say, “You’ve given us these assignments which have this very specific language about architecture and space and I don’t really understand space” or “I don’t really know how to deal with architecture because I’ve never studied it.”
And so, it’s interesting at that point that I’m able to then say, “Well actually you live within it. You actually have been talking about architecture all the time. You may not see it as such, but by virtue of the way in which you are articulating certain components.” It gives them a chance to feel like they can actually engage with the topic in a more authoritative manner.
Something that has become very important to me has been to create both the classroom setting in which the student feels comfortable enough to raise their hand or actually even just to say something in the middle of the lecture so that I don't like for them to feel like they some how are listening to a talking head.
I like for them to feel like they can disagree and they can have their own personal opinion. I was really stunned at the amount of topics that came up that were, some students had no problems just flat out saying that they had been raised in an environment that was racist and what were the components about it that made it so.
And the magnificent part about Tufts is that we do have a very diversified classroom setting. Therefore, I had people from Latin America, as well as from Europe, as well as from of course the United States and Asia. It was fascinating just how students, how comfortable they felt with being able to say, to voice their opinions about what racism meant to them.
In devising different ways to be able to get students to engage with the course, as I showed them these letters of the alphabet and as they saw these visuals from the alphabet, I thought it would be really quite fascinating to have the students process the material both in the lectures to see how much they got from the lectures and to see how they processed it
by actually giving them a weekly urban journal assignment in which the letters of the alphabet that I presented to them were then assigned as a visual or writing exercise if there was a writing exercise that couldn’t exceed more than 50 words, or 100 words. It really gave the students an opportunity to explore text and image, to explore ways by which
they could react directly to the visuals that were being presented to them or to the actual ideas that were being discussed in the lectures or to write a haiku about how they had had this funny experience that day that we decided to talk about gardens and the pleasures of strolling in the city trying to understand whether this was because this person had been either,
you know, hurt by somebody else in the city or whatever that might be, the narratives. I never gave the students any idea that in the end they would have write about or put any order into this journal. Initially, it was just basically for them, this exercise, and I kept saying to them at one point they should definitely be considering how
all of these entries would be put together, whether it would be in a box, whether it was part of a notebook, whether it would be if they were doing, I had one student do a blog. How it was they would present this. And ask them now to look, organize, and actually come up with an overview, a short essay that would be 600 words and that basically organized their thoughts.
It gave them the chance to really think about the way in which they are engaging with the subject every day. And I think that surprised them just simply because when they did that, I read several of the prefaces and they’re magnificent in terms of how they themselves can reassess all the work they’ve done over that semester just with this one particular assignment.
And I give minimal responses to them. I use post-it notes to limit the amount of writing that I can give them back. But it gives them the chance to know that I am actively engaged in that exchange with them one to one on a private note, but then that also eases them in class because they then are able to talk about the various different experiences that they have.
They really felt like they had something to say about the topic. It wasn't just some pedestrian comment, but then in reality, their own experiences were validating some of the theoretical concepts being presented in class or actually they were themselves articulating or they could articulate,
it didn’t have to be in that specific technical language, but that they could actually engage with that topic outside of that academic discourse. Which I thought was really, they could engage with it in an every day practice.
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