Tag Archives: Disciplines

Multidisciplinarity: Reflections on a Molecular Microbiologist’s Visit to a Literature Course

Marcelo Vinces leads the newly established Center for Learning, Education, and Research in the Sciences (CLEAR). He helps coordinate on-campus undergraduate research, trains peer mentors, and coordinates workshops for faculty. Vinces earned a BA in biology at Cornell University and a PhD in molecular microbiology at Tufts University. Prior to Oberlin, Vinces worked in Washington, D.C., as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology policy fellow at the National Science Foundation.

Kelly Bezio is a visiting assistant professor of English. Her research is in communicable disorders, particularly how American authors used such illnesses to imagine—paradoxically—community formation. This research has allowed her to explore, among other topics, the mysteries and miracles of smallpox inoculation, the dank boredom of foreign quarantine, and awe-inspiring scourges such as cholera.  She is currently co-editing an essay collection titled Religion and Medicine in America’s Secular Age, and aspires to write a second monograph on how literary depictions of democratic liberal subjectivity drew on developments in modern chemistry—creating what we might call a chemical aesthetics. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Marcelo’s observations:

Kelly and I met for the first time when we sat next to each other at one of our students’ presentation for a biology class. The student, Nicole Le, gave an oral presentation on the nightingale for her final class project that was squarely at the intersection of literature, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. From our initial meeting and subsequent conversations, Kelly ended up inviting me to her class.  So, on February 18, early in the semester, I took part in ENGL 351, Literature, Medicine, Culture, a course that explores what stories about doctors and medicine, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Fox TV’s House, tell us about our culture, our history, and the experience of being human. The topic of the day’s class was Nature vs. Nurture (Mad Scientists.)

Students had read two short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Rappaccinni’s Daughter” and “The Birth-Mark,” as well as selections from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Additionally, Kelly had asked if I had any suggested readings, and I recommended an essay by H. Davies, “Can Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein be read as an early research ethics text?” I had previously used this as a recommended reading to summer research students in conjunction with a research ethics session the Office of Undergraduate Research had organized and an unrelated screening of Bride of Frankenstein that I had organized.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (Creative Commons)

Kelly shared her planning notes for the class with me which called for a very interactive class between students talking about “doing science” and the students talking about the stories they had read for class. Some of the main questions to be covered included: What is the nature/nurture debate? How have you related to the nature/nurture debate in the past? How do the readings give us a new perspective on this debate? In other words, what would our scientist characters say about this debate? In contrast, what would our authors say about this debate? How does the “mad scientist” (as a stock character) complicate this debate?

Reflections on the Discussion

I introduced myself and gave a brief chalkboard chat on the research I did for my PhD and for my postdoc. As I was explaining the science, it occurred to me to raise the point of why I chose to study what I did. It’s easy to explain why the questions I pursued were interesting scientifically, but were there other underlying motivations? For example, what made the topics exciting and sexy to me? Was there an aesthetic quality I was not consciously aware of that made me gravitate towards such questions? Did I feel love towards my research? I think I was conscious of these notions only because of the context of the class and the readings we had just done. It would otherwise never have come up in conversation or even in my thoughts within the context of doing science research and being among science colleagues.

Marcelo Vinces Chalkboard Image

The students did not have many questions for me as the start. I felt they were still a bit shy or reserved or didn’t yet know what to make of me. But one good question I did get asked me if, “as a scientist, was there a conflict in trying to get to answers and at the same time trying to get publications?” I absolutely loved this question because it is a fundamental conflict in science. While we are in it to get answers to questions, there are the realities that also put demands on us, sometimes in line with our need for selfless inquiry, but other times in conflict: publish or perish, aiming for high profile journals, needing to get tenure, patents. These don’t always lend themselves to pure scientific inquiry for the sake of truth and knowledge. For example, I noted to the student, we often have interesting but negative results that hide for eternity in lab journals that would be of interest for other scientists to know, but that no journal would want to publish. Vast amounts of good and useful data may lie in lab notebooks and computers around the world that we may never know about. This is due to the current structures that scaffold the scientific enterprise.

The discussion moved into the readings, focusing on what we could call an “irrational spark” as the motivation for doing science, which, after all, is usually seen as the most rational form of inquiry that exists. And yet the scientists in these stories, driven by love or fame, used science for what many would say were not just irrational purposes, but immoral ones too.

It was difficult to discern what Hawthorne was getting at in these stories, if he had something definitive to say about scientists or science. With Shelley we had the help of the reading I suggested, which takes the view that Shelley was not an anti-science romantic, but rather saw the promise of science but also the very human drives that compromised it.

The questions and discussions, very nicely facilitated by Kelly, included, what motivates scientists? How has science changed our definition of evil? Are Hawthorne and Shelley offering cautionary tales? Mourning the imperfectability of the scientific method? Something else?  Can science actually make things more evil than nature? Can literature?

Missed opportunities? More Reflections

We sadly ran out of time just as the discussion was reaching a crescendo of ideas, thoughts and energy. In retrospect, Kelly or I could have offered more prompts for students designed to take advantage of a scientist in the room. As we discussed the above questions, what would a scientist have to say? Do scientists think of these questions? What does a scientist feel and think as he or she reads about these mad scientists? Are there mad scientists? What exists to make sure mad scientists don’t run amok? What could the scientist in the room learn from these readings and subsequent discussion?

I am curious to hear from Kelly’s point of view how this guest appearance worked for her course, how engaged were the students, and what she would do differently in the future.

Future ideas?

I for one feel the session opened up pathways of inquiry for me that are not usually ones available in the scientific context. For example, what is the psychology at work that drives a scientist to spend hours alone, at night and weekends, to seek answers to sometimes very obscure questions? What are the misunderstandings that exist among non-scientists about the scientific endeavor? What place can literature serve in educating scientists of about research ethics, motivation, and science history? Ultimately, I feel this is a perfect illustration of how we need more of these intersectional events that bring together people from very distinct disciplines that may nevertheless share some important interests in common.


Kelly’s observations:

The students were enthusiastic about having Marcelo come in. They hadn’t heard of CLEAR, and it struck me as a good opportunity to introduce them to the many ways interdisciplinarity was happening on campus.

My intention was for Marcelo to come in and talk about the research he conducted as a scientist in order to provide students with a modern counterpoint to the stories about scientists they were reading by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Listening to Marcelo’s comments, I was noticing some common themes: interest becoming obsession, the delights of observation, the power that comes from doing research, the role love plays in doing research, to name a few.

I framed the visit to the students (an approach Marcelo and I agreed on ahead of time) as an opportunity to learn what Marcelo had to teach us about doing scientific research and an opportunity to teach him, in turn, something about the stories we had read.

A couple of interventions may have made this frame more successful, in terms of empowering the students. On the one hand, it may have helped to tell them ahead of time to come up with discussion questions. That is to say, teaching is often about asking questions, not delivering information. (The next day in class, the students told me they would have liked to have heard more of Marcelo’s perspective on the stories we all read. This could have happened if they or I had thought to ask him his perspective on particular moments in the text or about the readings in general. The students reported that they were worried about offending him, since the stories we read are often taken as critical of the scientific enterprise.) On the other hand, it may have helped to have students break up into groups after Marcelo’s comments and come up with the “lessons” or “questions” they wanted to put to him, rather than jumping right in to discussion.

That being said, we had a really wonderful discussion that day, and I speculate that it was because they were imagining Marcelo’s potentially-offended response to the critique of science, and so pushed beyond that interpretation of the stories. (Maybe). Over the course of the discussion, we came up with several excellent questions:

  • How is science changing the definition of evil?
  • How is literature changing the definition of evil?
  • What motivates science? (If we want to continue our literary corollary, what motivates literature?)
  • What do we want science’s motivations to be?
  • What do we want literature’s motivations to be?
  • Can humans make things that are more evil than Nature would create?

Ultimately, given the opportunity to do this kind of collaboration again—which I would love to do—I think I might try to build conversation between the class and the guest speaker by asking questions like, “As a scientist, how did you respond to the stories?” and “As a literature student, how did you respond to the stories?”

Follow Up:

Marcelo and I met on March 20 to discuss the joint session [see above], and I was really taken with the photograph he took of the whiteboard from our class, which was covered with his drawings of his research, questions we came up with as a class during our discussion, and a student’s note about a scientist he studied in another class.

What struck me about photograph was how well it represents the benefit of this kind of multidisciplinary day in the classroom. It collects the topics we discussed, all of which came from specific disciplinary perspectives, and the new questions that arose when those topics were brought up together.

I noticed also during our conversation that Marcelo and I came up with different disciplinary inspirations post-class. I was interested in how talking about “mad scientists” with a scientist helped us to ask new literary questions of Nathaniel Hawthorne. For instance, at the end of class, one of the students raised the idea that Hawthorne may have been interested in working through cultural expectations of literature and what it was able to do—or should do, ethically speaking. In other words, the stories we read may be as much about literary ethics as they are about scientific ethics. On the other hand, Marcelo was thinking about how literature might be used to enliven the study of ethics in a STEM context.

I think in conclusion that multidisciplinarity produces different ways of being disciplinary. This is not new (of course), but I was intrigued by the material results of this abstract truism.

How to Solve It

Steven Volk (Director, CTIE)

December 9, 2013

An article I was recently reading (“Teaching Learning Processes – to Students and Teachers,” by Pamela Barnett and Linda Hodges) reminded me of a 1957 book on mathematics by George Pólya, How to Solve It (2nd ed., Princeton: click on link for a partial pdf of the volume). The issue is a central one for all teachers: Rather than solving problems for our students, we provide them with strategies for problem solving. Or, as Pólya put it, we are always “trying to understand not only the solution of this or that problem but also the motives and procedures of the solution, and trying to explain these motives and procedures to others…” (vi).  Pólya is quite clear that while his book “pays special attention to the requirements of students and teachers of mathematics, it should interest anybody concerned with the ways and means of invention and discovery” (vi). “Invention and discovery” – what better to words to describe what we want to inspire and develop in our students?

G. Polya, How to Solve It, Princeton Science Library

George Pólya’s Approach

Pólya’s approach has four parts, which I’ll copy here from his text before suggesting some changes I have made when approaching problem solving in history, and which others can similarly adapt to their specific discipline.


You have to understand the problem: What is the unknown? What are the data? What is the condition? Is it possible to satisfy the condition? Is the condition sufficient to determine the unknown? Or is it insufficient? Or redundant? Or contradictory? Draw a figure. Introduce suitable notation. Separate the various parts of the condition. Can you write them down?


Find the connection between the data and the unknown. You may be obliged to consider auxiliary problems if an immediate connection cannot be found. You should obtain eventually a plan of the solution. Have you seen it before? Or have you seen the same problem in a slightly different form? Do you know a related problem? Do you know a theorem that could be useful? Look at the unknown! And try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown. Here is a problem related to yours and solved before. Could you use it? Could you use its result? Could you use its method? Should you introduce some auxiliary element in order to make its use possible? Could you restate the problem? Could you restate it still differently? Go back to definitions.

If you cannot solve the proposed problem try to solve first some related problem. Could you imagine a more accessible related problem? A more general problem? A more special problem? An analogous problem? Could you solve a part of the problem? Keep only a part of the condition, drop the other part; how far is the unknown then determined, how can it vary? Could you derive something useful from the data? Could you think of other data appropriate to determine the unknown? Could you change the unknown or the data, or both if necessary, so that the new unknown and the new data are nearer to each other? Did you use all the data? Did you use the whole condition? Have you taken into account all essential notions involve in the problem?


Carry out your plan. Carrying out your plan of the solution, check each step. Can you see clearly that the step is correct? Can you prove that it is correct?


Examine the solution obtained. Can you check the result? Can you check the argument? Can you derive the result differently? Can you see it at a glance? Can you use the result, or the method, for some other problem? (From 2nd ed., p. xvi).

Revising Pólya’s Approach for History and other Social Sciences & Humanities

Pólya’s approach is well designed for math and other quantitative disciplines. But, with a few tweaks it can be equally useful for the (non-quantitative) social sciences and humanities where we are not looking for proofs, and where experiments cannot be repeated. Rather, we are after the strongest arguments (the best readings) that take account of the evidence at hand. Problems in history are quite different than math problems, but “solving” them (i.e., putting forward an empirically based, well reasoned argument) can be approached in a similar manner. The steps below are revised from an approach put forward in the Pamela Barnett and Linda Hodges article (which, in addition to the link can be found on CTIE’s Blackboard site), and are based on answering the following question: “Why did the Tupac Amaru II rebellion of 1781 fail and were there any circumstances in which it could have succeeded?” (For those so enthralled with the question, check out my “flipped class” lecture on the topic: “The Great Andean Revolts.” )

Tupac Amaru II (Flickr creative commons: seriykotik1970)

I. Understanding the problem: What information do you have to begin with (secondary sources, primary sources, lecture notes, other information gained in different courses or non-assigned readings, etc.)? What information do you still lack in order to be able to address the problem? Can you restate the problem in your own words, or in a way that helps you understand it better? Is Tupac Amaru II’s failure in 1781 similar to or different from the failure of the first Tupac Amaru’s rebellion? What characteristics in the information you have strike you as potentially important? Why do you think they are important?

I have found over the years that this first part of problem solving is critical. Nine times out of ten, a poorly argued paper comes back to the fact that the student hasn’t understood what is being asked. Advise students – many times!! – not to begin writing their papers unless and until they are clear that they understand what is being asked. This is a good time to consult the teacher, a peer instructor, or a colleague from the class.

II. Setting out your plan: Trace out your initial ideas: Could it be inter-ethnic rivalries? Lack of broader sets of allegiances? Lack of military strength? Problems of communication?

  • Initial ideas. To the extent that the question implies some comparative data (have other rebellions succeeded or failed?), look for similarities, differences, other kinds of approaches that have worked for you in the past.
  • Following up with these ideas: Begin to gather data on your initial points. Will they help you answer the question? Do they make sense (no, it had nothing to do with Spain’s ability to control death rays from the Planet Xynthar)? Are they going to lead to either a dead end or a tangential issue that has nothing to do with Tupac Amaru II’s failure? (Go back to the initial question: Do you understand it?)
  • Avoiding Rube Goldbergian approachs: Yes, it’s a plausible answer, but are there, um, more straightforward approaches? Think of breaking the problem into smaller pieces that can help in the solution (List all the elements that can account for Tupac Araru II’s failure; list all the elements of Tupac Amaru I’s failure; what contextual events were similar or different in 1781 compared with 1572? Any contingent events to think of?)

III. Carrying out the plan: Beginning to draft the paper. With your arguments and data in place, begin to draft the answer, always making sure that the points are leading to an answer to the question that was posed and not answering some tangential issue, are supported by evidence, and are presented in a logical (and, in this case, chronological) order. Make sure to support your evidence with footnotes/endnotes in the proper format.

IV. Revising the draft. There are a lot of questions you can ask yourself after you’ve completed a draft: Does it make sense? Is it plausible? Does it conform to the evidence? Have you left anything of importance out? Is there a piece of historical evidence that doesn’t fit – kind of like the bolt that’s still lying on the floor after you’ve put your desk together? Have you documented your evidence and used the proper formatting? Is something nagging at you about your work that you haven’t come to grips with? Can you share your work at the Writing Center, with a peer instructor, or a classmate (if allowed in that class)? Have you checked spelling, format, grammar, etc.?

V. Reflection. While reflection is not necessarily a part of problem solving, it is an essential part of learning and should always be a part of an assignment: What did you learn in this project: not about the topic per se, but about how you approached it? What steps did you take to solve the problem, to answer the question? What did you learn in this process that you will use again? What approaches led you to a dead end and were ultimately unproductive? Do you feel pleased with your paper? Why? Why not?


Pólya also offers a set of heuristics that can help students (and faculty) solve problems with reference to different approaches.

Heuristic Informal Description
Analogy Can you find a problem analogous to your problem and solve that?
Generalization Can you find a problem more general than your problem?
Induction Can you solve your problem by deriving a generalization from some examples?
Variation of the Problem Can you vary or change your problem to create a new problem (or set of problems) whose solution(s) will help you solve your original problem?
Auxiliary Problem Can you find a sub-problem or side problem whose solution will help you solve your problem?
Here is a problem related to yours and solved before Can you find a problem related to yours that has already been solved and use that to solve your problem?
Specialization Can you find a problem more specialized?
Decomposing and Recombining Can you decompose the problem and “recombine its elements in some new manner”?
Working backward Can you start with the goal and work backwards to something you already know?
Draw a Figure Can you draw a picture of the problem?
Auxiliary Elements Can you add some new element to your problem to get closer to a solution?

Final Considerations

I found two things interesting when returning to Pólya after so many years:

(1) how similar problem solving techniques can be across the disciplines, and

(2) how important it is to keep disciplinary differences that do exist in mind when instructing our students.

These diverging points often come back to the “experts vs. novices” problem. As experts in our fields and disciplines, problem solving, particularly at a relatively basic level, is so ingrained in our thinking that we don’t think about the fact that it is not second-nature to our students. When we hit a road block, it will happen at a much higher level than will be confronted by students.  So, early on in our classes, particularly in introductory (100-level) classes, it is always good to formally trace out problem solving strategies in our disciplines. But it is also important to be explicit about the fact that many of these strategies can be used when solving problems in other disciplines (e.g., Pólya’s math problem solving strategies are quite applicable in physics or economics), and when certain approaches are specific to one’s discipline and cannot be used in precisely the same way in other disciplines. History is not an experimental science: we don’t  look for proofs in the manner of mathematicians or biologists.

Finally, this leads to a greater understanding of the rare opportunity we have at a liberal arts college. By teaching in a place where we know our students will be receiving instruction in a variety of approaches and disciplines, we can strengthen their learning (and their problem solving abilities), as well as our own approaches to the problems that we set out to solve, by consciously engaging in activities that bring disciplines together, asking: how would a physicist solve this problem? A biologist? How would a literary critic pose the question? A sociologist? What would happen if an artist were a part of a biology lab? If a physicist taught in the museum?

George Pólya and Alexander Ostrowski (Photograph: Paul Halmos, 1958)

The Disciplines and Undergraduate Education

Stanley Katz, Chronicle of Higher Ed – The Chronicle Review – Brainstorm, Dec. 4, 2008
I wrote in my last post about the downside of specialization, and one of the commenters quite rightly responded that whatever the virtues of a more general orientation, generalists have a hard time finding academic employment these days.

Quite right. I am, alas, sure that the trend to subdisciplinarity will not disappear anytime soon. But the problem is even more profound. Luke Menand, one of my favorite commentators on higher education, recently gave a paper at Princeton on interdisciplinarity, a much ballyhooed style of scholarship and pedagogy these day s. Luke’s main point was that what we normally call “interdisciplinarity” is really better described as hyperdisciplinarity, since it depends utterly upon disciplinary knowledge: “It is not an escape from disciplinarity; it is the scholarly and pedagogical ratification of disciplinarity.” Or, “Interdisciplinarity is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. . . . [It] actually rigidifies disciplinary paradigms.” Luke goes further, and claims that interdisciplinarity is a symptom of anxiety about professional status (which has traditionally been created by the disciplines), an attempt to shake free of the constraints imposed by the disciplines — but it cannot go far enough to do the job.

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