“A Creation of Something New”: Interdisciplinarity, Collaborative Learning, and Sustainable Programs at the Evergreen State College


Union Institute and University

Interdisciplinarity presumes connection, the interrelationships among individuals and systems (Klein 2005; Holley 2009). What emerges from these connections is not the acquisition of something fixed or static but a dynamic system of framed points of reference (Meyer 2007). Through sustained attention to collaborative learning and interdisciplinary approaches, the Evergreen State College (TESC) continues to engage these “framed points” more than thirty years after its founding in 1967. In their book-length study, Reinventing Ourselves: Interdisciplinary Education, Collaborative Learning, and Experimentation in Higher Education , editors Barbara Leigh-Smith and John McCann emphasize the practice of framing not only curricula but also assessment in order to sustain the innovative programs on TESC campus and beyond. Such “reinventing” may be the most useful and sustainable component of interdisciplinary education. Moving into a future with unknown challenges is the charge of every educational institution. Assessment and reevaluation provide instructive means for sustainability. TESC’s commitment to reinvention is premised upon the continuing input of student perspectives. This provides for renewed attention to local, national, and global perspectives in the context of a rapidly changing world.

“Reinventing” through collaborative learning, in TESC’s interdisciplinary model, is premised upon engagement of place and of the other-than-human relationships that shape and are shaped by human activities. TESC has both advanced and adapted in over forty years of experimental learning. Through collaborative leadership methods, TESC has not only become a model for other educational institutions but also a force for the creation of programs, institutes and initiatives such as The Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education, the Reservation Based Community Determined Bachelors Program, and most recently the Curriculum for the Bioregions Initiative, all of which emerged from the Evergreen foundation and models for learning. In each of these names, there is an explicit attention to process: “Improving” requires continual attention toward adaptation rather than linear progress. “Community Determined” requires attention to changes along the course of the program because the “personal authority” of the student remains in dialogue with the community around him or her. Finally, the emphasis on “curriculum” in the Bioregions Initiative demands continued attention to the needs of the disciplinary or interdisciplinary approach an individual course will hold. The work that is being done within the faculty Learning Communities (LCs) requires educators to re-imagine or re-create a course they have taught or to create something new.

TESC values the practice of interdisciplinary teaching and learning beyond curricular initiatives and collaboration among faculty/ students and administrators; interdisciplinarity is embraced within as well as outside the classroom through field studies and service learning projects. Smith, former provost for the college and a founding administrator, explains that “one of the few surviving nontraditional colleges established in the late 1960s, [Evergreen] also became the seedbed for a burgeoning national reform effort to restructure traditional curricula and pedagogy through learning communities” (LCs) (2001, p. 65). TESC was shaped by the work of John Gardner and Alexander Meiklejohn, as well as Dewey’s pedagogical theories. The “Learning Community” as coined by Meiklejohn, remains central to teaching and learning projects supported by the Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education. According to Smith, “Evergreen’s main features emerged in the first year and changed little over the next twenty-five years” (2001, p. 70). Interdisciplinary studies and collaborative learning were central “features”; so too was the “stress on collaboration and avoidance of hierarchy” (2001, p. 70). Faculty and administrators decided by consensus that the institution would operate with “no faculty rank or tenure, a uniform salary scale based upon years of experience, rotating academic administrators [and] use of narrative evaluations rather than [numbered] grades” (2001, p. 70). This provided an environment in which faculty remain committed to the rigor they require of students. Smith suggests that “the decentralization [that] was seen as a key element in maintaining an innovative climate at the college” led to practices such as “student portfolios, teaching team covenants, narrative evaluations, weekly faculty and student seminars [ . . . ] and a reappointment policy based on faculty teaching portfolios” which consequently  “gave life to these new values” in collaborative teaching and learning practices (2001, p.70).

An interdisciplinary approach can be stifled or even destroyed if the question of sustainability is not addressed, and this requires assessment. The founding faculty and administrators for TESC emphasized critical inquiry and assessment both of and from the students. Student perspectives continue to be instrumental to the development of future curricula and the sustainability of the Evergreen model. Smith emphasizes that the “practices [that] later became part of the reform efforts in the 1980s and the 1990s in higher education as a whole” were the self-same practices that would need attention—and perhaps revision—in future years, in a continually changing local and global environment.” Again she emphasizes “process,” noting that “[i]n the process [of its inaugural year of experimental education], Evergreen developed new forms and languages which would become part of its identity and also part of its problem in relating to the outside world” (2001, p. 71).

As a result of this interactive model, various service-based programs were created, including The Longhouse Education and Cultural Center, which administered the Native American Economic Development Arts initiative and now provides the environment for the RBCD Bachelors program. The RBCD is premised upon the idea that the “personal authority” of the student in relationship with “indigenous knowledge” and continual “scholarship” such that the interaction among these elements will lead to individual and collaborative learning. “Personal authority” emphasizes the value of individual ideas and what some might call “voice” or agency. Personal, community, and ecological resources become crucial elements to learning in the RBCD program. Attention to the “local” is complemented by the scholarly/academic pursuits that provide for a broad-spanning, national and global consciousness. A geographical emphasis implicit in “indigenous perspectives” recalls Schoenberger’s assessment that “rather than having interdisciplinarity happen to us in a way that actually reduces and flattens geography or in a way that serves someone else’s purpose, [ . . . ]  we should create the interdisciplinary projects and take them out into the world” (2001, p. 380). Schoenberger notes that “[w]e do not start from a position of obvious power – but we do have the good ideas” (2001, p. 380), emphasizing again the possibilities through “ideas” or in Barthes’ term “things.” TESC provides a teaching and learning model that provides a framework for creating such “things” within the classroom, through research, field-studies, service learning, and publications (which benefits students and professors alike).

Smith notes that Evergreen is “sometimes referred to as [one of] the public liberal arts colleges or the public ivies” (2001, p. 65). She does not present this as a laurel upon which to rest. Rather, she constructs an inquiry into the first twenty-five years of the institution (Chapter 4 of Reinventing Ourselves) and asserts that its challenges led to the strengths and the sustainability of programs. Her contention is that the “new set of challenges” that will be faced “as scores of founding faculty members retire and many of its innovations have become mainstream” will likely be useful to the college; the “external pressures” in the early years had “helped the college survive by pushing the institution to continually expand its vision” (2001, p. 4). Such is the nature of interdisciplinarity; what we can count on is change and what we must rely upon are rigor, engagement, and an attention to multi-vocal perspectives of knowing.

This attention to pressure recalls the work of Gamson in her focus on “collaboration” in education: “collaboration meant not only to work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort, but to collaborate treasonably, as with an enemy occupying one’s country” (2012). Noting the work of Romer and Whipple, Gamson calls our attention to the irony that “collaboration is often impeded by the inability to get past power differences between students and faculty” and continues by stressing that “on the typical campus, where students and faculty think of each other as occupying different, often conflicting, territories,” the idea of collaboration may seem like “treason” (p. 2). In a related emphasis on such complexities, Leitch explains that “[d]uring the 1970s, the rise of interdisciplines as well as of theory initially felt like an explosion more than a consolidation,” which serves as a reminder of the need for “reflection” (qtd. in Ruiz 2005), for looking closely before expanding our view to the broad or the global. Meyer’s notion of interdisciplinarity as a broadening of frames is challenged by this attention to the particulars. The taking apart, which is arguably a requirement of interdisciplinary studies, is an undoing that some would perceive as antithetical to a “consolidation”; however, in Klein’s work (2005), there is a clear format presented wherein the consolidation begins to take shape but only through rigorous inquiry. Through practice (and scholarship) dependent upon a flow that requires continual inquiry, the usefulness of interdisciplinarity becomes evident; however, these results are not fixed, not left outside the realm of further questioning. Leitch provides a kind of mini-oasis for one who is interested in such engaged interdisciplinarity. His comment that it is “not unusual for someone in geography or architecture, for example, to show up in [his] class or office” introduces the connection between “theory” and the idea of “a rhizomatous deterritorialized profile” (qtd. in Ruiz 2005, p. 6), as discussed by Deleuze and Guattari (1980). Leitch’s work encourages a subversive, postmodern, rhizomatic approach to better understanding the term “interdisciplinarity”.

This may seem counter-intuitive, if not treasonous (in Gamson’s frame) in terms of both content and approach. TESC has increasingly adopted programs – and created others—that value collaboration not only among students and across student/faculty lines but also that bridge community concerns. Service learning and field studies, both of which require non-traditional learning methods, can often provide a way of breaking the proverbial ice between teacher and student. In addition, such work depends on geography, on place. Whether this is urban, suburban, rural, or wild terrain, the liaisons between institution and community remain vital. Collaborative work “in place” draws individuals to a common ground, quite literally, and uses a variety of skills and techniques to provide students and faculty alike with more options for successful participation. These strategies are reminiscent of Meyer’s emphasis on “local contingencies” and Schoenberger’s attention to geography. Field studies can provide access to the “natural world” or what I prefer to call the other-than-human, since human structures, even those that pollute and destroy, are also natural. These relationships between and among human and other-than-human systems serve an ethical purpose deeply grounded in the local yet carrying global resonances.

Schoenberger and Meyer introduce aspects of land use, ecosystem dynamics, and human reliance on systems that require collaborative relationships. Those who consider the value of interdisciplinary studies through the ongoing concerns for social justice are engaging in similar processes. There is a paradox within this definition that is particularly useful: within limits (that is, local contingencies, specific geographies) abundant freedom of inquiry is possible. Relationships can emerge from a variety of places and possibilities, but everything is connected. This, in some ways, is the whole point of interdisciplinarity. While Reams placed his emphasis on connection in the spiritual realm, this attempt toward definition emphasizes the “thing itself,” 1 the project at hand. The self—as well as the project, the work, the practice of engagement with that which “belongs to no one” (Barthes, qtd. in Parker and Samantrai 2010, p. 14) but can potentially benefit many— is where interdisciplinarity begins.

Gamson argues that “[n]owhere are good theories needed more than in education” and prescribes a challenge to existing power relations in classroom settings and beyond. Her narrative-inspired essay, “Collaborative Learning Comes of Age,” not only advocates for “changes in authority relations between students and teacher” but, equally importantly, “between students and knowledge” (1994, p. 3). She encourages the practice of seeking out the “theoretical clues to the way” such change occurs and credits collaborative learning with such effective innovations. At the same time, Gamson suggests that these “[e]ducational innovations are notoriously short-lived and cyclical. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the lack of grounding of educational practices in theories that might help explain why they work and don’t work, how their effects carry over into other settings, and how they might be adapted to new populations and situations” (1994, p. 5). She points to TESC and the Washington Center as “extraordinary” examples of institutions that have created sustainable programs as a result of continual assessments and further innovations. Central to her essay is a call for three issues to be more fully and continually addressed within the realm of higher education: a “Need for More Theory,” as well as an “Increase [in] the Institutional Impact of Collaboration” and finally an effort to “Enhance Democracy” in the classroom, on the campus, and in the lives of the collaborators outside such boundaries of education. Thus, the notion of never “resting on” one’s proverbial “laurels” implicit in Smith and McCann’s attention to “reinventing” is that which Gamson advocates in her continual emphasis on theory in collaboration with practice.

A 2010 article by William Newell points to a “series of best practices related to the construction of a more comprehensive understanding [of interdisciplinarity].” He asserts this some twenty years after his initial advocacy for collaborative learning, creating a list that is reminiscent of the very practices TESC seeks to employ:

  • Assume every perspective that has stood the test of time has a kernel of truth to it.
  • Embrace contradiction, asking in what sense a situation can be “both.”
  • Engage in shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth between theories, and between theory and empirical evidence.
  • Seek an understanding that is responsive to each of the contributing perspectives but not dominated by any one of them.

The democratic aspect, valued by Gamson and others, is evident in the “shuttle[ing] diplomacy” in a multi-vocal seminar-based environment. The notion that a single “perspective [is] not dominat[ing]” provides for a more democratic approach to learning. The perception of “a kernel of truth” as evident in that which has “stood the test of time” is a practice that also recognizes contingency. That which is time-worn is not therefore fixed, permanent, but rather a useful point of reference for further theorizing. Newell advocates a kind of “shuttling back and forth” between interdisciplinary studies, and he argues that “interdisciplinary courses need the disciplines for depth and disciplinary courses need interdisciplinarity for real-world applicability.” This is an emphasis he supported in 1983 and reiterates some sixteen years later. What Newell unveils as something he “only recently” has “come to realize [is] that students also need to shuttle back and forth between the classroom and the outside world” (2010, p.11). He concludes by asserting that “interdisciplinary studies and integrative learning can achieve their full potential only if they are conceived in a way that values diversity of perspective, demands integration of insights, and embraces holistic as well as reductionist thinking.” His final line is a definitive call for such programs: “Only then are students prepared to meet the challenge of coping with complexity” (Newell 2010, p. 11).

Parker and Samantrai point to institutionalized definitions of interdisciplinarity as antithetical to the “social movements” that led to such inquiry. Further, they critique Klein’s work in its attempts to “synthesize existing disciplinary concepts” toward creating “a unity of knowledge for a non-specialized general education” (2010, p. 3). For Klein, interdisciplinary work requires integration. For Newell, such work also requires the flexibility to move outside the classroom – into the social scientific and the natural science worlds from which complex learning can be engaged. TESC, through assessment-based inquiry into its own programs, relies upon such engagement within and beyond the classroom, pursuing an engaged and sustainable set of interdisciplinary practices. Parker and Samantrai draw specifically on “social justice” concerns and outline the vital relationships between such “studies” in the academy and social movements that gave rise to such innovations in education. TESC requires students to create the projects that come to define the major they create. One example of such a study is described by a student who transferred to Evergreen from Wooster College in Ohio.

A focus on Spanish and political science led her to apply for the “Semester in Venezuela” program at Evergreen. After a season of vigilant social justice practices including voluntary work at a local market, she returned to her home state of Washington. Professors encouraged her to follow this intensely practice-based learning with another semester of field studies, but this one quite distinct from her engagement abroad. She served as a legislative intern, while working closely with her professors in Spanish language studies and in political science. TESC is located in Olympia, the state capitol, so this proximity to college resources was also useful. During her tenure as an intern, the student worked in a bilingual school as a volunteer. Currently, this graduate of TESC teaches in Houston, Texas, in the Teach for America Program. Having tested as a “fluent” speaker, she has taught in Spanish-speaking kindergarten and fourth grade classes. Interdisciplinary approaches to teaching continue to be central to her work as an educator, even among the youngest school-age children.

Another student left TESC with a degree in natural sciences and worked as a manager in a local organic farm until he began graduate studies in agricultural design. Each student creates his/her major through interdisciplinary approaches and follow-through; this is but one example of an institution engaged in the practice of dynamic and fluid re-definition that appears to embody what Barthes called “creating something new” (qtd in Parker and Samantrai 2010). When devoid of a mindful framework, scholarly discourse (even if it attempts interdisciplinary angles) runs the risk of providing the foundation for yet another meta-narrative. Mindfulness, in the Evergreen State College environment, does not reside solely in the mind. Field studies and service learning remain crucial to the interdisciplinary scholarship and practice. Mindfulness is dependent upon scholarship as well as practice, both requiring the rigor necessary to sustain interdisciplinary studies. Smith employs a mindful approach to continual assessment of TESC and its programs supported through the Washington Center.

Jean MacGregor, who co-founded the Washington Center (with Smith), argues that “[k]nowledge is shaped, over time, by successive conversations, and by ever-changing social and political environments”(qtd. in Minkler 2002, p. 46). A biologist by training, MacGregor understands the value of interconnected life systems and ecological complexities. Through grants from various funding sources, she created the Curriculum for the Bioregions Initiative. One goal of this initiative is to provide faculty within community colleges and four-year institutions with opportunities to collaborate toward creating individual assignments or entire syllabi focused on bioregional challenges and sustainable practices. The faculty LCs began as disciplinary seminars; for example, English composition faculty met during one retreat and chemistry faculty during another. The focus on the bioregion provided for a thematic engagement of place, which led to complex, cooperative projects in the various disciplines. A further goal is for the members of the faculty LCs to combine their strengths in courses that bridge two or more disciplines. MacGregor continues to develop and shape the initiative as she provides opportunities for collaborative assessment and thoughtful, rigorous feedback as part of the participation requirements.

The Mission of the Curriculum for the Bioregion Initiative includes an explicit emphasis on “engag[ing] faculty in embedding sustainability concepts and place-based learning in a wide array of undergraduate courses” (http://www.bioregion.evergreen.edu). The process, dependent upon faculty learning communities, includes both the revamping or reimagining of existing courses and the creation of new courses “that involve students with the issues facing the bioregion and with those people and organizations working on solutions” (http://bioregion.evergreen.edu). MacGregor describes her inspiration for the initiative as a “tugging on her sleeve” that was persistent through the latter years of her work as a faculty member in the Masters Program in Environmental Studies in TESC. Her perception was that the research, scholarship, and interdisciplinary practices were an exception to the status quo at other colleges and universities; the students were committed and engaged, but all those involved seemed to be moving toward a future that was changing so rapidly that there was a profound disconnection. MacGregor was determined to create an environment in which researchers, scholars and practitioners would return their focus to place, to the geographies and climates and human influences that were their homes or temporary locales (Personal Communication 2 November 2012).

The emphasis is on approach as process, or as active consideration, in a move toward sustainable practices. In this model, central to TESC, the notion of “ethics” remains in a state of flux, of change, continually informed by collaborative reflection, by inquiry. Concerns of social justice are dependent upon such ethical reflection. MacGregor’s Bioregions Initiative provides a unique example of such ethical and interdisciplinary tenets because the attention is so particular to place. At the same time, this is a place shared by many stakeholders, many diverse communities of people, and abundant industry. A grounded attention to social justice/social change is a core focus of the Bioregions work, through indigenous perspectives, which is a return to the founding years of TESC.

From its earliest days, TESC valued “strategic partnerships,” with a commitment to bridging theory and practice. The first decade included collaboration between the institution and K-12 leaders as well as Native American tribes (Smith 2001, p. 77). From the wisdom and practices embodied in Evergreen’s model, the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education was founded “[i]n 1985, with support from the Exxon Foundation and the Ford Foundation”( pp. 78-9). As a unique statewide public service initiative the Center  provided Evergreen with “an explicit statewide leadership role in reforming undergraduate education” (p. 80). Creating and supporting the learning community courses remains a central goal of for the Center. Smith explains that “the Center has also attracted major funding for statewide projects in such areas as calculus reform, cultural pluralism, and interdisciplinary approaches to the sciences” (p. 80). The impact of the Washington Center on the development of interdisciplinary studies through developing programs to support learning community education cannot be understood without also understanding that “the Center acts as a statewide support system for educational reform and sponsors a variety of activities including faculty exchanges, conferences and retreats, assessment initiatives, and technical resources (Smith 2001, p. 80).

In the early years, “Evergreen, like many new institutions, was focused inward, preoccupied with the challenges of creating an identity and surviving the turbulent wars and changing expectations of state government and a fickle public” (Smith 2001, p. 80). Smith emphasizes the idea that being placed under the proverbial microscope has required TESC to remain attentive to its continual development and reassessment of teaching and learning. In the environment of new faculty and students whose needs and interests continue to shape the institution, “the academic practices that had vitality in earlier times need to be reborn and revitalized or they will atrophy or become tiresome bureaucratic requirements” (p. 82). Rather than a negative, such change is seen as a “challenge” with the goal “to maintain continuity with core values, and to maintain a sense of rooted identity and vitality in the race of critical transitions” (p. 82).

In the context of TESC, the authority held by faculty is important, though always contingent upon relationships. In the context of collaborative learning, such authority is strongest and higher levels of learning can be accessed when students engage in questions/ research/discussion/dialogue with their professors and with the geographical and social environments they inhabit. A simple practice utilized by a number of faculty members who teach LC courses presents a visual example of this reliance on a multi-vocal, collaborative approach. The following exercise is also a useful tool for preventing the single-student-monologue that can lead to the silencing of a quiet or shy student in the classroom setting. It all begins with a skein of yarn.

Faculty members explain that when someone has the proverbial “floor,” that person must hold the yarn. When the next person raises a hand to speak, the ball of yarn is tossed to—or handed to—that person. The passing of the skein creates a visual web, as the previous speakers hold their place in the movement, and if two people began to speak back and forth, which rarely happens, the faculty member could encourage movement of the yarn to the margins, the un-voiced areas of the circle. And on to the next speaker, and so on the yarn moves across the circle in sometimes unexpected lines. At the end of the seminar, the text that has been discussed can be placed atop the web of yarn. Then participants can quite literally lift the text, which creates yet another image: a group-engendered realization of bringing the work to another level, one of higher understanding. Such a simple practice is also a return to Gamson’s challenge to single “authorship,” for the response to the text can become more poignant in this polyphonic engagement.

The founding principles of TESC contained a vision of collaboration as not simply residing in the relationship of student to faculty but also student to student and faculty to administrators. In this framework, Gamson’s emphasis on “changes in authority relations” requires an active, dynamic set of engaged relationships whereby “collaborative learning leads to changes” and these occur not only “in authority relations between students and teacher” but also “between students and knowledge” (1994, p 5). Gamson asserts the importance of “social psychological studies of socialization to subordinate roles” and how our understanding of the ways in which “higher education reinforces or challenges such socialization [becomes a] fruitful approach” to developing knowledge. Here she emphasizes the “social constructivists,” pointing to “Richard Rorty’s gloss on John Dewey in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) and his subsequent writings [which ] analyze the social basis for warrants about what constitutes knowledge” (p. 4). Gamson argues that “[s]ocial constructivists in anthropology, sociology, and literature might help us account for how collaborative learning helps students see that knowledge is not a fixed, immutable substance” (p. 5).

This image of a skein of yarn used in a seminar provides the context for better understanding the dialogue between theory and practice at TESC, and through the programs and institutes it has engendered. Chapter Five of Reinventing Ourselves is co-authored by five individuals, some faculty and others staff and administration for the Center, another example of intentional collaboration. “Bridging Theory and Practice: Public Service at The Evergreen State College” investigates the history of the way in which “public service centers” have been intentionally supported by the college in order to “create a reciprocal relationship between the wider community and Evergreen, providing a forum to enrich and broaden the exchange of knowledge in an ever-widening circle (2001, p. 91). Although “service learning” has become a familiar phrase and many institutions across the country have embraced such interdisciplinary approaches to student participation, the history of TESC and its commitment to service places attention on what Costantino, Decker, Elliott, Kuckkahn, and Lee consider “a necessary dimension of alternative liberal arts education” (qtd. in Smith and McCann 2001, p. 93). Such a reading would see the “interdisciplinary academic programs at the college [as] the trunk of a tree [and] the public service centers [ . . . ] evolving as the roots” (p. 93). This may seem a very curious image, a metaphor that perhaps subverts the power of the college in some manner. For if the roots of the programs are generated elsewhere, how then does such an enterprise or institution maintain control? Roots, after all, are rhizomatic, moving in many directions at once. This emphasis on valuing relationships and engaging complex, sometimes unanswerable questions, however, provided the foundation for the college. Programs, initiatives and institutes are further manifestations, branches perhaps, or even seedlings growing their own trunks, but the roots remain dependent on the larger scope of geography, place, culture within which the academy resides.

This brief study began with an emphasis on “reinventing” ourselves through collaborative learning and concludes with an engagement of place, of the other-than-human relationships that shape and are shaped by human activities. TESC, in over forty years of experimental learning and consistent attention to assessment, finds itself –in some manner of speaking—right back where it started: paying close attention to collaborative learning and interdisciplinary educational programs. The college has both advanced and adapted. Through collaborative leadership methods, TESC has not only become a model for other educational institutions but also a force for the creation of programs, institutes and initiatives. Thus we return to Schoenberger and to Barthes, noting that as we “create the interdisciplinary projects and take them out into the world” (380), we are again commencing rather than completing the processes. The work continues—shaped by the faculty, students and administrators—through the re-imagining of that which precedes us and also what is to come.



1 As in Wallace Stevens’ attention to the image, that poetry must be concerned “not with ideas about the thing but the thing itself.”


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