Navigating Interdisciplinary Awkwardness: Teaching and Learning at Effat University
By Terumi Taylor, Effat University
Many people, myself included, would consider my work place a global environment, in and of itself interdisciplinary. Furthermore, like others at Effat University, I believe in interdisciplinary studies and teach accordingly. So how can I explain the difficulties that I encountered when I pursued interdisciplinary collaboration and research there? Is the problem with the model we have for how to collaborate with other disciplines, or is it something else? In this essay I will guide you through the outer layers of Saudi Arabia and Effat University to reveal the kernel at the center of interdisciplinary teaching and learning, a kernel not always easy to locate or to work with.
Let me begin with the region, nestled between the shadow of Africa and the length of Asia, where my colleagues and I practice the art of interdisciplinarity. I am located on the western part of the Arabian Peninsula, in the bride of the Red Sea: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The city of Jeddah mixes more than two millennia of global visitors. Jeddah acts as the main entry and resting point for millions of pilgrims on their way to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Madinah and unfolds into a historical and present day holy mixture of business, trade routes, ports, religions, languages and cultures. Simply sitting in the airport arrivals hall provides one with significant global awareness and insight into various viewpoints.
Effat University lies within the city of Jeddah. The first private non-profit women’s university in Saudi Arabia, Effat University began as a small college in 1999 and was granted university status in 2009. It was the first university in the kingdom to receive a National Commission of Accreditation and Academic Assessment (NCAAA) accreditation, and it has the distinction of being the first university in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to offer women instruction and degrees in architecture, electrical and computer engineering, entrepreneurship, and operations and information management. A further first for Saudi women was the recently added Visual and Digital Production Degree in 2013.1 Effat University offers the first Master’s Degree in Islamic Financial Management in the kingdom and has recently started master’s programs in urban design and translation studies. The school offers the unique Effat Ambassadors Program, a distinctive co-curricular program to equip all students with the skills, experiences, and attitudes necessary for intellectual, social, moral, physical, and professional development.2 Furthermore, Effat University has built strong relationships and agreements with well-established international institutions and universities. Among its renowned partners are Duke University, University of Miami, Paris Malaquais, Mount Holyoke College, Tokai University in Japan, University of Southern California, Georgetown University, Syracuse University, University of Western Sidney, and Boston University.
Effat University stands on the same spot where Queen Effat Al-Thunayan Al-Saud inaugurated Saudi Arabia’s first school for girls in 1955. Dar Al-Hanan School has since moved but continues, along with Effat University, to represent Queen Effat’s passion for teaching and learning. This pioneering spirit and list of educational firsts is celebrated by and permeates all aspects of the university’s academic and community identity.3 The atmosphere has proven very conducive to bringing divergent ideas together under the banner of interdisciplinarity, and in order to build a well-rounded academic institution. In 15 years, the university has grown from only a handful of students to over 3200. Now that you understand the region and the university, we can move onto the next layer, or what I think of as the outside coating of the kernel that is interdisciplinary teaching and research: the faculty.
Effat University faculty represent 85 different nationalities, and the university’s commitment to liberal education is evident in its General Education Program. The terms “liberal education” and “general education” are often synonymous with interdisciplinary studies, and I think many would agree that the people who teach in an interdisciplinary way are a large part of the success of undergraduate education as well as higher education more generally. While most other departments in my university are populated with faculty who have similar educational backgrounds and training, the General Education Program faculty at Effat University coexist as diversely educated, traveled and experienced individuals. Our office location only adds to this. Since the General Education building is under construction, general education faculty currently reside within the Engineering building and among our engineering faculty.
As a formally trained scientist with a master’s degree in science, specifically microbiology and immunology, and as a person currently working on a doctorate in education, I have found myself teaching general education courses central to and themselves examples of interdisciplinary study: Critical Thinking, Research Discourse, and Research Writing. I have also found the very nature of how we teach general education courses encourages introspection and personal growth.
When instructors look inward, they are better able to create content that allows students and teachers to engage in higher order thinking formulated with connectedness across and between disciplines. For example, when we study current issues in environmental sustainability, students propose and examine discipline specific solutions and then interdisciplinary groups determine how a specific discipline, such as operations and information management, visual and digital productions, or psychology, can inform or reinvent an engineering solution. Interdisciplinary teaching permits me to participate actively with my students in their journey of alternating, integrating and understanding different viewpoints. In this kind of interdisciplinary teaching the facilitator helps students construct meaning and knowledge and does not act as a lecturer or one who bestows knowledge.
Just as students reflect and journey with their instructor, colleagues who share the same interdisciplinary space also become more reflective about how they can collaborate. Faculty research takes on both a personal and an institutional directive as people try to figure out not just what to research, but also how to conduct this research with those who are outside of their individual departments and disciplines. This happened to my colleagues and me as we taught and sat in the same building. We wanted to collaborate, and we thought we should. I also thought it would be easier for us to work together than it was.
Despite what I thought would be a relatively easy and straight-forward task, initially I found collaborating with my humanities and social science colleagues tedious and burdensome. For example, several of us wanted to identify and analyze a particular educational problem. My call to action was: collect some data, get some numbers. I did not want to create a well-thought out survey with a Likert scale just so we could collect more numerical data. Why can’t the numbers do the talking, I thought? Why go qualitative and in my mind messy when quantitative data is so clean and clear? Even the literature review we conducted of social science articles and journals left me distressed, because this review only revealed uncertainty and conflicting theories and results. I thought of research as quantitative, measurable and readily replicated. Developing research questions that I could test outside a lab seemed less important than what I (wrongly) considered real research. My sense of purist scientific superiority and adherence to certain conventions made it, at times, impossible for me to contribute in any positive way to collaborative research projects. My colleagues labeled me “difficult” and “rigid,” but my ego heard them saying “scientific with high standards.” Another example from the annals of interdisciplinary awkwardness involved my entrenched ideology about the requirement of a control. Any type of control would do; my mantra required research to report validity, reliability and reproducibility. I asked colleagues why an ethnography couldn’t report standard error. I wondered aloud if qualitative methodologies lacked rigor. The dumbfounded looks on my colleagues’ faces remain fixed in my mind today; it was as if I had asked to bake bread at the bank.
I know part of my problem had to do with the difficulty many scholars have. The melding or union of the scientific and social sciences is what many on either side of the divide would describe as unholy matrimony, and it requires a paradigm shift. Some researchers have even declared the qualitative and quantitative paradigm divide akin to “war” (see Onwuebuzie & Leech, 2005, p. 376). Yet I thought I understood paradigm shifts, and I had many advantages other scholars did not. For one thing, I was in a place many would consider the ideal place to collaborate. As I have explained, Jeddah is home to a global mix of people, religions and cultures; Effat University is pioneering in its desire to educate Saudi women, to offer diverse and important disciplines for undergraduate and graduate students, and to be excellent at everything it does; the faculty at Effat University is extremely diverse in national make-up, experience and education. Many of us also believe in the idea of interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Yet none of this seemed to help when I actually did collaborate with my colleagues.
At about this time, I attended the “Conference in Linguistics, Literature, and Translation” held at Effat University. At the conference, I listened to a presentation by Professor Susan Hunston of the University of Birmingham. Her presentation was titled “The language of value and the discourse of disciplines,” and she explained that different disciplines do indeed use different languages. Hunston reported that a detailed examination of variances in language can suggest differences in the culture and ideology of a specific discipline. A quick summary of the results presented on large corpus data indicated to her the distinct variances in language choices between disciplines. She found that when members of different disciplines tried to work together in interdisciplinary projects their language differences were exacerbated.
Later, when I researched Hunston’s ideas further, I found other scholars agreed with her. Bracken and Oughton (2006) highlight the problems of interdisciplinary communication specifically between physical and social geographers.
The cumulative effect of frustrated and ineffective communication and a feeling of disciplinary vulnerability may be disastrous. … It may seem easier to just walk away, and engage in parallel rather than true interdisciplinary research. (Bracken & Oughton, 2006, p. 380)
Rather than walk away, Bracken & Oughton suggest interdisciplinary group members employ careful use of language, practice active listening and develop an awareness of disciplinary language differences. Interestingly Bracken and Oughton’s (2006) research was conducted in an all-female setting. They note the addition of a male research member might have led to different results (Bracken & Oughton, 2006, p. 381). I would propose the addition of any new researcher, regardless of gender, could have rocked the interdisciplinary research communication boat. Bracken and Oughton’s research and Hunston’s presentation made me realize I was not imagining the difficulties that I encountered when I tried to communicate in ‘academic’ terms with my colleagues. My scientific discourse was preventing me from communicating with them.
I am in a wonderful position to create meaningful interdisciplinary teaching, learning, and research. Yet this opportunity will be lost if I cannot overcome my disciplinary culture, ideology, and language. I will not be heard or recognized nor will I hear or recognize my colleagues if I do not change. If I am not introspective about the nature and extent of my use of discipline specific language, I may also miss out on potentially significant teaching opportunities. I may fail to teach my students how to change. Interdisciplinary teaching and collaboration results in personal growth and development, and this makes interdisciplinary practice worthy of the time, energy, frustration and self-analysis required.
As a model of interdisciplinarity, many institutions may not offer a similarly immersive environment as Effat University. Nevertheless, from my experience, I hope scholars can see that the individual’s ability to look through different lenses and listen and understand divergent voices while balancing personal disciplinary limitations is what exemplifies the core of interdisciplinary teaching and research. Universities and colleges can support, initiate, and develop interdisciplinary collegiality, but all will remain an abstract ideal unless interdisciplinary researchers and instructors, especially those like myself, identify and comprehend the real potential of interdisciplinarity.
1) See http://www.kff.com/en/Effat-University for an visual documentation of Effat University’s inspiring “firsts”
2) See http://www.effatuniversity.edu.sa/Student-Life/Pages/Effat-Ambassadors-Program.aspx for a detailed outline of this unique program.
3) See Kéchichian (2014) for a detailed and intriguing look into the life and time of Queen Effat Al-Thunayan Al-Saud, an astounding Arab woman.
Bracken, L.J. & Oughton, E.A. (2006). ‘What do you mean?’ The importance of language in developing interdisciplinary research. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 31, 371-382.
Hunston, S. (2014, November). The language of value and the discourse of disciplines at the Second Interdisciplinary Conference in Linguistics, Literature, and Translation, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Kéchichian, J.A. (2014). ‘Iffat al Thunayan: An Arabian queen. East Sussex, UK: Sussex Academic Press.
Onwuegbuzie, A.J., & Leech, N.L. (2005). On becoming a pragmatic researcher: The importance of combining quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 8(5), 375-387.