By Dr. Bruce Finklea ’07
A map of Alabama’s multiple habitat zones colored in various shades of blue filled the screen in the Harman 104 biology lab while Dr. Jill Wicknick, associate professor of biology, led a group of students — a mixture of biology and art majors — in a discussion about bird migration patterns in the state.
She drew their attention to the boundary between the coastal plains region and the rest of Alabama’s habitats. With the “tap-tap-tap” of chalk, she wrote “Fall Line” on the board.
“The fall line is where you go from areas that are more mountainous to areas that are flatter,” she explained. “The thing that’s interesting about the fall line is that a lot of species won’t cross it. They live on one side of the fall line or the other, but they don’t live in both places because the habitat is so very different.”
In the back of the room sat Dr. Kelly Wacker, professor of art, and Amy Feger, adjunct instructor of art. “I love sitting in the back,” Wacker whispered, “because I’m always in the front.” Less than an hour earlier, this group was in Bloch Hall studying illustrations of aquatic life created by artist and naturalist Philip Henry Gosse. There, Wacker led the discussion from the front of the room, while Wicknick sat in the back.
The two professors are co-teaching an interdisciplinary class combining art and zoology, and unlike the species Wicknick is talking about with the students, they are willing to cross into different intellectual and physical habitats across UM’s campus.
And they’re not the only ones.
A few days earlier, Dr. Susan Caplow, assistant professor and coordinator of environmental studies, and Karen Graffeo, professor of art, gathered with their students in the lobby of UMOM to assemble an art installation — one of a series the class will display across campus — created by a mix of majors in their team-taught class, “Blue Planet: Water, Survival and Artistic Expression,” or “Water and Art,” as the students refer to it. This class is made up of art and environmental studies majors, as well as students in UM’s Honors Program.
These classes are just two examples of co-taught interdisciplinary classes being offered at UM. The University’s emphasis on liberal arts deliberately exposes students to a wide variety of disciplines with the goal of getting students to cross intellectual fall lines on campus. Co-taught courses like these help further blur those boundaries.
In fact, UM’s Environmental Studies Program requires majors to take at least two co-taught courses. “It’s foundational to be exposed to interdisciplinary thought,” said Caplow. “Really what it does for the students is it models that academic conversation in a way that having one professor in one discipline [can’t]. Even if they’re speaking about interdisciplinary topics, it can’t replace the conversation between the two people in the two disciplines.”
Graffeo said their collaboration allows students to better understand the science and spirit of water from both sustainability and artistic viewpoints.
For Wacker and Wicknick, converging their two disciplines opened new doors for students by “using art to understand biology and using biology to inform art,” Wicknick said. They hope students will apply interdisciplinary thinking beyond the classroom. “Having conversations with people you don’t normally interact with — I think those are lifelong skills,” said Wacker.
Of course, bringing students from different disciplines with varying skillsets can create some unique challenges in the classroom. For example, many of Wicknick’s students had not taken an art class. Luckily, they were able to obtain a grant that paid for Feger to come teach students how to draw. “One of the first challenges was familiarizing biology students with drawing tools,” said Feger. Meanwhile, art students became more observant of the natural world, noticing things like butterflies and moths. “They were boasting about seeing things outside of class and knowing what they were,” Wacker added.
Back in UMOM, Graffeo described the scene as students began assembling their art installation — a waterfall made of mostly recycled materials, like plastic bags, bottles and cans — as “carefully choreographed chaos.” The students worked together to figure out how to unite the individual components they’d made into a single cohesive piece. “Since it is a group project, there tends to be some chaos in decision making,” Graffeo told the class. “I like that. I think if we eliminate chaos in decision making, we’ll eliminate discovery.”
While not chaotic, there is a carefully choreographed fluidity to the structure of these co-taught interdisciplinary courses that allows for spontaneity. Before the classes started, the professors quickly discussed any changes to what they’d be covering. As one professor guided the class discussion, the other would chime in numerous times with comments and insights.
As Caplow was talking with students about the devastating effects natural disasters can have on manmade water systems, Graffeo brought up a documentary and artwork inspired by Hurricane Katrina. “Every day is a little bit of a surprise because I don’t know what (Graffeo) is going to do,” said Caplow. “To use an expected metaphor, we’re going with the flow a lot.”
That flow also includes how team-taught courses are developed by partnerships between faculty to explore a particular issue in a certain place and time. Many of the classes are unique “one-off experiences,” according to Caplow. “That’s what I like about them,” she said. “They’re kind of ephemeral. You catch them; and if you don’t, they’re gone forever.”
Although both of these courses are the result of lengthy conversations and planning — in Wacker and Wicknick’s case, years of discussions — there were still some worries that merging different disciplines wouldn’t work. On a recent field trip to Dauphin Island, Wacker and Wicknick split their class into teams comprised of both art and biology majors and assigned them with various projects, including creating temporary art pieces on the beach and drawing event and heuristic maps. Wacker said despite her concerns that some of the projects wouldn’t go as planned, students “resolved some of the tasks that they had in ways I hadn’t even thought about. And that was exciting to see happen.”
Caplow also enjoys seeing students connect concepts across disciplines and addressing problems in unexpected ways. “I think there’s just a lot of those kind of serendipitous moments where I’m like, ‘Oh, wow! There is a connection there I would not have seen,” she said.
Bria Owens, a speech-language pathology major taking the class as part of the Honors Program, said the artistic element of the course helped her see how art can get people involved with sustainability issues.
“Art has a way of moving you, whereas an article isn’t really going to do that,” she said. Owens recalled the viral video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nostril that sparked a nationwide conversation about single-use plastics. “It’s that idea of merging [art and environmental issues] and using art as the way to channel the action.”
Caplow added that the waterfall project was a prime example of how students drew connections between sustainability and art without being prompted to do so. “(Graffeo) didn’t tell them to use specific materials, but the use of literal trash and repurposing materials has a very clear sustainability focus,” she said. “I didn’t know what the students would bring in or what it was going to look like. But it’s great! It’s exactly the kind of stuff I think is really powerful, but somewhat unexpected.”
Caplow credits a lot of these discoveries and connections to the fact that many co-taught courses are offered as upper-level electives that students take after they have become more well-versed in their respective majors. “It’s giving them that liberal arts look at how everything fits together, but allowing them to also bring their own expertise,” she said.
“We have students from art who are used to making things, and then we have students who have never gotten to take an art class who really enjoy the activity of making,” Graffeo added. “And they’re doing a great job. They inform each other and inspire each other.”
Wicknick also sees how the different majors combine their skillsets. “The art students are looking at biological specimens maybe for the first time. So they already have the art skills, but they don’t have the animal skills that the biology students have.”
“They’re all beginners and experienced at the same time, but in different things, which has been really interesting,” Wacker added.
For Graffeo, there are benefits of pooling knowledge for both professors and students. “It’s the first time I’ve taught with a colleague, which is so nice. I don’t have to know everything that (Caplow) knows,” she said. “In the discussion, you didn’t see an art student or an Honors student or an environmental studies student. You saw everybody as a contributor. And I think that’s the great thing about the liberal arts education. I think future sustainability relies on practice and collaboration, rather than every single person being a specialist about every single thing.”
Moving forward, the cross-platform classroom initiative will continue to expand. This spring, Dr. Erin Chandler will collaborate with University Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Carey Heatherly to offer a class on banned books, and Dr. Alex Beringer, associate professor of English, and Dr. Stefan Forrester, associate professor of English, will offer a class on American transcendentalism.
In the fall, Dr. Michael Sterner, professor of mathematics, and Dr. Michael Patton, professor of philosophy, will team up to offer an astronomy class. Dr. Kevin Hope, associate professor of physics, and Collin Williams, professor of art, will lead a course studying the physics of art. Dr. Andrea Eckelman, associate professor of political science, and Forrester will team to offer a class on global environmental perspectives on ethics and politics.