Disciplinary Transparency

While taxonomies of student learning like Bloom's can go a long way toward helping you articulate your goals for your students, it is undeniably true that the majority of university instructors draw their their goals and objectives from the history, tradition, and or values of their academic disciplines. Academic fields or disciplines exist, and can be distinguished from each other, precisely because they have different answers to questions like "what counts as knowledge?", "how is it best discovered and organized?", and "how is it best transmitted to future generations of practitioners?" The answers to all of these questions (and particularly the last one) bear directly on the kinds of assignments and classroom experiences that teachers working within various disciplines are likely to prefer and/or to judge successful. Fields which regard writing as a crucial tool for thinking, for example, will be much more likely to devote a significant amount of instructional time and focus to writing assessments than will fields which regard writing as a mere afterthought to whatever they consider the main process of discovery. While we at the Bok Center are enthusiastic proponents of teaching practices based in the latest educational research, we also recognize that expert practitioners of academic disciplines have access to deep wells of sedimented wisdom about their fields’ goals and about how one moves from novice to expert—wisdom accumulated over centuries, in most cases—which are no less worthy of respect for being less "scientific."

In spite of the popular stereotypes which portray university faculty as "absent-minded" or aloof from the practical needs of "the real world," academic disciplines are fundamentally invested in examining and explaining the world around us. What really differentiates the academic study of some aspect of the world—be it the environment, the economy, Renaissance art, or corporate culture—from popular interest in the same topic is:

  1. The fact that academic disciplines subdivide human experience into categories whose boundaries are not always "natural;"
  2. The fact that academic disciplines employ specialized methods, vocabularies, and shared points of reference in performing their research and analyses; and
  3. The fact that academic disciplines are self-policing communities which credential their own members and submit their research to rigorous peer review before it is shared with the wider world.

One of the functions of the postgraduate training which we have received is to make these features of our own academic discipline seem natural—not to mention beneficial. Of course peer review guarantees the quality of published research! Of course one should be explicit about the limitations or weaknesses of one’s own findings! Of course all sociologists must know Max Weber! To outsiders, however—a group which includes, at least at first, our students—the way we "insiders" speak in code and seem to share so many assumptions about how knowledge is made and authority conferred can have the unintended effect of making academic disciplines seem clubbish, inscrutable, or even unwelcoming. It is not at all uncommon, in fact, for students to feel as though they’ve been asked to play a game to which no one has told them the rules. Many of the operations which seem second-nature to us as instructors—"of course that claim requires a footnote!"—strike novice students as strange or counterintuitive.

While surely you will teach many students who have been initiated into the disciplinary culture(s) of your field prior to arriving in your course, it’s entirely possible that you also will be responsible for teaching students who have never contemplated these matters about your field. This is especially true if you are teaching in the Program in General Education. Such students are depending upon you as their instructor to spell out the major rules which are active in these new and unfamiliar games they have chosen to play. It is natural to balk at this demand, and to be concerned that dwelling on "skills" like how to read a paper or how to use a piece of analytical software will detract from your ability to cover the "content" of the course. In practice, however, there is no point in covering content if students don’t know what to do with it. For this reason, it is essential as a teacher that you help make the invisible or opaque conventions of your field as visible and transparent to your students as possible throughout your course.

Perhaps the very first thing which students will need to understand about your discipline is how experts in the field define what counts as a suitable research topic. To put it more simply: what kinds of questions does your discipline tend to pose, and why? What kinds of things does your discipline consider to be outside its area of expertise, or field of vision?  What kinds of explanations for phenomena does your discipline seem willing to entertain? To take but one example: historians are, individually, quite diverse in their attitudes toward religious faith, and some would, in their personal lives, be willing to entertain the possibility that events which occur in the natural world might have supernatural causes. As professional historians, however, they are aware that the discipline admits only naturalistic explanations for observed phenomena, and might feel compelled to tell a student who had argued in an essay that an event had been caused by divine providence that he had not written an "historical" essay. This is, admittedly, a somewhat caricatured example; not all fields of inquiry require practitioners to distinguish their spiritual beliefs from their professional commitments so starkly! But it illustrates the point that every field has countless unwritten rules about how it defines a legitimate object of inquiry, and these are not always made clear to students who are just learning how to ask appropriate questions.

Once an expert practitioner has defined a suitable research question, by what process does she go about producing original knowledge? Who are the people who get to perform research in your field, in what kinds of places, with what kinds of materials, by what kinds of processes, and with what kinds of support from inside and/or outside of the academy? How do those researchers, moreover, communicate their findings? Students need to be able, when they encounter the kind of data, theories, or publications produced in your field to appreciate where/when/how/why they came to be. This is crucial not only so that your students can understand them in a literal sense; it is also fundamental to their ability to put their sources, processes, and arguments into their proper context, to be able to understand the degree to which they are ordinary or extraordinary, to be able to extrapolate from them responsibly, to know how far to trust them, and to model their own intellectual production on them in a manner that reflects emulation rather than mere imitation.

At the most fundamental level, it is vital that students recognize whether your discipline produces knowledge through what we might call (with apologies to proper philosophers) induction or deduction. For our purposes, we mightsay that inductive reasoning starts with the raw, and perhaps even chaotic, data which is found "in the wild," and through a process of sorting, combining, comparing, and pattern-spotting, moves toward a theory or thesis. Deductive reasoning, by contrast, proceeds in the opposite direction, starting with a theory or thesis and then designing an experiment by which to produce the data which would be needed to test, confirm, refine, or discard it. While there are no purely inductive or deductive academic disciplines—all researchers spend at least some time developing theories to explain data they have, and at least some time designing experiments to find new data—academic disciplines tend to sort reasonably well into either the inductive or deductive camp. The STEM fields tend to be among the purest examples of deductive fields, in which hypotheses guide the process of designing experiments in search of data; more literary fields tend to be among the purest examples of inductive fields, in which the "data" already exist—Shakespeare’s plays have been written—and the question is whether the theory one proposes to layer over the data will be useful to others. Students tend not to see this distinction very clearly, particularly when they are more comfortable in one mode rather than the other. As a result, a scientist may wonder whether humanists "just read books and say anything they want to about them," while a humanist may fail to appreciate the importance of designing appropriate experiments to test hypotheses in STEM. Clarifying what counts as a meaningful intervention in the ongoing development of one’s field can be revelatory to students finding their footing.

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