by Evan Klavon, English
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2017
Navigating multiple approaches to the same topic can be tough—even more difficult is learning to articulate connections across disciplines. As a TA for Intro to Environmental Studies, I guided students in learning and writing about cultural conceptions of nature, the history of conservation philosophy, and ecological science. By mid-November, we had practiced analytic skills applied to scientific arguments, as well as to literary representations of nature. The fifth writing assignment, however, posed a new challenge: interdisciplinary synthesis. Students now had to analyze how a poem by Gary Snyder portrayed a city literally and metaphorically as an ecosystem, requiring them to combine ecology and literary analysis, interpretive frameworks previously practiced separately. The semester’s shifts between disciplines had already proved difficult for a number of students, and many expressed confusion about how each approach related to the others. I needed to make sure they felt supported, and to show them they had the skills to rise to the challenge of both the assignment and the course—they just needed to learn a method for combining their methods.
To give students practice applying knowledge from one discipline to an object from another, I designed an in-class col/laboratory experiment. I scaffolded the lesson to build on their existing knowledge, using guidance and collaboration to practice more complex skills, in preparation for individual implementation on the essay. Step 1: Gather Materials To review existing knowledge and make it ready-to-hand for new uses, we crowdsourced a map of ecological concepts; as these were called out, I had the class guide me in arranging them in topic clusters on the board. Step 2: Calibrate the Equipment Next, I asked each student to give an example of how Berkeley’s campus is literally an ecosystem, citing a particular concept cluster, or how it is like an ecosystem in a non-literal way. Occasionally I followed-up, asking them to compare the campus-as-ecosystem with their hometowns or famous cities. My goal was for students to practice applying the concepts to familiar objects before applying them to the more intimidating object of the poetic text. Discussion of similarities and differences between literal and metaphorical cases, such as levels in a food pyramid versus socioeconomic hierarchies, also provided an opportunity to verify and clarify students’ understanding of nuances of ecology. Step 3: Run Individual Trials After this full-group preparation, the next activity modeled a procedure that could be used at home for pre-writing analysis. Students made small groups, one for each concept cluster, and the members divided up the concepts among themselves. They then re-read Snyder’s “Night Song of the Los Angeles Basin,” taking time to annotate moments in the poem that portrayed their concepts. Step 4: Compare Results The members then pointed out these moments to each other, discussed how the cluster’s concepts combined in the poem, and decided which were literal and which metaphoric. Step 5: Combine and Interpret the Data Using the remaining time, we went through the poem section by section; the groups would report the ecological portrayals they’d identified, and the full class built upon those accumulating analyses, discussing the perspectives of both disciplines: How does the poem teach us to see Los Angeles in new ways? and How do we read the poem differently by using our knowledge of ecology in interpreting it?
Interdisciplinary synthesis is an improvisation as much as a method, so assessment via the full-class interactions of the lesson was important for real-time support. Having scaled-down each individual’s task and seeded concepts to frame interpretation, when it came to the full-class discussion, Snyder’s often oblique and occasionally obscure style became not only legible but provocative for students, rather than intimidating. I myself learned a lot from the insights and disputes they generated and worked through together. In the subsequent section meeting, students assessed each other using a peer review worksheet structured to reinforce the previous lesson. When I read the papers, I was pleased to find new points made that showed continued reflection beyond our discussion. Students’ participation in the last classes of the semester, and in a study session preparing for the final exam, revealed an enhanced fluency in weaving together the course’s multiple strands, as well as greater comfort and confidence in writing about poetry.