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A Survey of Multi-Section, Trans-disciplinary Courses with a Common Syllabus

Michael Axtell
Wabash College
2003-2004 Carnegie Scholar
This work was supported by the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and Wabash College

Project Introduction

The origins of this project lie within my experience of teaching at Wabash


College, an all-male institution of 850 students. Wabash College prides itself on being
“fiercely committed to the liberal arts” and the central course in its curriculum is a two
semester sequence called Cultures and Traditions, or C&T. C&T is taken by all
sophomores and is unusual in the sense that all sections do the exact same thing (for
example, discuss the exact same piece of literature) on any given day, and the course is
taught by members of virtually every department on campus. The content of the course
might be recognizable as being Great Books-ish and the emphasis is on reading,
discussing, and writing. The course is intended to embody the liberal arts ideal of life-
long learning and to model the process of how an educated individual seeks knowledge in
an area in which he or she is not necessarily an expert.

The common curriculum and transdisciplinary nature of this sequence affords


both opportunities and challenges in how the course is structured, taught, and revised.
Having witnessed the various facets of this course for several years, I began to wonder
how prevalent such courses were on other campuses and if they faced the same issues
that Wabash does. This project is the first step in addressing this question.

The project is a survey of 20 schools with courses that I designated as common


and transdisciplinary (to be defined explicitly below). The directors of the courses at the
various institutions filled out a survey consisting of 31 open-ended questions which I
have subsequently compiled into tables and response summaries. The directors also
made available course materials such as general information and course schedules. The
survey responses, tables, and course materials are all available on the website.

My sincere hope in doing this survey is twofold:

1. To provide a source of information for institutions currently teaching a


common, transdisciplinary course that may help them revise and
improve their current offering,
2. To provide a source of information for institutions that do not currently
have a common, transdisciplinary course but are curious about their
purpose, content, and organization.

At this time, I would like to thank all the directors who spent a great deal of time
in thoughtfully filling out the survey. I hope that I have correctly categorized the
responses, though I accept that any mis-categorizations are solely due to my
shortcomings in both writing and compiling a survey. I would also like to thank the
Carnegie Foundation and Wabash College for granting me the opportunity and support to
begin to pursue this project. Finally, thanks to my fellow Fellows at CASTL and to my
colleagues at Wabash, in particular my department chair JD Phillips, for invaluable
feedback that has helped to shape this project for the better.

The Working Definition of Common, Transdisciplinary Courses that I chose to use


involves four key traits. These traits are:

1. Mandatory for all (or a significant portion of) students of a given institution
(Commonality).
2. Common syllabus evident – all the sections of the course are doing the same
activities/texts. (Commonality)
3. The subject matter is not solely rooted in one discipline (Transdisciplinarity)
4. The sections are taught by faculty from across the institution
(Transdisciplinarity)

I have chosen these traits for specific purposes. I wished to study the role of a
common intellectual experience within a student body. However, this commonality
forces some measure of conformity and agreement on the part of the faculty teaching the
course. This is not always easy to achieve. Thus, I was looking for courses in which
these issues would arise in an attempt to learn what models are out there for such a
course.

Early on in my investigation I realized that I needed to make another restriction.


Some institutions, like St. John’s or Shimer College, have curriculums that are almost
entirely run on the common, transdisciplinary definition that I have presented above. I
did not feel that I would encounter the tensions that I wished to study at such institutes.
A faculty member at St. John’s accepts a position with the clear knowledge that this is the
mode of teaching and learning that they are entering into. I am more interested in
studying how a traditional curriculum institution sets up, runs, and staffs this common,
transdisciplinary course(s) within the normal departmentalized environment of most
institutes of higher learning.