Category: Professional practice
|Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
Discipline of History
The University of Western Australia
Although interdisciplinary studies have been steadily gaining popularity in recent years, crossing the humanities and science divide is still seen by many as a near impossible task. The entrenched perception of the apparent contradiction between rationality and relativism, coupled with differences in methodologies is often viewed as too incongruous for successful collaboration. In 2006, the author - a postgraduate feminist historian - was invited to guest lecture in an undergraduate human biology unit. Whilst the seminar sessions were less interdisciplinary and more a 'bridge-building' exercise between disciplines, they provided both the students and the lecturer with an introduction to the ways in which discipline-specific research can be shared and accessed in order to gain a more holistic body of knowledge. For the students involved, their understanding of human reproduction was enlarged by appreciating the historical and social contexts which have shaped contemporary notions of pregnancy and the foetus, as well as current attitudes towards perinatal death. For the presenter, the seminars provided a unique opportunity to test the practical relevance of recent doctoral research, as well as providing a sense of inclusion into the wider academic community.
Heeding Scott's warning, albeit unknowingly, the course coordinators for the unit Human Reproductive Biology, a second year unit offered by the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology (ANHB) at the University of Western Australia (UWA) note on the unit's website that a key learning outcome is that 'the unit [provide] students with a sound understanding of human reproduction in light of our evolutionary history, culture and society.' [http://handbooks.uwa.edu.au/units/anhb/anhb2216, accessed 10 October 2006]. With this specific outcome in mind, the course coordinators invited me to play a key role towards helping students to view reproduction within its social and cultural context.
Cross-disciplinary teaching can be hampered or even avoided because of the popular misconception that the disciplinary divides of relativism versus rationalism are too wide to be bridged in a meaningful manner. Indeed, interdisciplinary studies are challenging by nature: there are practical differences, such as methodology, as well as issues of teamwork and intellectual property which need to be resolved (McNeill, 1999, 319). This brief collaboration was not exempt from these problems; indeed, the very brevity of my involvement with the Department of ANHB perhaps exacerbated these issues. Despite this, however, student feedback - both formal and informal - showed overwhelmingly that most students in the class were able to engage with unfamiliar research and methodology, and were accepting of the idea that contemporary notions of the foetus and pregnancy needed to be understood within a particular social, cultural and historical lens; indeed, the majority of students agreed that this new knowledge served to enhance their studies in human biology in general.
This paper discusses the motivations behind this brief cross-disciplinary venture, whilst evaluating the degree of success in transporting feminist history across to human biology, from the perspective of the researcher - herself a student teacher - and the undergraduates themselves. In doing so, this paper reflects on both the in-class discussion which followed the lecture, as well as the results of a student feedback form, to gauge students' engagement with this research and to consider ways in which the seminar could be improved in subsequent years.
On the surface, the inclusion of this very specific area of humanities research into this otherwise single-disciplinary undergraduate science unit may seem like a token nod to interdisciplinarity, particularly to those who are more acquainted with integrating other disciplines' knowledge into their programs, but it does indicate a general willingness on the behalf of those at Anatomy and Human Biology to seek knowledge beyond the confines of their discipline. Interdisciplinary teaching and research at tertiary level takes as its premise that idea that the collaboration of knowledge and skill-sharing contribute to more holistic understandings of a concept and thus a better integrated knowledge base: further to this, it has been suggested that science disciplines have often appreciated IDS' ability to promote ethical awareness, particularly in areas of health research (Klein-Thompson, 1994; Connor-Greene, 2006): for example, the SymbioticA collaboration between art and science at UWA is an exemplar of this appreciation of the value of interdisciplinary knowledge sharing. However it is a rarity for a postgraduate student in the humanities to be given such an opportunity to test the practicality of their research - whilst also testing undergraduate students' willingness to engage with work that is so clearly grounded in the methodologies of a different discipline.
At this point is necessary to recognise the limits of this venture: that this was perhaps not truly inter-disciplinary in the light of the definition of interdisciplinary research and teaching as the 'formulation of a uniform, discipline-transcending terminology or common methodology' (McNeill, 1999, 314) but rather, being a project falling under the British Group for Research and Innovation in Higher Education's metaphor for 'bridge building' which 'takes place between complete and firm disciplines ... [and] is more common and less difficult, since it preserves disciplinary identities.' (cited in McNeill, 1999, p. 314). However, I shall use the term 'interdisciplinarity' both for expediency and also because I believe that despite the brevity of my involvement in this research it offered both me and the students a very useful introduction to 'true' or more developed IDS.
Many studies document successful interdisciplinary collaboration within the various disciplines of science and the social sciences, but there is a relative dearth of discussion with regard to the success of the science/humanities collaboration. Patricia Connor-Greene (2006) argues persuasively for the importance of humanities, and in particular history, in areas of contemporary health: with regard to mental illness, Connor-Greene notes that understandings of mental illness are subject to the particular socio-historical context, but argues that analysing this context is not merely useful for historians and anthropologists, but rather extends to those whose disciplines are involved with the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in the contemporary context. In a similar vein, my research is concerned with exploring the historical experience of perinatal death as experienced within particular cultural and social contexts: the results of this study then, like Connor-Greene's research, has great transportability to the discipline of human biology and can help us better understanding how a certain society has arrived at particular conceptualisations of pregnancy and pregnancy loss. Specifically, the foetal body has been host to a complexity of meanings in both the historical and the contemporary context, depending on the lens through which it is viewed. That is, there are a multiplicity of meanings inscribed upon the foetal body in both the past and today, including but not limited to the clinical environment, the laboratory, by parents, and by various sectors within the community such as religious groups and legislators. These meanings are often seemingly in opposition to each other: for example, the scientific/medical language of miscarriage - 'expulsion of products of conception' and 'spontaneous abortion', for example - are at times at odds with the ways some parents understand the ending of a pregnancy as the loss of a baby.
In highlighting the importance of inter-disciplinary research and teaching between the less traditional disciplinary coupling of science and history, Connor-Greene argues that contemporary diagnosis and treatment of mental illness are subject to their own particular cultural and social context: in a similar manner, contemporary scientific understandings of the foetus and perinatal death must be understood in light of the changing historical understandings of the foetus and perinatal death. The challenge however was to convince science students of the importance of this knowledge and the vitality of history in informing contemporary ideas of reproductive biology: that is, to effectively help students move from merely understanding contemporary 'rational' ideas of the foetus and reproduction, toward the acceptance that these are relative concepts that need to be understood within a holistic framework that takes the social and cultural context. However, despite the general acceptance of the value of this collaboration, the litmus test was the students' reaction and response to the research, and their level of engagement with such unfamiliar ideas.
Both methods of evaluation proved useful in gauging student engagement with the topic, as well as providing constructive criticism for the teacher. The class discussion was lively and animated, and the majority of students were keen to debate the different perspectives offered by the seminar, and to ask insightful and intelligent questions of the teacher. A number of students commented during the discussion on their previous lack of knowledge about perinatal death in Australia's past, remarking on how their 'scientific' knowledge had been challenged and enhanced by the seminar, and several observed that not only were their new perspectives useful for their studies, but would most likely be of benefit to them in their personal lives as they approached child bearing.
The written feedback provided more individualised results, in particular the written comments. Fifty four students completed the form, although only nineteen chose to give additional written comments. The ten statements were rated from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating that the student strongly disagreed and five indicating that they strongly agreed with the statement. Seventy two percent of students either agreed or strongly agreed that differences in terms and definitions, particularly those taken from the discipline of history, were explained in a manner suitable for the discipline of science. Seventy one percent agreed or strongly agreed that the lecture complemented other knowledge learned in the unit, and ninety five percent agreed or strongly agreed that the seminar was useful and should be repeated in subsequent years. There was a split, however, in the percentage of students who agreed with the statement that 'this lecture has given me knowledge that will enhance my studies in human biology': sixty percent agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, while the remaining percentage either disagreed or only slightly agreed with this. Written feedback indicated the variety of student responses to the seminar; for example, although the majority of the comments were overwhelmingly positive, there were several written comments which suggested both at the difficulties in crossing the disciplinary divide and the varying degree of success of my behalf in conveying the usefulness of humanities' research to science students. One student reported that the seminar was 'too subjective', whilst another student commented that '[class] discussions don't work very well with science students!'
Scott and Issa (2006) note that although the student feedback form does not enjoy wholehearted support within the higher education sector, many researchers 'advocate using student feedback as an informative tool to guide reflection and development of teaching practice, learning experiences and assessments.' Because the aim of this venture was to engage students with the notion of the multiplicity of meanings attached to the foetus, pregnancy and pregnancy loss, the feedback form was a very useful tool and students were certainly qualified to rate the success of this intention. In a larger sense for me as a fledgling tertiary educator, the feedback form was also useful in gauging the success and usefulness of this venture - that is, assessing whether or not this knowledge was truly applicable outside the discipline of history, and was my developing teaching style, only used to teaching within the history discipline, appropriate to inter-disciplinary teaching - it being hitherto uncharted territory.
This venture, therefore, whilst exciting for a postgraduate student unaccustomed to applying her research in such a practical manner, was neither uncomplicated nor straightforward: rather, there were foreseen and unforeseen challenges, as well as unexpected benefits and rewards for both myself and the students. Transporting knowledge across disciplines is only useful if teachers can successfully bridge the cross-disciplinary divide: Frost and Jean (2003) note that 'cultural faults' can easily develop in interdisciplinary teaching and learning environments if care is not taken to minimise the customary divisions between disciplines. This was particularly pertinent to this venture: because it was not solely a social science interdisciplinary exercise, but rather a move from the humanities to biological sciences there was a very real danger that the perceived and established tradition of relativist versus rational divide could alienate students from this module. With regard to epistemological boundaries 'if not properly diffused, such boundaries can generate considerable 'bewilderment', if not suspicion, in interdisciplinary discourse and reduce its potential benefits' (Frost and Jean, 2003, 142).
Thus there was a strong need to adequately explain to students the motivations behind a historian lecturing them on the history of perinatal death, and by extension, notions of the foetus as social and historical constructions. This meant that it was necessary for individual disciplinary motivations and perspectives to be explained at the outset, so that students could put their knowledge into context and in doing so, treat it holistically (Newell in Klein-Thompson and Doty, 2004, 47). This had particular relevance in this case: because it was not a truly 'interdisciplinary' unit, but rather one with smatterings of interdisciplinary components, it was vital to help students at the beginning of the module make connections with unfamiliar methodologies and motivations behind teaching this material in order for them to fully engage with the ideas behind this research.
Part of this process was examining my own motivations and aspirations for this seminar module. This included acknowledging my own entrenched adherence to traditional prejudices that have served to separate science and the humanities. Working from the unit outcomes, the rationale behind my seminar was to introduce students to the concept that reproduction does not exist within a vacuum, but rather within a particular social and cultural context; which inevitably leads to the idea that there are a multiplicity of meanings attached to the foetus, not merely the descriptive terms used within the discipline of human biology. In short, my aim, alongside the course coordinators' stated aims, was that the seminar would further the outcome of the unit that students would appreciate their knowledge within the cultural context, thereby beginning the process of guiding students towards making connections that would lead to them gaining a more holistic understanding of reproductive biology.
Fortunately for me as a guest lecturer, the existing structure of the course encouraged this atmosphere. The careful placement of my seminar module by the course coordinators, sympathetic to the idea of interdisciplinarity, meant that the unit had logically led to this event: that is, the seminar module was placed in context, with students having already been introduced briefly to the concept of relative meanings of the foetus dependent upon a host of variables- from viewing the video My Foetus, a documentary on abortion - to beginning to appreciate the reality of perinatal death by viewing the Department's collection of preserved foetuses. The seminar was the climax to previous seminars which gradually introduced the students to the complexity of meanings associated with pregnancy and the foetal body.
Frost and Jean have also suggested that 'whenever possible, designers should also attend to the preferred learning styles of participants' (2003, 144) Whilst the methodology used in my research was wholly unfamiliar to students, the foreignness of the material was lessened by utilising technology and lecturing in a manner which was wholly familiar to students in this course. For example, I used Power Point slides, which, to the amazement of some, was my first venture into such technology! Of course, this was not without hiccups - several students observed my novice status with written feedback suggesting with great tact several times that despite an 'exemplary talking style' that 'maybe the slides had too much writing?' Because of the organisation of the course - students were broken into two groups, with the module repeated for the second group later in the week - this immediate feedback meant that I was able to rectify this situation, although I was not able to cater to one student's suggestion that 'pictures of babies (live ones!)' be included in the slides in order to provide some light relief!
As mentioned previously, there was a risk of alienating students and a strict need to avoid 'ideological posturing' in the way that I presented my research to the class. Several writers have suggested ways to avoid making this fatal error, with the general consensus being that there needs to be early engagement with students, particularly if the material is from a vastly different discipline. Newell points out that 'it makes sense to start off even the most theoretically sophisticated course with a hook - a reading designed to pique students' interest in the substantive topic, to engage their emotions and to make the topic real by connecting it with their experiences and their world' (Newell, 2004, 46).
In an effort to help students 'engage their emotions', the seminar was prefaced by the telling of two stories - perhaps on the surface an odd choice in terms of conventional approaches to teaching within the discipline of science, but chosen specifically because of the necessity in demonstrating to students that there is a multiplicity of human experience that flows out from the 'rational' concepts of human biology. These stories - two women's very different memories of the death of a baby as experienced in two very different historical eras, which were relayed to me as part of my doctoral research - were designed to engage students early in the session with the 'humanness' of perinatal death, helping them move beyond merely the clinical conceptualisations of the foetus and the ending of a pregnancy. The use of these stories also introduced students to the predominant methodology used in my research- the oral history interview - a purely qualitative approach that would need some justification and explanation within the interdisciplinary context. The class discussion demonstrated that this approach worked well, at least with this particular group of students. When one student asked why bereaved parents not just 'have another baby' like people 'replace pets', instead of grieving for the lost baby, the rest of the class referred back to the original stories presented at the beginning of the lecture, pointing out to this student that for many families, the lost baby is an individual and unable to be merely 'replaced'.
Frost and Jean also point to the necessity for a balance between explaining the context of the 'guest' discipline and a deferral to the 'home' discipline. They state that 'communication outside one's home discipline has ... become more difficult as fields of knowledge rely on increasingly complex contents, methodologies and jargons. The uncertainty of venturing into new territories of discourse can be daunting, revealing intolerance and ignorance and raising anxiety and defensiveness' (2003, 122). This was particularly relevant to this seminar: students were being exposed to methodologies which were seemingly in direct opposition to the quantitative methods that they were being taught as science undergraduates. Allowing the class discussion to be flexible and creating an open forum meant that students were able, and encouraged, to question the differences between the methodologies and to gain an appreciation of any complementary benefits of qualitative and quantitative research. Having the course coordinator help with the finer points of quantitative research was an advantage, and served to highlight the importance of supportive relationships when teaching in an interdisciplinary environment.
With particular reference to seemingly conflicting methodology, feminist historians have moved away from the biological definitions of gender towards viewing gender as socially inscribed categories. Scientific discourse has held that biological categories of maleness and femaleness are rational and true, whereas my research approaches these categories in a different manner entirely. Indeed, as Baez notes, 'essentialism has proved dangerous for 'the other' (2004, p.300): an assertion likely to cause defensiveness amongst peers, let alone undergraduates.
However, in my efforts to convincingly present my research to the students, I also had to resist the temptation to actually argue on essentialist terms in order to strengthen my argument -for example 'all women feel significant grief after stillbirth' - whilst still managing to convey my research in a manner that did not put students offside (that is, expressing relativity without losing credibility!).
However, despite any obstacles and challenges it is apparent that many students benefited from this seminar: gaining a wider appreciation of the fact that reproduction does not exist within a cultural vacuum. While this was only a brief excursion into history, it perhaps acted as a 'conversation starter' whereby students could go on to continue to frame their learning within a wider context. Both comments made in the class discussion and on the feedback forms indicates that this is a fairly safe assumption to make, with a number of written comments echoing this sentiment: 'interesting to see a different approach, which I'd never thought of'; 'a very relevant and important discussion, it was great to be introduced to the history as that in itself illustrated the changing views [of the foetus] and the need to be open to this' and 'fantastic, lots of food for though and a different perspective on a topic often treated clinically and sterily [sic].'
Although this was not true 'inter-disciplinary' work, but rather the form of 'bridge building' described by the British Group and other scholars, the benefits that I also gained were perhaps as strong as those benefits gained by the undergraduate students: as a student of teaching myself, the immediate feedback of students; the opportunity for networking; and the forcing me to find clarity in presenting my work to a vastly different audience were all benefits unlikely to be found whilst remaining solely within the confines of my home discipline.
As a postgraduate student with some experience in lecturing within the discipline of history - including lecturing on my own research - this venture offered what Frost and Jean have called a 'sense of intellectual renewal' particularly important for those usually working alone (2003, 137). Although there is a vibrant Australian history community within the Discipline of History at UWA, none of the other postgraduates or research staff have direct links with the focus of my research and this opportunity provided me with an inclusion, albeit brief, into the wider intellectual community of the university. Researchers, say McNeill, thrive on 'complexity, variety, and indeed, on intellectual conflict' (1999, 327) - variables which a postgraduate researcher is unlikely to find by confining themself to a single discipline.
Student feedback, both reviled by detractors as unqualified and honoured by proponents as immediate and genuine, was sought through a feedback form; this found that the overwhelming majority of students were cognisant of the need to understand the wider context which framed the 'rational' ideas taught within the unit. Considering the relatively fleeting nature of my involvement in the unit, one student's written comment that the seminar was 'stimulating' indicates that interdisciplinary teaching and research, however brief, can act as the beginning of a greater engagement with the breadth of knowledge regarding reproduction, the foetus and childbirth.
The nature of this dalliance with interdisciplinarity, however, proved to be too fleeting for some students whose written feedback that the seminar was 'too subjective' and 'relativistic' indicates that the perceived, if not actual, science/history divide is a well-entrenched aspect of university culture; perhaps further collaboration within these two disciplines would see a greater development of strategies which help students bridge the gap between the rational/relative dichotomy, which would then lead to a greater appreciation of the value of both disciplines - and their ability to be useful to each other - in tertiary education.
Connor-Greene, P. (2006). Interdisciplinary social inquiry: Teaching about the social construction of madness. Teaching of Psychology, 33(1), 6-13.
Frost, S. H. & Jean, P. M. (2003). Bridging the disciplines: Interdisciplinary discourse and faculty scholarship. Journal of Higher Education, 74(2), 119-149.
Klein-Thompson, J. & Doty, W. G. (1994). New directions for teaching and learning. Interdisciplinary Studies Today, 58(Summer), 1-6.
Klein-Thompson, J. (1994). Finding interdisciplinary knowledge and information. Interdisciplinary Studies Today, 58(Summer), 7-34.
McNeill, D. (1999). On interdisciplinary research: With particular reference to the field of environment and development. Higher Education Quarterly, 53(4), 312-332.
Newell, W. (1994). Designing interdisciplinary courses. Interdisciplinary Studies Today, 58(Summer), 35-52.
Scott, S. & Issa, T. (2006). Lessons learned from using students' feedback to inform academic teaching practice. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/scott-s.html
|Author: Susannah Thompson is a doctoral candidate and 2006 postgraduate teaching intern in the Discipline of History at the University of Western Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Thompson, S. (2007). When is a foetus a baby? Evaluating the application of feminist history research to undergraduate science teaching and learning. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/thompson-s.html
Copyright 2007 Susannah Thompson. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.