IN A CROWDED seminar room in the Regenstein Library, a dozen students sit at a U-shaped table discussing Keats’s “Ode to Psyche.” The line is “With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain.”

James Chandler, AM’72, PhD’78, a professor of English, reaches down and picks up the bust of a head with different sections of the brain mapped out. “Remember, in 1819 you can’t see a working brain,” he tells the students.

 

History professor Alison Winter, AB’87, looks mildly perturbed as she removes the bust from the table and places it back on the floor. “That’s for later!” she whispers. The students smile as Chandler continues to discuss Keats’s interest in pharmacology. Winter looks like she wants to interrupt but she takes rapid notes instead.

 

The course is Literature, History, and Science—1750–1850, and Winter and Chandler are teaching it together. Over the past three years, the Center for Disciplinary Innovation (CDI) at the Franke Institute for the Humanities has sponsored 18 such graduate seminars.

 

Team-taught by faculty from different disciplines, the CDI courses give new meaning to the phrase “dynamic duo.” Faculty are invited to propose a new course within the context of their disciplines, but they must show why it cannot be offered in the usual curricular structures and how it might advance understanding of the disciplines both now and in the future.

 

“Chicago has always been a place where team teaching has flourished, and we wanted to find a place to support that and make it resonate,” says Chandler, the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Distinguished Service Professor in English and director of the Franke Institute. Budgetary constraints have seriously limited team-teaching opportunities in recent years, so the center—funded and supported by the Mellon Foundation, the Office of the Provost, and the Division of the Humanities—provides vital resources.

 “Françoise knows everything about Freud and we’re both a little bit crazy so that helps,” says W. J. T. Mitchell.Françoise Meltzer, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in the humanities, cotaught a winter-quarter course with W. J. T. Mitchell, the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in English. Their seminar, Seeing Madness: Mental Illness and Visual Culture, drew graduate students from the Medical and Divinity Schools and those interested in psychiatry as well as students from English, comparative literature, and art history.

The idea for the course developed while Mitchell, who specializes in visual and verbal representations in the context of social and political issues, was gathering images for a documentary film on mental illness. But the subject matter was something he did not feel comfortable teaching on his own, he says, so he immediately reached out to Meltzer. “Françoise knows everything about Freud and we’re both a little bit crazy so that helps.”

 

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In the classroom, the relationship between teams like Meltzer and Mitchell adds a creative spark that engages students. “It helps that we’re friends and we’ve worked together for, like, a hundred years,” says Meltzer. “But in class, I’m talking about things differently because I’m trying to get a reaction out of Tom.”

 

Mitchell agrees that the team dynamic changes the classroom experience. “We argue and disagree, and it really works well because there’s this moment when the students begin to imitate the dynamic and argue with each other.”

 

The give and take involved in teamwork also “turns you into a student in your own class. I’ve taken three pages of notes while Françoise is talking,” says Mitchell. “It also makes for a more productive conversation.”

 

 For Winter, teaching the class with Chandler has been “magical.”Winter and Chandler’s course explores the interconnections between literary history and the history of science in the period from the high Enlightenment to the beginning of the twentieth century. The class is equally divided between history of science and literature students.

 

“I wanted to teach with Alison because she really commands the history of science in the nineteenth century, which is a period for which the literary historians are really looking to that field for inspiration,” says Chandler.

 

Winter says the seminar was “one of the most exciting teaching experiences by far. I think it’s because we put so much thought into how to make it so and collaborated on so many levels.” As she and Chandler planned the course, they each described the period from their perspective, discussing what they thought was important to include in the course. Both were surprised and intrigued by the other’s perspective, so they did the same exercise with the students.

 

“Our project was to have both history of science and literature change by putting it together. When [the students] came up with things that they thought should be part of a grand narrative, they did what we did when making the syllabus. The literature people looked harder into science, and vice versa. It was cool the way they tried very hard to engage with each other.”

 

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CDI courses attract a wider variety of students, “which enriches discussion and contributes to the diversity of learning,” says Hadji Bakara, a first-year English PhD student who enrolled in both winter-quarter seminars. “For example, [what] history of science students consider basic knowledge is completely out of the range of my training, so gaining their perspective on a Keats poem or Middlemarch adds an entirely new dimension.”

 

For Winter, teaching the class with Chandler has been “magical.” Remarkably, it was a discussion of the brain between the two that directed Winter to study the history of science when she was an 18-year-old student in Chandler’s class. “We were talking about whether I had the right kind of brain to be an academic, and Jim was trying to convince me that I did.”

 

At the time, Winter didn’t think of history of science as a field, much less that she would some day be team-teaching a class with him. “He was my mentor.”

 

In the classroom, Winter apologizes before presenting “her take” on things. “I know some historians of science love to one-up literature people but I don’t do it often.”

 

“You always say that—every time you do it,” counters Chandler.

 

“Maybe once or twice a year.”

 

Chandler shakes his heard and mutters good-naturedly, “Way too often.”

 

 

Spring 2011 courses sponsored by the Center for Disciplinary Innovation

 

Climate and History

Dipesh Chakrabarty (South Asian Languages and Civilizations) and Fredrik Albritton Jonsson (History)

 

Revolutionary Culture in Eighteenth-Century France and America

Eric Slauter (English) and Paul Cheney (History)

 

Same-Sex Love and Desire in Indic Literatures: Problems and Approaches

Leela Gandhi (English) and Ruth Vanita (University of Montana).

 

More information about the Center for Disciplinary Innovation and a full list of team-taught courses are available here.


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