Head of the Class: Courageous Inquiry 2.0

A chronicle of where we've been and where we're going: Winter 2015
Story Photo

"That looks remarkably like the inside of my head," said Salman Rushdie. No, he wasn't looking at an fMRI scan but rather a white board in a seminar room covered with such phrases as "translation," "urban multicultural worlds," and "can a global citizen be monolingual?"

The white board recorded a student brainstorming session for a course on Translating "America," Translating the "Other," developed by Karen Stolley, professor of Spanish in Emory College of Arts and Sciences. This was one among a number of innovative university courses that have focused on topics as diverse as poverty, politics, violence, health, and urbanization.

Innovations in pedagogy are occurring in many different forms all across campus. The particular genius of the university course -- as pioneered in 2011 by Morgan Cloud, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law, and Jeffrey Rosensweig, associate professor of international business and finance -- is to convene diverse students and faculty from across all of Emory's schools and colleges to explore major societal issues from multiple disciplinary perspectives and teaching methods. Allowing students to learn beyond their traditional disciplinary training and engaging with faculty members whom they otherwise might not encounter results in exciting class discussions that captivate faculty and students alike.

Building intellectual community is a positive outcome of university courses. Faculty who would be in seldom contact with each other are forming new relationships for future collaborations. "The university course allowed me to interact with other members of the Emory community with a different perspective," says Timothy Holbrook of the law school about the university course he helped teach with four other faculty in 2014 on The Commercial Neglect of Treatable Diseases. "It was especially rewarding," he adds, "to teach a broad cross-section of students whose interests and objectives differ so significantly from law students."

Students in university courses also have relished the opportunity to make friends in other schools while learning the value of multidisciplinary study. "As an undergraduate at Goizueta," notes Maria Henry regarding the Translating "America" course, "it was fascinating to develop relationships and share ideas with students from the law school, graduate programs, and majors all across the college."

The courage to create new intellectual communities

The seeds, as well as support, for this instructional innovation came from Emory's strategic plan, Where Courageous Inquiry Leads. The strategies laid out in the plan led directly to new multidisciplinary opportunities for learning, teaching, and research.

The plan recognized that innovation is stimulated by free exchange in a vibrant intellectual community. This vision of community was articulated by President James Wagner in Academic Exchange in Spring 2007. In that issue, he compared different models of the university: the 20th-century research, bureaucratic behemoth -- the "multiversity," in Clark Kerr's phrase -- and John Henry Newman's 19th-century Arcadian vision of an intimate community of scholars. Are the two always incompatible, Wagner asked, with big research universities pursuing the former and small liberal arts colleges the latter?

Emory University, in Wagner's argument, has the rare opportunity in higher education to combine the advantages of both models. Among leading research universities, Emory is exceptional in having a campus containing leading undergraduate, graduate, and professional institutions in convenient proximity, all guided by an ethos of collaboration that contributes to the public good -- crucial ingredients of Emory's stated mission and vision statements. This perspective positions the university to create an exceptionally integrated research and teaching community, one that combines cutting-edge research with an accessible and flexible multidisciplinary curriculum and courses.

Tweet this: "The Emory community combines cutting-edge research with a flexible multidisciplinary curriculum."

Disciplinary and school-based boundaries are becoming more permeable at Emory. For example, the School of Medicine's innovative MD curriculum educates future physicians to take a holistic view of the patient, considering sociological, psychological, and economic factors that relate to health and well-being. The college's Center for the Study of Human Health complements these initiatives. The college also is broadening offerings with the Goizueta Business School to include three new certificate programs: Film and Media Management, Arts Management, and Environmental and Sustainability Management.

It all started with meth

While Breaking Bad thrilled television audiences in 2011, the first university course "Methland" analyzed the many dimensions of the methamphetamine abuse in the United States. Developed by Cloud and Rosensweig, the course broke down academic silos and created opportunities for faculty and students across Emory to study a common concern. "Developing and teaching the first university course," says Cloud, "was in many ways the highlight of my academic career." Rosensweig agrees: "I have been at Emory for 25 years, but nothing has been so fulfilling as seeing the university course enable so many professors and students to learn together and address key issues of the day."

Organized by the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence (CFDE), with support from the strategic plan, the series of university courses has taken off since 2011. The past five years have seen the development and implementation of 10 such courses with more than 160 faculty members either participating as instructors or taking these courses as students. More than 130 undergraduates, graduates, and professional students have taken a university course, and the courses have drawn participants from every school at Emory.

Plans already are underway at the CFDE for next year's offerings, which will include a special fall 2015 course on The Ferguson Movement: Power, Politics, and Protest. CFDE Director Pamela Scully says, "the university course is a very concrete way to realize intellectual community at Emory by bringing different schools, disciplines, and, most importantly people, together to discuss critical topics."

From "don't talk" to "talk to everybody"

Technology, of course, has helped to facilitate the new initiatives in pedagogy and community. "Don't talk to faculty," Wayne Morse was advised when he first came to Emory in the late 1990s to help develop Emory's IT infrastructure. The advice kindly implied: don't bother busy faculty with technical matters. Faculty, however, started seeking out Morse. Now as co-director of the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS), Morse leads classes for faculty and students, and consults with them individually on website design and coding, mapping, textual analysis, production of video-essays, videoconferencing, online testing and surveys, and numerous other ways to enhance teaching, research, and publication through technology.

The study of Shakespeare has directly benefitted from this effort. From the Globe Theater, Shakespeare has gone global in Sheila Cavanaugh's courses. She connects students around the world in real time to discuss Shakespeare in relation to their particular cultures. It has proved quite an eye-opener for Emory students to hear from their peers in Morocco about the contemporary relevance of The Taming of the Shrew or learn of Native American views on colonization in reference to The Tempest.

Sometimes, however, an old-fashioned bus will do as well as new technology to expose students to challenging perspectives right here in Atlanta. In his university course on The War on Poverty and Its Legacy, political scientist Michael Rich arranged for students to visit several struggling metro neighborhoods. "The field trips allowed the opportunity to learn from community members in their communities," says Nancy Arrington, a graduate student in the course. "Moreover," she adds, "there's something unique about being packed into a 14-passenger van. Some of the best discussions with my classmates about poverty, policy, and Atlanta occurred in that van on our way home from various trips."

Whether in a van, videoconferencing around the world, an online Coursera course, distance learning, a flip classroom, or the complex conversations each of us has in our own heads that might be captured on a whiteboard, innovative Emory courses are helping to realize the new intellectual community envisioned in Where Courageous Inquiry Leads.

Chronicle shares stories from Emory's 2005-2015 strategic plan. Would you like to subscribe to the Courageous Inquiry Chronicle? Please click here for more information.

Email the editor

Michelle Valigursky