National Recognition for CGS
Natalie McKnight leads an effort to promote CGS’s teaching methods and strengthen the College’s reputation.
If you studied at CGS, you know how powerful the College’s interdisciplinary teaching model can be—how a humanities course can build on a rhetoric course and then on a science course when professors work together to coordinate their material. Professor Natalie McKnight is convinced of the value of the CGS model, and she believes it’s time for the College to share its methods more broadly and gain the recognition it deserves as a leader in interdisciplinary education.
“We want to have a reputation for excellence,” McKnight says. “Every program at BU should be recognized nationally for being a leader in its field. I think we well deserve to be recognized.” The longtime CGS humanities professor previously taught in programs that weren’t interdisciplinary, “and I know for a fact,” she says, “that students in those programs did not learn the material as fully and as deeply as they learn it here, where they see subjects from multiple disciplinary angles.”
To begin the work of sharing the College’s success, McKnight is leading a new center at CGS called the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning (CITL). She took on the role as center director in September 2011 and, in just a few short months, has already planned the center’s first summer institute, launched an academic journal, recruited participants for a teacher training program, secured the center’s first grant, and begun planning a national academic conference.
“Obviously I selected Natalie to lead the center because I know what an incredible worker she is,” says CGS Dean Linda Wells, adding that she also values McKnight’s vision and trusts completely in her judgment. “I knew she would get this center up and running, and she has already exceeded all expectations.”
Summer programs for alumni
Among CITL’s list of activities intended to promote interdisciplinary thinking is a program designed with CGS alumni in mind. The center’s summer institutes, says McKnight, “will allow CGS to reconnect with alumni and will allow parents of CGS students and the general public to get a taste of what it’s like to look at a subject from various angles—learning from a scientist, a historian, a humanities specialist.”
The series of educational workshops kicks off this July with a three-day event, “Baseball: An Interdisciplinary Summer Institute.” In celebration of the 100th birthday of Boston’s Fenway Park, the institute will include a Red Sox history lesson from Associate Professor of Social Sciences Tom Whalen, a course in baseball statistics and physics from Natural Science Lecturer Andy Andres, a discussion of baseball’s role as an American religion with Humanities Lecturer Joshua Pederson, a review of baseball in film with Humanities Lecturer Christopher Fahy, and—of course—a Sox game at Fenway Park.
Sharing best practices, gaining status
The center’s other pursuits are aimed at more academic audiences. Impact, the center’s peer-reviewed online journal, will publish its first issue this spring. With an editorial board composed of CGS professors and other national experts in interdisciplinary education, the journal will include book reviews, essays highlighting effective classroom strategies, research reports, and more. “I’m particularly interested,” says McKnight, “in getting people in the field of neuroscience to talk about the way the brain works and why, given the way the brain works, approaching things from an interdisciplinary perspective is so effective.”
Also launching this spring is CITL’s postdoctoral and graduate teacher training program, which allows PhD students or recent PhD graduates who have little or no classroom experience to work side by side with CGS faculty members, learning their teaching methods. While McKnight expects the program to draw applicants from throughout the Boston area eventually, she is first targeting postdoctoral researchers and graduate students on BU’s Medical Campus.
Linda Hyman, BU’s associate provost for graduate medical sciences, says that many PhD students in biochemistry or biophysics, for example, plan to become university professors, “but we have limited opportunities for them to participate in any teaching, because we don’t have a large undergraduate constituency here on the Medical Campus.” The training program at CGS, she says, will help these future professors gain valuable teaching skills, which they can later highlight on their CVs when they apply for jobs. And when these trainees turn out to be stellar Chemistry 101 instructors, says McKnight, their success will reflect well on CGS. “It will enhance our reputation not just as people who can teach general education,” she says, “but as people who teach other people to teach general education.”
McKnight is also planning a series of academic conferences focused on interdisciplinary teaching, the first of which is scheduled for 2013. She hopes the conference will generate enough revenue to fund research opportunities for CGS students. She’s also working with fellow faculty members to develop assessment tools that will be far better than today’s standardized tests at measuring students’ progress. “Colleges and universities are desperate to find some kind of assessment instrument that can give quantitative and qualitative data, but in a nuanced way,” she says. She and CGS colleagues are fine-tuning such an instrument they’ve developed using their students’ electronic portfolios, and McKnight is scheduled to discuss their progress at several academic conferences this summer. Developing and sharing this valuable tool, she says, is yet another way that CGS professors are positioning themselves as national leaders.