8 No. 5
Just Add Water
An interdisciplinary experiment
Reading and Resources
"Why do Atlantans not know that there are massive river
systems throughout the state, that a major river runs through the city, that the city dumps all these effluents into it?"
"When the impervious [surface] area rises to 30 percent,
the stream habitat becomes completely degraded. On campus,
we have greater than 50 percent impervious area."
A social watershed
Water as Sacred
Jewish and Christian traditions
The Rarest Element
Despite centuries of research, mysteries of water remain
The search for truth is in one way hard and in another way easy, for it is evident that no one can master it fully nor miss it wholly, but each adds a little to our knowledge of nature, and from all the facts assembled there arises a certain grandeur.
—Aristotle, Metaphysics II.1 993b1
Interdisciplinarity is widely regarded as a value in academic institutions such as Emory, though its precise significance is not easy to pin down. It is probably safe to say that most people think of it in terms of finding resonances in other disciplines of the highly abstract conversations that occur in their own. But this is not the only way to think about it. What if we brought together different disciplines to address a topic of considerable public interest on the ground level—that is, through practical engagement rather than theoretical discussion?
That is the question we tried to answer last spring, with the classroom as our laboratory. Basically, the idea was to teach an undergraduate course on the environment from a variety of disciplinary perspectives in the sciences and humanities. The choice of an environmental topic stemmed from personal interest: both of us were founding members of Emory’s Piedmont Project, which encourages faculty to teach on environmental issues across the curriculum, and we had already (though separately) taught courses on the concept of sustainability in our own disciplines.
Like many in our community, however, we shared a feeling of dismay about the sorry state of public discourse on the subject, a problem at least partly attributable to its sheer size and complexity: where the environment is concerned, the whole is always implicated by the parts. Further, the problem seemed only compounded by the tendency of specialized academic inquiry to conquer by dividing, each discipline using its own methods to reduce complex phenomena to more readily tractable parts—thereby “making many out of one,” as Socrates said. Now perhaps there is no ”one” where the environment is concerned. But we did not want simply to assume this. We wondered whether a different approach, developed in the give-and-take atmosphere of the classroom, might offer a better perspective on the problem.
We wanted to teach a course on an environmental topic that would reflect its complexity, encompassing not just its scientific dimensions but its historical, political, philosophical, and literary aspects as well. A daunting task—perhaps impossible if you think of it in terms of shuffling together the relevant content from each discipline into a single, coherent, fourteen-week package. So we made two simplifying moves. First, we decided (with the help of Walt Reed of the English department and the Institute of the Liberal Arts) to focus the course more narrowly on water as a “vital element,” since that topic came up in interesting ways in all of the disciplines we wanted to bring together.
Second, we felt it would be a mistake to teach the course from any single, overarching perspective, as if one discipline could supply the master narrative that would make sense of it all. So we decided to live our interdisciplinarity by modeling it for our students: we would each try to practice the other’s discipline, whether that involved doing field experiments or evaluating ancient Greek arguments on the origins of the physical universe. What our students would see is a philosopher and a geologist expressing their concern for the environment by learning to speak each other’s language on the subject of water. Our hope was not that disciplinary concerns would simply melt away in the light of pure inquiry (though that had sometimes been our experience in Piedmont Project workshops), but that students would come to appreciate the complexity of the problem and thus cease to be tempted by the sort of glib, facile, and—let’s be honest—idiotic responses to environmental questions one often encounters in the public domain.
Getting our hands wet
Such, at least, was the plan. We opened the first class by telling our students that we had no idea what was going to happen in the course or what we were going to talk about (which was partly true), but that we wanted them to come along for the ride, promising only that it would be fun as long as they were willing to get their hands dirty—or rather, wet—along with us (which turned out to be completely true). In order to bring some structure to our fluid topic, the course was organized around the hydrologic cycle: the natural cycling of water passing from the oceans to the atmosphere, falling back to earth, and eventually joining streams flowing back to the oceans. The human dimension quickly became apparent as we observed the effect that development has had on water quality in stream channels passing through urban areas.
Over the course of the semester, we—that is, students and teachers alike—waded through streams to study their shape and rate of flow, argued about whether water quality could indeed be affected by the loss of “keystone species,” calculated the time it might take a plume of diesel fuel from a leaking underground tank to contaminate a nearby lake, examined the ancient Stoic claim that the universe is entirely comprehensible by reason in view of “chaotic” physical phenomena such as turbulent flow, visited a wastewater treatment plant to see how clean water is engineered, considered the impact of roads and buildings on the biodiversity of streams that run through the Emory campus, heard from a visiting speaker about the impact of environmental degradation on water resources in developing countries, and so on. If these activities appear to have little in common, well, that was partly by design. What was important to us was that we did them together and that, in the process, we appreciated some of the different perspectives on water.
Along with theories, we tried to cast aside another academic pretense—that of dominating expertise. This proved difficult because of long-standing conventions about teacherly authority, but we wanted to foster in our students (who were mostly juniors and seniors) the idea that they were really our fellow inquirers, and encourage them to bring some of these new experiences to bear in their end-of-semester papers and projects. Our solution was to assume the role of student every chance we got, taking a seat in class whenever the other was lecturing or leading a discussion, querying our guest lecturers and tour guides, and generally doing everything we were asking our students to do. We never knew quite what we would discover on any particular day, but the experience was one of the most rewarding of our teaching careers.
The students’ majors varied from biology, chemistry, and environmental studies to philosophy, English, and art history. We required them to write weekly journal entries for the first eight weeks, relating the topic of water to their personal experiences. Students from different majors were asked to review each other’s term paper topics, working to broaden perspectives. Were we successful with the students? Not entirely. Some complained that the course was too wide-ranging and that we tried to do too much. Others had trouble moving out of their own disciplinary boxes: science majors did not always see the point of studying the element-based cosmologies of ancient Greek and medieval scientists because they are “so obviously false;” humanities majors were not impressed by a mid-term exam that required bringing their calculators and actually using them to solve numerical problems. Most students liked the constantly changing perspectives, though; a typical comment was: “the guest speakers were excellent, as well as the field trips (except for sewage treatment).”
So we’re not going to talk about sewage treatment. Instead, we want to use this issue of AE to offer you just a sampling, in the form of three short essays and two q&as, of some of the interdisciplinary topics that came up in the water course (two of the essayists and one of the interviewees made similar presentations in the course and we have asked them for a return engagement here). We hope that you will find the discussion stimulating. But beyond the discussion, the experience of trying to live and think in another discipline is one we can highly recommend.