Working across academic boundaries: Interdisciplinary student-faculty partnerships as innovative communities of mutual learning

Adrianna Michell & Elias Elaneh

Working in student-faculty partnerships provides opportunities for interdisciplinary projects and teams that might otherwise be unavailable. As with any student-faculty partnership, when participants approach the project with collaboration and reciprocity, there can be unexpected moments of innovation. Student reflections from MacPherson’s annual Student Partners Symposium (2019) made apparent that some of the most fruitful pairings were ones across disciplinary divides. Students from one academic field working on a project or in a classroom unfamiliar to them described experiences of mutual learning, admittedly after early feelings of discomfort. Whether students from Humanities partner with Science professors, students are involved in a team of members from across campus developing a project without the confines of a discipline, or some other interdisciplinary approach, these experiences make new perspectives, critical thinking, and genuine partnership possible.  

In a reflection on multidisciplinary partnership, Daviduke (2018) notes that relationships with faculty members from different disciplines should promote a “strong culture of collaboration” from the earliest stages of the projects. As a Social Sciences student working on developing courses and teaching in three STEM classes, her perspective was valued and she could empathize with students encountering concepts in the field for the first time–a process she was going through herself during the course of the partnership.

It is difficult to critique a course when you have been through it, whereas partners from different areas of study can offer unexpected insights.

At the annual student partners symposium at McMaster University in April 2019, Esra Bengizi described her experience as a Humanities student working with a faculty partner in Engineering. Although Bengizi recognized the generative potential of interdisciplinary work, she acknowledged that working across disciplines requires more communication, especially with the added layer of working across not only academic expertise or interest but also different axes of identity, as she is a woman of colour who was working with a white professor outside of her field. The project Bengizi and her faculty partner worked on allowed their diverse perspectives, expectations, and levels of experience to open up opportunities for bridging academic hierarchies.

Faculty perspectives also reflect the value of interdisciplinary work. The symposium panel discussion included Dr. Kim Jones (Department of Chemical Engineering) and Dr. Kim Dej (School of Interdisciplinary Sciences), two faculty members committed to partnership work across academic fields. Dr. Jones commented on the positive outcomes of projects with a unique makeup of partners with a variety of perspectives. Especially in the case of course redesign projects, it is difficult to critique a course when you have been through it, whereas partners from different areas of study can offer unexpected insights. Dr. Dej explained her conscious choice to work with Humanities and Social Sciences students in refining a Science course focused on global citizenship. She wanted her student-partners to be able to fill gaps in the course and reflected on the often surprising outcomes of teams with diverse academic backgrounds.

Working with a staff member that had experiences, expectations, and an educational background drastically different from my own taught me how to communicate my needs and learning objectives with my supervisor.

Even my own experiences point to the benefits of transdisciplinary teams. My first research position involved working with a supervisor with a Science background, while I am an undergraduate student in the Humanities. The project I was working on called for interdisciplinary perspectives and required taking dense scientific topics and translating them in a way that those outside of the academic bubble could understand (including myself). Working with a staff member that had experiences, expectations, and an educational background drastically different from my own taught me how to communicate my needs and learning objectives with my supervisor. It also introduced me to concepts that I would never have encountered on my own. Although there was some early discomfort, much like Bengizi described, it became an impactful opportunity because of our diverse perspectives.

While there is much to be said for the benefits of student-faculty partnerships within the same discipline, interdisciplinary faculty-student partnerships also have the potential to foster unique insights into teaching and learning in higher education. Partnerships within the same discipline offer deep understandings, a potential ease of communication, and overlapping skills and knowledge bases. Interdisciplinary partnerships bring different academic backgrounds together, which perhaps creates the challenge of communicating across disciplines, while also encouraging new ways of thinking. Both interdisciplinary and same-discipline student-faculty partnerships create an environment of creative potential or innovative communities of mutual learning.

Thanks to Cherie Woolmer, Beth Marquis, Abhishek Premachandra, and Michael Agnew. Thanks also to the Student Partners Symposium (2019) panelists.

References

Daviduke, N. (2018). Growing into pedagogical partnerships over time and across disciplines: My experience as a non-STEM student consultant in STEM courses. International Journal for Students As Partners, 2(2), 151-156. https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v2i2.3443

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