Unexpected connections: New team-teaching model in liberal arts explores interdisciplinary learning approaches

Students touring Fort St. Vrain

Students tour the Fort St. Vrain Generating Station in Platteville.

One might not expect faculty from the English and art departments to team-teach a course on energy, but that’s exactly what’s been happening this semester in a new College of Liberal Arts seminar at Colorado State University.

Lynn Badia
Lynn Badia

“Cultural Extraction: Energy in the Humanities” is being taught by Erika Osborne, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History, and Lynn Badia, an assistant professor in the Department of English.

The new series, “LB 393: Seminar in Arts, Humanities and the Social Sciences,” was launched by the college in an effort to stimulate interdisciplinary collaborations in teaching, according to Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Roze Hentschell, who spearheaded the initiative.

Badia and Osborne say their course on the relatively new concept of “energy humanities” looks at the relationship between energy and our daily lives through a variety of lenses. For instance, how has energy — and our ability to mass-produce and store it — contributed to our values, such as hyper-mobility?

Erika Osborne
Erika Osborne

Field trips

Badia and Osborne divided the class into three sections: energy past, energy present, and energy future. The class then visited sites representing each: the Fort St. Vrain Generating Station in Platteville, which includes a former nuclear energy generator; a local oil/gas well site that has undergone hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking;” and the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden. The instructors have also incorporated artists, films, literature and even TV series to provide context around the energy theme.

The students’ creative responses to what they’re learning will be developed into pieces of art or literature and assembled in a “mock museum” — a museum set in the future containing artifacts from our current time — at the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art’s Robert W. Hoffert Learning Center during the final week of the Fall 2018 semester. It will be called the “Museum of Energy Transitions: Real and Speculative.”

Students touring NREL

Outside the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

“The idea is to look at the present as if from the future,” says Badia, who is affiliated with the CSU Energy Institute.

The mock museum will be open from Dec. 12 through Dec. 15 during regular museum hours, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. An opening reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Dec. 13.

Students touring Fort St. Vrain
At Fort St. Vrain

Energy in art

Osborne, who is a member of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at CSU, says that the art side of the course is not just about depictions of energy in art, but how some artists use materials that relate to energy in their work. For example, one artist creates paints out of heavy metals collected from river water, while another uses automobile parts.

For her part, Badia has the students reading literature in which energy themes are described, such as historical accounts of how the smog and soot from European iron mills affected the environment during the Industrial Revolution, or how the development of labor unions among coal workers affected our democracy.

“I’ve found this course really interesting and enriching so far,” said student Kenny Idleman. “I’m really excited to see how this all comes to fruition in our exhibition at the end of the semester.”

“As a society, we almost assume that art and the humanities have nothing to do with energy,” added Kailee Bosch, another student in the course. “However, they actually have a lot to offer, bringing a whole new set of minds to the issues we are facing.”

A fracking site

“Often when my peers and I talk about energy and how we use it, we are looking at it from a scientific perspective and really only talk about reducing our use currently,” said student Molly Malone. “This class has challenged my perspective on how we use energy and my personal dependency on it.”

Interdisciplinary team-teaching

Hentschell, a professor in the Department of English, explained that unlike interdisciplinary research, historically there have been some barriers to interdisciplinary team-teaching; most faculty are paid to teach courses for their home department, not outside of it. So, as part of the new seminar series, the College of Liberal Arts dean’s office is providing home departments with funding to cover what the instructor would otherwise have taught.

Students touring Fort St. VrainThe faculty who submit the winning proposals also receive a small amount for course development, and they are expected to complete professional development work with The Institute for Learning and Teaching beforehand. Enrollment is capped at 19 students, and the seminar can be taught by up to three faculty from different departments or programs in the college.

Hentschell and a committee of department heads select the winning course proposal for each semester.

“My vision for this seminar series is that over the next couple of years we can create a small family of team-teaching experts,” Hentschell said.

Next semester

In the spring, Dan Beachy-Quick of the English department and Del Harrow of the Department of Art and Art History will team-teach a seminar on the process of creating, or making.

“Our first hope is so simple it might at first sound absurd: to do the work to get back toward fundamental aspects of making,” says Beachy-Quick. “The course veers wonderfully and wildly from philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, craft and essay, in what we’ll be reading, and there will be corresponding exercises, in clay and in language, beginning in utmost simplicity and growing more complicated as the semester goes along, meant to explore through serious play the concepts we’ll be considering.”

“One of the things I’m excited about with this class is that way in which this work back toward fundamental aspects of making also demands a deep attention to the materials we make with: in pottery, clay, and in poetry, language,” Harrow adds. “Both of our disciplines involve a kind of sustained attentiveness to the intelligence of material.”

Osborne and Badia say that co-teaching the energy class has been enriching for both of them, and Hentshell looks forward to that continuing.

“This has been a successful experiment so far,” she says. “We hope it gives students a high-impact, hands-on course unlike anything they’ve ever had.”

Students touring NREL

Inside the National Renewable Energy Lab