Dr. Marc Kissel and I have recently finished teaching a course titled, Violence and Virtues, an exploration of human nature from both anthropological and theological perspectives. Interdisciplinary work is always challenging and interesting; but having now been at the Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing for over 2 years, we have both grown a little more used to the difficult – but productive – conversations that this kind of research entails. Teaching across the disciplines, though, has proved to be a very different matter; new and exciting in its own right. I want to use this blog to reflect on some of our experience and the ways it has impacted our research and our mutual understanding.
The topics taught were ‘snapshots’ of different parts of human experience and history, usually covered over two weeks. In each case, we gave the perspective of each discipline; then, students would lead discussion on the subject. Some subjects - ‘Changing Natures’ or ‘Social Organization’ - proved natural companions, with our disciplines offering mutually supportive accounts. In other cases, ‘Attitudes to Death’ or ‘Violence’ there was more of a challenge, where the work we chose was not opposed but focused on quite different things. In each case, though, the students proved up to the task and did an excellent job of bringing both disciplines together to get a view of the whole. Were we to teach the course again, we might more deliberately include more links; perhaps by looking at a particular thinker, time period, or event relevant to both.
The class of 19 students contained a very diverse range of majors. Theology and anthropology were both represented, but also Information Technology (IT); Business Studies; English Literature and more. As the class progressed, this proved to be a real asset, as students with different areas of expertise have very different instinctive responses to the questions at hand. Early on, though, it was its own challenge. We both found ourselves needing to be careful with our language: students often had different interpretations of what was said depending on their background.
This became clear on the first day. We issued questionnaires to the students to better understand the ideas they were bringing to the class. Among the questions were "What do you think theology is?, "What do you think anthropology is?", and "What does it mean to be human?". Nine students gave a description of theology that was much closer to religious studies. Answers like "theology is the study of faith based traditions" or "looking into how and why religions came to be" characterized this group. Another nie gave a description closer to the classical understanding of theology; answers like, "an attempt to understand God and his relation to man" and "Anselm’s ‘Faith seeking understanding" made an appearance here.
In response to the question "What, if anything, do you think makes us human?", there were nearly as many answers as there were students. ‘Emotion’, ‘Social relationships’, ‘The Image of God’, ‘DNA’, ‘Consciousness’, ‘Reason’, ‘The soul’ and ‘Opposable thumbs’ are some of the few that made an appearance.
Right from the start, then, there was a clear division in perspectives, and this showed in our class discussions. Thankfully the students took to these discussions extremely well and during lectures often pushed us to answer questions from a new perspective.
After the course, we asked the same questions and saw a major difference. This time around, almost all of the students offered a more accurate definition of theology – a relief for me! The answers to "What, if anything, do you think makes us human?" had also changed. There was a similar diversity of answers but this time, each individual student was more likely to identify several of them. The class, then, did not coalesce around a definition of ‘humanness’. Rather, the students on the whole left the class more aware of the breadth of perspective on the topic.
Finally - one thing that was brought into relief was the divide between Marc and me on some of the questions we discussed. In particular, I was more comfortable with a universal definition of human nature and concerned about the relativizing that could occur without one. Marc was happier with a more flexible account, and worried about the potential for excluding certain groups that could come along with drawing an exact line. We were careful to be clear with the students about this. Although our disciplines have a lot to contribute to one another, the course made clear that there are also points of disagreement.
On the whole, we both felt that the course was a real success. For both of us, it was quite an experiment in teaching in a new way. Neither of us is an expert on the entire content of the course; so, we relied on each other a great deal to construct the whole. In doing so, we found that we were forced to learn anew how different our individual perspectives and knowledge are, and that has contributed enormously to our interdisciplinary conversations at the Center. Although a little daunting at times, teaching an interdisciplinary course proved well worthwhile.