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Dining Across Disciplines

TC faculty members gather for a series of domain dinners to discuss cross-disciplinary themes ranging from policy across the human lifespan to health and education.
 “What are the questions only we can answer?”
That, more or less, is how TC President Susan Fuhrman has started off each of the five “domain dinners” held this past winter—gatherings of the College’s faculty who, despite hailing from different departments and fields, have overlapping interests that suggest rich potential for collaboration. Each dinner has focused on one of several cross-disciplinary themes identified via TC’s review of academic programs, which the College launched in the fall of 2008—an effort that has included both self-studies by TC faculty and analysis by scholars from other institutions.
The themes discussed thus far at the domain dinners are policy across the human lifespan; learning, cognition and technology; schools as hubs of communities; global citizenship; and health and education. (To read Inside’s coverage of the first two dinners, visit www.tc.edu/news/article.htm?id=6734.)  The perspectives have been wide-ranging—and that, says Provost Tom James, is exactly as it should be.
“What impresses me most about these discussions among faculty is that they go to the essence of research universities,” says James. “What are we, after all, if our quest is not all about generating new insights into human development, mobilizing that knowledge into innovative approaches to social action and professional practice, and then working beyond our walls and beyond our comfort zones to change the world for the better?  This prospect has been the underlying topic of conversation at all the dinners.”
For example, virtually everyone at the third dinner embraced schools as hubs of communities—an idea described by professor emeritus Edmund Gordon as “as old as TC itself”—which calls for schools to act as the point of delivery for a range of community services that help children, including health care and parent support.
Yet there was intense discussion of what, precisely, pursuing such a model might entail for the College.
“In the 1980s, we did a lot of work at the University of Wisconsin on schools as communities of support, and the one confounding thing was how unchanged the curriculum was,” said Nancy Lesko, Professor of Education. “The stuff kids learned remained unchanged—it had as little meaning as ever. The community model couldn’t touch what counted as academic knowledge. And we couldn’t find quantitative measures to show student change.”
Fuhrman echoed that concern, calling academic curriculum “the doughnut hole” that too often is left unimproved by surrounding services to schools.
“Geoffrey Canada [CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone] asks why anyone should have to demonstrate that teaching a poor child violin affects her math ability, and he’s absolutely right,” she said. “But on the other hand, if we can’t demonstrate that what we’re doing improves academic performance, no one’s going to fund it.”
Others stressed the need to ensure a true collaborative spirit with communities to be served.   
“In my view, you can’t deal with the issue of community and democracy without raising issues of who makes the decisions,” said Hope Leichter, Elbenwood Professor of Education. “Where does the agency lie? Where does the need to know meet the need to tell?”
Several faculty members felt that pursuing a community school model would present opportunities to train a new breed of educator, both at the school leader and teacher levels. Michael Rebell, executive director of TC’s Campaign for Educational Equity, said that he and Gordon are working on a curriculum for TC students who would serve in community schools, and that they are soliciting input from the entire faculty. 

 “By next year, we hope to have identified a handful of courses that might be a concentration, though not as a separate, formal program,” Rebell said.
The dinner on global citizenship showcased a particularly diverse range of ideas and concerns. Some faculty members, such as Maria Torres-Guzman, Professor of Bilingual Education, called for greater support of multilingualism. Others, such as David Hansen, Professor of Philosophy and Education, argued for a broader approach to globalism than citizenship. “To me, ‘global citizenship’ connotes homogeneity, which at its extreme could be a recipe for totalitarianism,” Hansen said. A better term, he said, is “cosmopolitanism,” which he described as “openness to the world fused with loyalty to the local.
“It’s about human beings on the ground today finding ways to more fully inhabit the local,” Hansen said. “A cab driver is more cosmopolitan than a globe trotter staying in hotels.”
Which led to the question of what one might teach such a person—and by what means.
"Who was it who invented the telegraph and said, 'Now Maine can talk to California, but what do we want to tell each other?’” said Renee Cherow-O’Leary, Assistant Professor of English Education. “We need to find a common language and substantive focus on culture.”
And Fuhrman focused on an even more pragmatic level: “What are the ramifications that there are people learning things now via their cell phones—and are there things that we, as an institution, can contribute to that?”
The most recent dinner, on health and education, was initiated at the request of John Allegrante, Professor of Health Education and chairman of the Department of Health and Behavioral Studies.
“I’ve been at TC for thirty years, and when we’ve thought about health during that period, we’ve always thought about it as being at the periphery of the College,” Allegrante said. “Yet we have very impressive faculty in these fields, supervising half the doctorates coming out of this institution.”
Several factors make the current moment an ideal one for changing that picture, Allegrante argued. “There have been several notable developments in recent years, particularly the World Health Organization report that highlighted education as one of the key global determinants of health,” he said. “Other studies have documented the connection between physical activity, dietary behavior and academic achievement. And there is also an emerging interest in overweight children and a consensus that obesity, rather than smoking, will be the leading preventable cause of death in the future. So clearly we, as an institution, can benefit by paying more attention to health.”
Allegrante reported that he is in the early stages of trying to win funding for a center that would advance school-based health promotion practices “which would bring many of you here together.” A key focus of the center would be on research that demonstrates that such practices “demonstrably affect not only lifetime health outcomes, but also educational achievement goals.”
Kathleen O’Connell, TC’s Isabel Maitland Stewart Professor of Nursing Education, called for a specific focus on diabetes, which she described as “one of the scariest things about the current health outlook – the disease that seemingly causes every other disease.”
And Marla Brassard, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, urged the gathering not to stint on mental health “especially violence and other social competencies.”
Robert Carter, Professor of Psychology and Education, cautioned that any focus must be accompanied by a sincere effort to build trust in local communities.
“Otherwise, they won’t believe you and buy into what you’re offering,” he said. “But most interventions don’t seek to build that kind of trust. They just go in and tell people what they need to know, instead of learning what needs to be learned first.”
To Provost James, all of it—the suggestions, concerns and counter-suggestions, were signs of increased synergy already in the making
“And synergy is the hallmark of enduring greatness for Teachers College,” he said, “past, present and future.”

Published Wednesday, Apr. 29, 2009