Presented at the Annuals Meetings of the Interdisciplinary Coalition for North American Phenomenologists (ICNAP). Shirlington, VA, May, 2011.
In 2009, Fielding Graduate University introduced a doctoral course titled Embodiment of Knowledge. Participants used phenomenology as a transdisciplinary platform for critique and conversation of multidisciplinary literature. The original course design leveraged the range and synergy of embodiment readings. Supported by tenets from phenomenology, the students embodied new knowledge by challenging disciplinary boundaries. Multidisciplinary conversations developed progressively and dynamically, ultimately transcending established limitations to create new knowledge. The structure used for this course can be applied to other topics, and constitutes an approach for interdisciplinary teaching and inquiry that has pedagogical application for lower as well as higher education.
KEY WORDS: education model, multidisciplinary, Mode 2 knowledge, pedagogy, somatics, transdisciplinary
The Fielding Graduate University (FGU) initial course was a collaborative effort, resulting from the coordinated input of several faculty members and a handful of doctoral students. As the instructional assistant, I was actively involved with the development and construction of the course framework and content, as well as recruitment of participants. I participated in the initial course as the student anchor and teaching assistant, as well as an enrolled doctoral student. Everyone involved in the initial and subsequent offerings have proclaimed it an educational and personal success. The Embodiment of Knowledge course continues to be offered annually at FGU through 2011. I contribute on an adjunct basis to its subsequent iterations.
I present this account with the approval and support of Fielding, and gratefully acknowledge the individual and collective investment of the students, faculty and administration in making this presentation and experience possible. Specifically, I acknowledge and thank Dr. Valerie Bentz who served as the primary faculty, Fielding Provost Dr. Katrina Rogers who supported and participated in the course and this account, and Dr. Connie Corley who assisted with the first course offering. In addition, this course would not have been possible without the dedication and commitment of the 12 pioneer student participants.
Embodiment in Multiple Disciplines:
A Model for Phenomenology and Interdisciplinary Study
Fielding Graduate University is one manifestation of an educational trend towards doctoral programs designed to engage student researchers in both applied and theoretical research (Manathunga, Lant & Mellick, 2006). Exclusively a graduate school, Fielding is a distributed learning operation premised on the tenets of Malcolm Knowles (1973). Knowles proposed that adult learners are responsibly engaged individuals who bring expertise to their learning and reciprocate by reinvesting gains from their education back to their fields. Headquartered in Santa Barbara, California, Fielding offers graduate degrees in Education, Psychology, and the multidisciplinary School of Human and Organizational Development (HOD). All programs espouse a scholar-practitioner orientation to original research, and combine independent, online, and face-to-face learning methods.
In 2009, HOD students and faculty created a course called the Embodiment of Knowledge to conduct multidisciplinary inquiry into the topic of somatics. Somatics is the study of the body as perceived from within in the first person (Hanna, 1991). This doctoral level collaboration explored the subject of embodied knowledge. It transpired over a six-month period and awarded 10 units of credit.
Embodiment is an elusive subject matter that is subject to various interpretations from different disciplinary perspectives. This course was noteworthy in its ability both to impose academic rigor and to facilitate self-reported expansive learning for its participants. Through the work of this course, doctoral students not only engaged the topic of somatics, but also incorporated embodied scholarship into their process. This success was grounded in the pedagogical framework of the course.
The purpose of this paper is to describe the course’s multidisciplinary model that was used for the literature survey. The disciplines were selected based on their supply of somatics related literature. Along with traditional disciplines of biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, phenomenology provided content. The course designers included phenomenology readings to draw in philosophy’s literature about somatics. However, because of its inherent transdisciplinary nature, meaning its capacity to transcend disciplinary worldviews, phenomenology also provided a platform for integrating disciplinary based perspectives (Klein, 1990). Some students went on to use phenomenological method for the course’s independent research component. The impact of phenomenology combined with verbal and experiential learning modes demonstrated the importance of process as well as content in achieving interdisciplinarity. I suggest that the approach used can be applied to innumerable topics, and constitutes a model for interdisciplinary teaching and inquiry that has pedagogical application for higher education.
Interdisciplinarity in Higher Education
Some scholars claim that real world problems do not obey typical disciplinary boundaries or respond to reductionist principles present in unidisciplinary approaches (Kline, 1995). Similar conversations point to a need to build mode 2 knowledge that is defined as applied, contextualized, and inherently multidisciplinary (Manathunga, et al., 2006, p. 365), for example healthcare research that explores use patterns as well as efficacy (Gray, Iles, &Watson, 2011). Honing in on a topic where multidisciplinary knowledge already exists provides a playground for creating deeper understanding that can be applied to complex sociopolitical issues (Manathunga, et al., 2006). Higher education examples range from environmental studies and urban planning to food studies (Cargill, 2005; Kline, 1995). Course syllabi typically invoke experts from multiple disciplines who present their perspective and leave the student to autonomously synthesize theories and methodologies.
Commingling disciplines can offer value beyond access to a larger pool of knowledge. But educators do not agree on a single model for achieving interdisciplinarity. According to accepted parlance, multidisciplinary study is a juxtaposition of disciplines to examine one topic; it is essentially additive not integrative (Klein, 1990, p. 56). Interdisciplinarity is not as easily defined (Klein, 1995; Manathunga, et al., 2004). It is not associated with any particular subject, but refers to the process of integrating various aspects of knowledge and perspectives (Epstein, 2004). Interdisciplinarity assumes a holistic approach that demands creativity and a spirit of cooperation to successfully transgress disciplinary compartmentalization. Multidisciplinary study can sometimes give rise to interdisciplinary activity through a subsequent construction of a synergistic perspective or paradigm (Epstein). This is assumed to happen spontaneously, via grounded theory, if the individual components align properly. Learners self-reflecting on their own process during multidisciplinary inquiry can evolve integrative ways of convergent thinking (Epstein, 2004).
Despite potential benefits of multidisciplinary study, doctoral research programs remain largely discipline based (Manathunga, et al., 2006). One explanation is that multidisciplinarity lacks influential advocates since study by topic shifts the focus to the content, and hence the position of power away from disciplinary based resources (Yanoshak & Delplato, 1993). Another more practical consideration is the lack of an effective model for multidisciplinary inquiry. Lack of a unifying paradigm is particularly problematic when attempting to bridge the natural and social sciences as it requires maneuvering opposing epistemologies. Without a strategy, multidisciplinary curriculum can simply dilute content and engender disappointment.
Creating Interdisciplinary Curriculum: The Embodiment of Knowledge
The impetus for the Fielding somatics course came from the subject. A core group of ten doctoral students were interested in conducting inquiry pertinent to their scholar-practitioner interests in body-based practices. They found that no single discipline provided adequate perspective and information for a fully engaged study of human development and somatic experience. Although not appropriate to all academic settings, Fielding’s environment is well suited to pursuit of multidisciplinary mode 2 knowledge, with its emphasis on applied learning and research. Typical of Fielding’s program design, the participants worked with faculty to create this course to satisfy their particular needs.
Figure 1. Multidisciplinary Inquiry of Somatics
The coursework consisted of three sequential components: literature survey, experiential seminar, and independent study. In this paper, I focus on the multidisciplinary literature survey that was called the Overview. This 11-week portion consisted of a face-to-face workshop, followed by modulated reading, reviewing, and discussing the literature. Five modules, each two weeks in duration, progressed from studying the concrete, materialistic views found in biology to more abstract rubrics found in social sciences (Figure 1). The last module enlisted literature about experiential practices. The five modules were titled: 1) The Material Body: Biology and Neuroscience Perspectives; 2) The Mental Body: Psychology Perspectives; 3) The Body in Context: Sociological & Anthropological (including non-Western perspectives); 4) The Philosophical & Spiritual Body: Phenomenology & Theology, and; 5) The Body in Practice: Somatic Awareness Training & Practices.
Prior to the start of the course, participants assembled an extensive reading list of over 100 references (Appendix A). An online forum facilitated the literature review and discussions. In order to cover a wide range of material, each participant reviewed different items from the reading list. Each participant also read a common core reading in each module so as to lend common ground to discussions. For the first four modules, the essays consisted of a written précis accompanied by a brief hermeneutic statement about the selected text. While the précis objectively summarized the material, the hermeneutic component provided subjective opinions. For the fifth module, the section on body-based practices, participants chose a scholarly writing style that they thought best represented their selection.
Participants posted their essays online and subsequently wrote comments on each other’s essays according to a schedule. The online platform allowed convenient access to supplementary literature and research materials. Our experience demonstrated how advancements in electronic learning environments support content integration across disciplines (Penny, 2009). The online platform encouraged cross-disciplinary threads of conversation to emerge and flourish. Participants could easily reference discussions that had evolved in prior modules and identify connections. Going back to earlier arguments was only a keystroke away. For example, discussions in the psychology module easily referred to relevant material from the prior module’s neuroscience discussions, e.g is personal affect determined by brain structure.
Comments, subsequent essays, and more comments created increasingly complex critiques and arguments. Module 1’s biological, material viewpoint on the body originated in a mechanistic, positivist perspective. This forayed into a discussion of the separation of mind and body in Western tradition. As we journeyed through subsequent modules, we revisited that conversation from different angles. Another thread involved how the ontological split of brain to science and mind to theology is rooted in socio-cultural positioning between the Church and the Academy (Pert, 1997). Multidisciplinary cross-references were not unidirectional, often anticipating upcoming relevance in the next module. For example, in the biology module we discussed the organic domicile of somatic awareness; in the sociological module we integrated considerations of gene modification by environmental influences.
From Module 1’s core reading, Damasio’s (1999) views on neurology’s somatic processing established a biological basis for discussion. Damasio’s tenets provide a model for dynamic integration of input from variant sources, for example his description of how each memory is dynamically recreated each time it is recalled. Our discussions mimicked similar dynamic integration with varying success through the modules as we selectively recalled and assembled pieces from prior reviews. One such line of inquiry traced the experience of “gut feelings”: Damasio and Pert (1997) were among those who explained the biological operation of interoceptive response; Gendlin (1978) approached the same experience from psychology’s perspective and introduced a clinical application based on the “felt sense” (p. 10); sociologists and anthropologists provided the perspective that response to such feelings is socio-culturally driven (Montagu, 1986). Like Damasio’s dynamic constructions, we traveled through each perspective and attempted to weave pieces into a deeper understanding of somatic experience.
We determined that many interesting questions reside where disciplines repeatedly intersect. For example, how does brain structure overlap into psychological function (Sachs, 1970); or how philosophy informs neuroscience (Damasio, 1999). We also observed that conventional disciplines function with overlapping boundaries (Figure 2). Reporting all the discussions is beyond the scope of this paper.
Figure 2. Interdisciplinary Inquiry of Somatics
Phenomenology was included in Module 4 on the philosophical body to provide thematic content. We reviewed experts including Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962, 1948/2004, 1968), Leder (1990) and Shusterman (2008), and the recent cognition oriented work of Johnson (2007), Thompson (2007) and Petitmengin-Peugeot (2000). Some authors inspired us to voice our own somatic experiences. We personally related to Morley’s (2001, 2008) interweaving of phenomenology and yogic tradition, and Behnke’s (1997) arguments that subtle, unintentional body movements reflect embedded personal history. We latched onto Leder’s (1990) statement from the Absent Body that the “body has intrinsic tendencies to self-concealment” (p. 8). In debating this point, we interjected how somatic awareness surfaced or was ignored in our work. We acknowledged that our comments stemmed from our anecdotes rather than our scholarship. Yet our initial purpose in this coursework was to build scholarly resources to expand and support our experiences. This confluence advantageously set up introducing phenomenology to bring structure and intellectual tradition to experiential based research.
Readings from Module 5, The Body in Practice, addressed the emergent question of how to mesh scholarly inquiry with practical experience (LaFountain, 2008; Nagata, 2008; Rehorick & Nugent, 2008; Spector, 2000). We discussed the potential for phenomenological methods for conducting original research on body-based phenomenon. We recognized that some of our discipline based experts, such as Damasio and Gendlin, were influenced by phenomenology.
Figure 3. Transdisciplinary Inquiry of Somatics
As we reoriented our discussion to exploring corporeality, we observed that our prior compartmentalization by disciplines was itself a social construction. Setting up our review according to disciplinary modules reflected our tacit understandings of scholastic boundaries. Some educators claim that phenomenology is transdisciplinary study, in that it eclipses boundaries by focusing on the interconnectedness of reality (Klein, 1990, p. 66). We agreed and further concluded that both phenomenology and body-based inquiry inherently transcend disciplinarity (Figure 3).
I find it ironic that our exploration of embodiment was conducted virtually. During the course participants also kept a private journal for recording their body based reflections. Bi-weekly conference calls supplemented the online work, but the quality of conversation was different in real-time: less articulate with less depth. To encourage our embodied engagement, participants met for a three-day experiential seminar at the completion of the survey.
To conclude the course, participants conducted independent study and presented a paper at a final group meeting. For this component, some conducted interdisciplinary research. For instance, I developed a paper that applied concepts and language from neuroscience to construct an interdisciplinary meta-paradigm. Invoking biological explanations of how somatic awareness occurs, I partnered phenomenology with neuroscience to propose a framework to explore embodiment (Fortune, 2009). After presenting my theory at an academic conference, I reconsidered its value. Reflecting on input, I determined that my model was simply too limiting.
My co-participants expressed various other unique insights as a result of our process. For example, one focused on how “… my own area related to movement and bodies relates to organizations and decision making.” (Brown, 2009). Another pursued research related to meditation, saying “The authors state that mystical experiences can be attributed to changes in the brain….(but it) is possible that the neurological changes are a result of the mystical experiences…” (Cotter-Lockard, 2009).
Other important findings from the discussions involved what we found lacking. For example, we repeatedly read that scholarship needs more somatic involvement. But specific research praxis is lacking, such as an Embodiment Guide for Researchers. We experienced a conundrum when debating the appropriate scholarly voice for this work. Some participants struggled with précis writing as the appropriate reporting medium. Précis writing was meant to convey an objectified rendering of the literature. But some participants argued that writing about embodiment without invoking their own voice was like typing while sitting on their hands. This argument is ongoing as we seek ways to engage our bodies in our scholarship.
Subsequent offerings of this course place greater emphasis on hermeneutic analysis. I interpret this as a response to participants’ desire to surface disciplinary vernacular, concepts, and context as they try to integrate diversely framed knowledge. Fittingly, some educators claim that successful interdisciplinary study requires deep contextualization (Penny, 2009).
We were all attached to the subject matter in some way; each participant brought their special interest to the course. Since Fielding’s progressive design facilitates collaboration between students and curriculum, this approach was appropriate to the environment (Knowles, 1973). The School’s democratic approach also minimizes disciplinary power issues that are inherent in more traditional university settings. In this case, the participants determined the operative categories of knowledge and steered selection of the readings. But conventional wisdom suggests that a specialist in the originating discipline vet literature selections for multidisciplinary surveys (Epstein, 2004).
We enlisted too much literature. Any single module could have constituted an entire survey course, providing both content and perspective. The volume and breadth sometimes diluted the discussions. I managed to keep discussion threads focused by active moderation: I read all the materials and weaved them into the conversation, reframing or minimizing them as appropriate. At the end of the course, I reviewed the reading list with key participants and removed materials we found irrelevant or lacking.
The survey took on a synergistic intensity that transcended the volumes of literature. According to one participant, experts from multiple disciplines triangulated each another just as we mirrored and expanded each other’s thinking: “the experience of each validating the whole” (Macdonald, 2009). This dynamic was fueled by the participants’ willingness to explore new ideas and the quality of their writing. A mildly competitive atmosphere encouraged each participant to contribute higher levels of insights and articulations. One called the dynamic “group magic: an inquiry into experiences of collective resonance” (Cotter-Lockard, 2009).
Some claim that effective interdisciplinarity not only provides a bridge between factual domains; it engages both cognitive and emotional learning (Epstein, 2004). Experiential learning is critical to forging innovative connections with the literature. This encourages students to develop personalized approaches to organizing and integrating knowledge into higher order relationships (Manathunga, et al., 2006; Mertz, 2001). The embodiment course engaged three layers of experiential learning: the connection of the participants’ outside field to the topic, the innate link of each participant to the subject of somatics, and the experiential workshop that occurred during the course. The course would not have been nearly as effective if the work had been limited to the literature bricolage.
I am a believer that effective lifelong learning crosses the borders of disciplinary perspectives and knowledge. Occasionally, I search for the Holy Grail of an over-arching interdisciplinary meta-paradigm that will unify and integrate multiple knowledge domains. However, if this course is any indication of a likely candidate, it lies in the process and not in the content of the inquiry. Perhaps the overarching meta-paradigm is a process rather than a theory. The embodiment course’s process demonstrated how academic rigor can combine with experiential learning and lead to phenomenologically-crafted research alternatives, such as reorienting the lens to the inside of the explorer.
This account described the structure of an original approach to scholarly investigations of embodiment. The course participants demonstrated experientially both the relevance and the accessibility of embodiment as a subject. Phenomenological perspectives were critical for both process and as a source of literature. However, the course’s unique contribution to embodiment studies involves the interdisciplinary model that framed the collective investigation.
Educational literature claims that interdisciplinary inquiry offers an important pathway for addressing critical issues of our era. The Fielding embodiment course experience exemplifies how multidisciplinary conversations can build on each other progressively and synergistically, ultimately transcending conventional knowledge boundaries to reach interdisciplinary insights. It further demonstrates a valuable role for phenomenology. Phenomenology provides a transdisciplinary lens, replete with rigor and intellectual tradition, as a unifying basis for conversation, exploration, and research.
If forging new paths is the larger intention in interdisciplinary scholarship, developing more critical scholars and researchers is the practical outcome. Interdisciplinary study engages the intellectual dimensions of real world problem solvers. This course demanded that the participants develop strong integration and synthesis skills, as well as execute critical thinking to interweave and integrate various disciplinary based discussion threads. More sophisticated and astute practitioners are better able to forge real world solutions that transcend limits of traditional disciplinary perspectives. The results of this particular coursework serve as an exemplar, demonstrating the increasingly critical role of interdisciplinary higher education to address real-world complex challenges, particularly for doctoral students who are charged with forging new knowledge and ways of thinking.
Perhaps the ultimate interdisciplinary paradigm lies in a process that is guided by a rational but flexible framework. Using a similar structure and process, the embodiment course model could be applied to other topics to strengthen graduate education in myriad subjects (Figure 4). Contemporary challenges, such as climate change and economic globalization, demand leaders and problem solvers to be present and open to information from many perspectives. Considering knowledge from multiple perspectives and weighing it against experience and phronesis is one pathway to innovative solutions.
Figure 4. Multi- to Transdisciplinary Inquiry
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The Embodiment of Knowledge
Module 1: The Material Body: Biology and Neuroscience perspectives
Module 2: The Mental Body: Psychology perspectives
Module 3: The Body in Context: Sociological, Anthropological, & non-Western perspectives
Module 4: The Philosophical & Spiritual Body: Phenomenology & Theology
Module 5: The Body in Practice: Somatic Awareness training & Practices
For each module, the participants will select a reading from the list to present to the group in the form of a written précis. A brief (one paragraph to one page) hermeneutically designed statement will accompany the précis. This statement will address the underlying assumptions embedded in the selected text. The selection will be identified to the group to avoid duplications and allow the maximum material to be covered. The précis will be posted on a group forum according to the schedule below. In addition, the first four modules contain one foundational reading that everyone should read, regardless of who is doing the précis (if anyone). This reading is bolded in the individual modules.
In addition, each participant will contribute:
1) Comments on a minimum of two other students’ precis for each module.
2) A group conference call will be held after the close of each module for the purpose of sharing reflections on applications for individual practice and scholarship.
“Hermeneutics and Somatics: in Assessments and Dissertations”
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Bentz, V.A., The Body’s Memory, The Body’s Wisdom, Chapter in Lived Images: Mediations in Experience, Life-Word and I-Hood edited by Matti Ithonon and Gary Backhaus, Finland, Jyvaskyla University Press, 2003.
The Material Body: Biology and Neuroscience perspectives
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Pert, C. B. (1997). Molecules of emotion. New York: Scribner.
Phantom limb research:
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The Mental Body: Psychology perspectives
Brennan, T. (2004). The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Johnson, D.H. & Grand, I. J (eds). (1998). The body in psychotherapy: Inquiries in somatic psychology. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
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Haidt, J., Rozin, P., McCauley, C., & Imada, S . (1997). Body, psyche, and culture: The relationship of disgust to morality. Psychology and Developing Societies, 9, 107-131.
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The Body in Context: Sociological, Anthropological, & non-Western perspectives
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Book 1, Chapter 1. The Data of Biology.
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