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This issue of CDTL Brief features articles on Professional Development and Curriculum Design and its significance in higher education.

July 2009, Vol. 12 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Traversing Borders, Integrating Knowledge(s)
 
Associate Professor Michelle M. Lazar
Department of English Language and Literature
 

Introduction

As university teachers, we know that knowledge is not a bounded entity, but a borderless journey. It is a journey that can be challenging and frustrating for the absence of clear-cut parameters and the ongoing, ‘unfinished’ nature of knowledge formation. Yet, at the same time, it is an illuminating and exhilarating adventure because the pursuit of ‘knowledge without borders’ is filled with possibilities, unexpected turns and discoveries. It is the stuff of which passion is made!

The journey is ultimately one that each student must be willing to undertake on his or her own, for it requires the individual to adopt an attitude of active learning. As active learners, students must take responsibility for their learning, be prepared to make ongoing connections between knowledge domains and eventually make what they know their own. As teachers, our role is to prepare the groundwork, start them off the journey and help them navigate their own path. Over the years of teaching at NUS, I have worked towards an ‘open-borders’ approach to teaching and learning, which seeks to push beyond, and bridge, knowledge boundaries. The pedagogic objective and motivation for me have been the hope that the attitude towards embarking on a borderless journey, which they encounter while in the classroom, is one that they will carry with them long after they have left university.

In this paper, I elaborate on how I have developed an ‘open-borders’ approach to knowledge in the classes I teach. I have grouped into four sections for discussion some of the strategies I have used to facilitate border traversals and knowledge integration. Before I discuss each in turn below, I should mention that it is important to explain to students the ‘open-borders’ approach that underlies the design of the modules, so as to mentally prepare them for what is expected of them in the journey ahead. I do this at the start of every module I teach, and provide morespecific signposts on how particular knowledge domains may be usefully related throughout the course of the module.

Some strategies to facilitate border traversals and knowledge integration

1. Transdisciplinarity and permeability of knowledge

 

In designing my module syllabi, I keep border crossings in mind. One form of crossing involves transdisciplinarity of knowledge. Writing about research, Fairclough (2007) describes a ‘transdisciplinary’ approach as one view of interdisciplinarity, which sees research as a process of bringing different disciplines and theories to bear together on a research topic, and setting up a dialogue between them. EL3254 “Media, Discourse and Society”, which I introduced as a third year English Language elective, was designed to be transdisciplinary, combining discourse analysis (within the field of linguistics) with media and cultural studies. For each session, students are assigned two class readings, one of which is from discourse analysis—a field with which most English Language majors have some familiarity—and another reading from either media or cultural studies. The two readings bear upon one topic, say ‘media representations of gender’, each of which presents a different conceptual framework for analysis. At the end of the session, students examine strengths and shortcomings of each, as well as explore possibilities for combining aspects of the frameworks to analyse actual media texts.

Another form of border crossing involves permeability of topics on the module. Students are encouraged to approach topics covered on the modules as interrelated, rather than as isolated, self-contained units. In an Honours module (EL4254 “Language, Ideology and Power”) that I teach, the topics and readings for each week are selected such that they relate to the issues and perspectives raised in other weeks. For example, the class reading for one of the weeks raises the issue of the political neutrality of language, which relates to a reading on ideology in the following week, although the authors of the two readings are writing in different periods, addressing different specific concerns and using different terminology. The issues raised in these two weeks, in turn, are revisited from quite a different angle later in the module, when the bases for the claims of linguistic non-neutrality and ideology are critically scrutinised. Because of the inter-penetrability of the topics, students are required to stay abreast of the weekly readings and discussions, make ongoing connections, revisit ideas and hone their arguments on issues over the course of the module.

2. Bridging different kinds of knowledge

 

Frequently, knowledge (with a capital K) is associated only with expert academic scholarship. In my classes, however, I encourage students to think more broadly about different kinds of knowledge (or ‘knowledges’ in the plural), and to learn to integrate them into their own practice of ‘knowing’. One kind of knowledge that is often devalued and sidelined in most institutional settings, including the academia, is one’s personal experiences, which are worth reclaiming in the classroom. I consider it instructional for students to appreciate the usefulness of academic theories in helping them understand and articulate their own rich experiences (‘tacit knowledge’) as users of language and discourse. At the same time, the bringing together of expert and experiential ‘knowledges’ presents a valuable opportunity for interrogating the limits of a particular theory in the light of students’ own situated practices. In teaching about the media, for example, students are asked to record in a journal their own news viewing practices, which we later examine in class in relation to theories of media consumption.

Although EL3254 “Media, Discourse and Society” is not a practice module, knowing how media discourses are constructed from the perspective of media practitioners is no doubt enriching, as indicated in student feedback. In order for students to relate what they have learnt about techniques of media analysis in the classroom to what goes on in practice, I have invited media professionals (copywriters and journalists) to speak in my classes. This has been not only informative for students, but also an opportunity for students to pose questions to the professionals, and decide for themselves how what they have learnt on the module fits (or not) with professional practice.

3. Learning beyond the classroom

 

In today’s technologically enabled educational environment, the virtual world presents an excellent platform for borderless learning. The IVLE discussion forum, for instance, has become an important component in the design of all my modules, in order to facilitate continuing exchanges beyond the physical classroom. Sometimes, I pose a question at the end of a lesson for continued discussion on the forum. Mostly, however, the forum is an informal open space for students to initiate topics of their own, share resources and learn from one’s peers. Just as students may pose questions and comments arising from the week’s lesson, so too I bring what is raised on the forum into the classroom for further discussion. The point is to encourage free flow of dialogue and collective ongoing formation of knowledge, regardless of space and time.

Another dimension of learning beyond the classroom is to bring ‘the world’ into our classrooms. Through a variety of avenues such as student journals, the IVLE forum or class presentations, students are asked to bring for reflection and discussion issues and texts that surround and occupy them, which they consider as germane to the module. This way, students can test the applicability of theories and consider the relevance of what they learn to the ‘real’ world in which they live. Because the students source for their own materials, they seem to have a greater stake in the knowledge that is produced as a result.

4. Pushing conceptual boundaries

 

In the study of media discourses, analytical concepts introduced in readings are usually developed in the context of particular media genres. While class exercises may be geared towards consolidating students’ understanding of particular concepts and their applicability to actual media texts, term projects—owing to longer duration of time—are better suited in allowing students to push the boundaries of tried and tested concepts. For this reason, in designing the term project for the media module, I ask students to take up any concept they have learnt in class, and explore the extent to which the concept may be usefully applied to other media contexts. For example, ‘news values’ is a well-established set of analytical categories for the study of news reports. One group of students decided to investigate whether something similar could be developed for a news magazine context, in which different production dynamics are at play. In the end, they adapted and developed the concept, in a way that could be insightfully applied in a different setting from which it was originally intended.

Conclusion

The ‘open-borders’ approach that I have outlined requires traversing knowledge boundaries of various kinds and levels: pushing the parameters of concepts, navigating between different topics and disciplines, acknowledging and bridging different kinds of knowledge, as well as crossing physical/virtual spaces in the ongoing formation of knowledge. Refusing to be satisfied with the finite and the familiar, an ‘open-borders’ approach keeps the mind nimble, on the one hand, by honing one’s knowledge of particular issues and concepts, and on the other hand, extending beyond what is taught in the classroom, for a for a fuller, ongoing engagement of ideas.

Reference

Fairclough, N. (2007). Language and Globalization. London: Routledge.

 
 
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