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Dr. A. Wade Boykin

Dr. George Middeldorf
April 2007

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Biology professor George Middendorf joined Physics professor Gregory Jenkins and other Howard faculty to organize an interdisciplinary symposium entitled “Katrina Crisis: Mother Nature and Uncle Sam.” As the October 19th proceedings document, the symposium was “the first product of this spontaneous interdisciplinary collaboration….Howard University faculty in diverse disciplines, from researchers concerned with earth and water to those concerned with hearts and minds, came together to take an urgent look at the multilayered crisis provoked by Katrina and see what lessons could be learned.”

It is not surprising that Dr. Middendorf was one of the first professors to volunteer to organize the symposium. Since his arrival at Howard in the early 1980s, he had devoted time and effort to so many other interdisciplinary ventures. He had earned certification in the Writing Across the Curriculum Program and subsequently taught a writing-intensive ecology course. He had collaborated with Political Science professor Joseph McCormick to launch the course “Science and Public Policy.” In addition, he had chaired the Graduate School committee that proposed the Interdisciplinary Graduate Environmental Studies Program and had team-taught the course “Ecological and Environmental Studies.” So his interdisciplinary response to Katrina was predictable.

Indeed, considering their shared interests, Dr. Middendorf seemed destined to teach with Dr. Jenkins an interdisciplinary course funded by a Mellon Foundation grant. The course, Freshman Seminar 100 “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Undergraduate Research,” focuses on Hurricane Katrina—its precursors and its aftermath. As the syllabus explains, FRSM 100 is “designed to equip students to understand not only how research works, but the context in which it is produced and used” from an interdisciplinary perspective:

We will examine how and why Katrina had such a disproportionate impact on minority communities; make comparisons to previous natural disasters. To do this we will assess environmental, legal, economic, sociological, and demographic processes associated with decision-making before, during, and after August 2005; follow community rebuilding efforts, including physical and social structures; investigate the effects of disruption on families and subsequent impact on children; consider issues of voting and politics; and assess long-term health consequences.

Dr. A. Wade BoykinAmong the course objectives are the ability to “generate research questions by analyzing a problem from more than one disciplinary perspective” and to “infer what researchers from two or more disciplines would need to know to solve a problem.” The course also teaches students to “analyze the interaction of economic, legal, social, and ethical issues” surrounding research and “interpret primary sources, data, or artifacts from the perspectives” of multiple disciplines.

As these objectives reveal, FRSM 100 calls for extensive cross-disciplinary teaching and learning. Before launching the course in January 2007, Dr. Middendorf and Dr. Jenkins had to recruit as lecturers faculty from the University’s departments of Afro-American Studies, Economics, Civil Engineering, History, Psychology, Social Work, Economics, Political Science, and History as well as the New Orleans Public Health Department.

Not only is FRSM 100 cross-disciplinary in terms of what it teaches, but also in terms of how it teaches. Thanks to the dedicated work of Librarians Alliah Humber and Leslie Brown, students learn new information literacy strategies as well as how to maintain research blogs (online journals), participate in Blackboard forums (discussion boards), and collaboratively build websites (wikis) for their team projects. Thanks to the extraordinary cooperation of English professors Marlena Bremseth, T.P. Mahadevan, and Patricia Noone, students are also learning in a “linked” course (ENGL 003 “Writing for Research”) the written, oral, and visual communication skills that they need to analyze and present research on Katrina.

Although FRSM 100 is the product of many hands and many minds,* FRSM 100 would not have taken shape without the interdisciplinary vision and intellectual energy that Dr. Middendorf provided. He inspired other faculty to contribute to this interdisciplinary project. But, most of all, he inspired his students. Hence, one student remarked on the discussion board after Dr. Middendorf’s ecology lecture, “It gave me a new way to answer the question ‘Why did Katrina happen?’ If that lecture is an indicator of what we’ll learn in this class, I think we will learn a lot overall.”

 

 

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