Building these interdisciplinary bridges isn't easy or quick for students or faculty, Hoffman said.
“You need to be aware that it's going to be a big time commitment,”
she said. “But it is hands-down the most rewarding class I've ever
taught.... It's so enlightening to get outside of the academic silos we
all find ourselves in.”
There's a reason those silos exist, of course. Budgets, staffing,
materials and workflow all are built around specific college and
department objectives. Discipline-based silos make work and
communication easier, more predictable and easier to manage.
But they also make interdisciplinary work tough to develop. Each area
has different requirements, for students and faculty. Faculty members
have discipline-specific teaching and publishing to do. Students have
course requirements to meet to earn their degrees. Changing those common
lines can be tiring and frustrating, a heavy lift to add to already
There are few incentives to build new curricular paths, too, Hoffman
said. To draw students to a 400-level course like this one – a course
that is not required – and draw a co-teacher to a class outside of his
or her required teaching load can be a tough sell.
She won't teach this class again until 2017, but Hoffman has been
documenting her process and progress as a guide for like-minded faculty
who want to build similar bridges.
Without a co-teacher, Hoffman brought in several guest authorities throughout the semester – computer science professor Lori Pollock,
OEIP's Weir and McLaughlin, Ram Bala, a business owner, and a
statistician, creative director, and COO of the regional venture capital
firm Aspire Ventures – to give students a variety of perspectives on the process and the practicalities.
Weir listened as Hoffman’s students pitched their proposals. He
pressed them to sharpen their ideas, clarify the distinctive quality of
their applications and do their research on what it takes to make
The world of business is a tough sell and he didn’t whitewash that.
But learning to collaborate and see challenges from multiple
perspectives gives students a competitive advantage, he said.
“This [class] is about interdisciplinary interaction – and that’s
what the world out there is all about,” he told the students.
“Universities train people to be in silos and then they go out and
that’s not the way the world is. Providing this opportunity to students
is a very important initiative.”
Russell Sonenclar, a senior communication major, said he had ideas he
thought would be cool to have in an application, then learned from his
engineering classmates whether such approaches were possible.
“They may say, ‘It's more realistic if we do this, this and this,’” he said. “And that's more parallel to the real world.”
Griffin said she sees software development in terms of how the
computer will write it and how it will work, not in terms of marketing
or design features. She considers the algorithms necessary and what kind
of processing demands are involved.
“If you're delivering statistics, there is a lot of data on that
server,” she said. “My job is to figure that out. The consumer wants to
see that product. I have a better idea how the computer will see it,
usually in terms of structure and coding and equations.”
Her teammates who specialize in marketing and communication and design could relate to consumer issues better.
Beyond the function, catchy logo and grand social strategy are other
longer-term challenges, Pollock said, such as sustaining software after
it is launched with fresh content and reliable user support.
In her years as a computer science professor, Pollock said she has
seen plenty of ideas rise and fall and has seen the initial discomfort
when different habits of mind collaborate.
“There are real stereotypes that come out, in just the way you might
think they would,” she said. “You hear one group complaining about the
other group. Then they figure out how to ease into it and things go
better. It's not easy to do.”
But, Hoffman says, it is a worthwhile endeavor for students, faculty and the University.
“Technology is driving so much of our behavior, particularly when it
comes to social and political issues,” she said. “It can either enable
or disable. This is the kind of content we talk about. What are the
problems that come up as technology becomes such an integrated part of
our everyday lives and how does that impact society and democracy? But
it can go beyond this; courses could be about creating an advertising
campaign for sustainable fashion design and issues associated with
women's studies – the combinations are infinite.
“Interdisciplinarity is such a buzzword for our research. It just makes total sense to do this in our teaching as well.”