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The Space Between

Co-taught interdisciplinary courses reveal what Swarthmore’s all about

On the worktable, the tiny wooden model rests light and lovely: the size of an exquisite sculpture to fit an artistic mouse’s gallery. In the hands of Mariam Bahmane ’19 and Wendy Wu ’19, however, it takes on weight and character and dimension. 

"This is a very special space,” Bahmane says, looking at the model but seeing instead what could be. “It’s a refuge in the Crum Woods for students.”

“We’ve been trying out different design elements in each model,” adds Wu, using her fingers to follow the design’s flow—the sweep of a circular Japanese-inspired window, the space left open in the center for an interior garden.

As biology major Wu and and engineering major Bahmane take turns describing it, their shared vision reveals itself: Here is where you could sit or sleep or soak up a sunny College day; here is a solution to a real issue students see on campus; here is an exciting idea born of the push-and-pull that happens when smart people cross disciplines and differences to create collaboratively.

That synergy—between students, between subjects, between professors—inspired the creation of this course, Design & Sculpture in the Digital Age. Created and taught by Logan Grider (studio art) and Matt Zucker (engineering), the course has 16 students who represent all four class years and all three TriCo institutions; they work in pairs that rotate with each new project.

“They have to compromise and communicate,” says Grider. “Building in that collaboration has been exciting—they’re so engaged in the projects and with each other.”

“Our original vision was artists pushing engineers creatively and engineers pushing artists technically, but the roles proved much blurrier,” says Zucker. “Everybody is doing everything, and that’s how it should be.”

This year alone at Swarthmore, there have been—or will be—several co-taught, interdisciplinary courses, including Art, Chemistry, and Conservation, co-taught by Patricia Reilly (art history) and Ginger Heck (chemistry);
A Transnational Study of Graphic Fictions, co-taught by William Gardner (Japanese) and Alexandra Gueydan-Turek (French/Francophone studies); and Intro to Environmental Studies, co-taught by Betsy Bolton (English literature) and Christopher Graves (chemistry).

“It’s the 21st century—we need to rethink the essence of the liberal arts education,” says Haili Kong, chair of the Chinese program, who co-taught Water Policies, Water Issues: Shenzhen/Hong Kong/Taiwan and the U.S. last semester with Richter Professor of Political Science Carol Nackeno ; Liliya Yatsunyk (chemistry) and Art McGarity (engineering/environmental studies) gave guest lectures. 

Mainly funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment, the course included an experiential component where Kong, Nackeno , and Yatsunyk traveled with students to Asia to conduct field research. In many ways, it echoed the course Kong co-taught with the late Chinese Professor Alan Berkowitz exploring tea from agricultural, economic, cultural, political, and chemical perspectives.

“It’s exciting to see students engaging with topics on many levels,” Kong adds. “Courses like these help students look at the world in new ways. They’ve helped me to do that, too.”

Although co-taught interdisciplinary classes have provided some of the College’s most interesting and dynamic course o erings in recent history, they’re still more the exception than the rule.

“I’d like to see co-teaching become more routine—I’ve been at the College for 16 years and only got to do it for the rst time last year,” says David Harrison, linguistics profes- sor and associate provost for academic programs. “I’m giving us the challenge: How can we do more? How can we create space for unusual and unexpected collaborations?”

“Connecting the liberal arts, across departments and disciplines, opens up new frontiers of learning and discovery,” says President Valerie Smith. “These experiences foster creativity and critical thinking, thus preparing students to adapt to a rapidly changing world.”

That necessary enthusiasm exists across campus: To make Grider and Zucker’s course happen, the facilities department converted a Willets Hall storage space into a work- room; employees from the engineering shop, Information Technology Services, and the Media Center signed on to help students master the College’s 3-D printer and laser cutter.

Dividing their time between learning computer-aided design and drafting software in a Hicks lab and creating handmade prototypes in the Willets workspace, Zucker and Grider’s students crafted multiple creations inspired by poem-worthy prompts: Create a form that rhymes with something found on campus; design a box that holds something you would not want to forget; improve on-campus life in an aesthetically pleasing way.

At one end of the room, Emily Cai ’18 and Stephen Sekula ’17 demonstrate redesigned campus beehives—hexagonal, honeycomb-inspired boxes with ingenious sliding shelves.

At the other, Maisie Luo ’19 and Grace Newman-Lapinski (Bryn Mawr ’19) finalize the clay-and-aluminum-tape details of a swirling interactive metal sculpture inspired by the Dean Bond Rose Garden’s distinctive gates, large enough for dozens of students to loll on, under, or around.

It’s thrilling to feel the excitement, the possibility, the creativity at play in this place of making where plasticine figurines, Gorilla Glue tubes, and scribbled-on blueprints battle for desk space with laptops and Legos. Students are drafting, refining, and remaking models as varied as an LED lamp that elegantly reflects how crowded Sharples is and a revamped Crumhenge fire pit with sculptures that draw attention to invasive Crum Woods vine species.

The through line of it all is a shared sense of adventure in a supportive place where it’s not just OK to stretch yourself, even if you fall short—it’s encouraged.

“My apprehension in teaching this class is that I’m an analog guy. I know nothing about digital anything—I can barely open my email—and Matt is an expert,” laughs Grider. “But this works because the students know that we’re collaborating to learn the way that they’re collaborating to learn.”

“Working within that framework from the beginning has really helped students feel willing to explore other possibilities, rather than sticking to what they’re already comfortable with,” adds Zucker. “That’s true for Logan and myself, too.”

After all, the most exciting intellectual distance to travel is between what you’ve learned and how you’re able to apply it. In many ways, Design & Sculpture in the Digital Age and interdisciplinary co-taught courses like it are the essence of Swarthmore and the liberal arts: We make each other—and ourselves—better by being well-rounded.

“This class made me realize I want to take a good balance of courses to get the fullest base of knowledge,” says Michael Lutzker ’19. “Arts, humanities, technology, everything: I love the view from the place where all these interests meet.”