Innovative Interterm Program Rethinks General Education

Three weeks, seven professors, six units – new ground for interdisciplinary teaching

Jan. 6, 2010 By Jenna Bartlo

Forging a new path in higher education this interterm, seven professors will pioneer the high task of integrating multiple disciplines into general education courses of liberal studies. In three weeks, seven professors will teach alongside one another, 11 films will be integrated into learning and six units will be fulfilled for nearly 130 students who will experience a unique new approach to general education — an integrated one.

The new program, Integrated Reflections on Interdisciplinary Studies  — IRIS — occurring January 4-22, 2010, plans to innovatively reform general education. With an emphasis on collaboration between different disciplines, IRIS is an opportunity for students to examine literature, art, theology, film and communication in independent classes, but as an integrated whole. More so, faculty will be able to collaborate with one another and pass the verbal baton between each other during class offering a richer experience for students.

“The insight and energy cultivated by team teaching is impossible to generate by any one professor,” said Tim Muehlhoff, professor of Communication Studies.

According to Director of IRIS and Chair of the Department of English, Aaron Kleist, most universities lack an integrative plan for general education, essentially not provoking a greater interest in or joint perspective among general classes. On one level, the challenge of the task makes this unsurprising: the integration of faith and learning occurring at Biola is on its own a monumental undertaking, with professors striving to process the theological implications of their disciplines. Teasing out the connections between other aspects of the liberal arts — Literature, Biology, Communications, Sociology, Music, Business, and so forth — may be beyond the powers of any one individual. That, he says, is where IRIS comes in: an experiment in collaborative, interdisciplinary teaching that helps students process the curricular core of their educational experience.

The shortened name, IRIS, also speaks to the metaphorical meaning that “if your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light.” (Matthew 6:22) As each person views the world and therefore their studies through their personal lens, IRIS will open the eyes of students to add other lenses to their own, seeing a richer deeper perspective of what they are studying.

“This interterm class is exciting…it models a liberal education project that is integrative, dialog driven, interactive, and pedagogically unique for the students as they observe faculty in dialog with one another wrestling with ideas that are central to the pursuit of a flourishing Christian life,” said Paul Spears, associate professor for Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute.

The seven professors, Jonathan Anderson (Art), Kleist (Literature), Rick Langer (Integration of Faith and Learning), Muehlhoff (Communication Studies), Melissa Schubert (Literature), Spears (Philosophy of Education), Erik Thoennes (Biblical Studies and Theology), pulled from a wide range of disciplines should each be able to speak from varying angles on topics to contribute to students’ personal lens reinforcing the importance of integrative learning.

“I believe that collaborative teaching has the potential to foster more active learning and it prompts more rigorous cross-disciplinary integrative thinking,” said Anderson.

Students are enrolled in two classes. The first, Literature and Film, is required, and the second is a student’s choice between the following six options: Seminar in Art, Small Group Communication, Studies in Literary Genre – Narrative and Film, Advanced Studies in Theology or the one of two integration seminars – The Created Order and the Glory of Christ or Theology, Art, and Understanding.

Each day of classes will be structured by two afternoon sessions and an evening session taught by three to seven of the chosen professors with a point professor leading the class. The extended evening session will include a film viewing and discussion making film the center point of integration for the program. Kleist describes the required course, Literature and Film, as an examination of the process by which stories may be translated effectively between different media, and how the rules of one may contravene the conventions of another.

“Film and literature, both, are perfect “texts” for this kind of work, as they compost into one thing such a variety of intuitions, sciences, and domains of knowledge,” said Schubert.

The second course students choose will involve additional assignments which help them look at topics from a specific viewpoint, providing a lens which they may use to enrich the larger interdisciplinary discussion with students from the other courses. The experience will enhance students' participation and broaden their general education training beyond the normal capacity of learning.

“Since I’m persuaded the Creator has set natural limits to my intellect and sin has further truncated insight, I am also interested in cultivating intellectual life that admits these limitations and seeks growth,” said Schubert. “Interdisciplinary collaboration does, I think, both.”

Written by Jenna Bartlo, Media Relations Coordinator. Jenna can be reached at (562) 777-4061 or through email at

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