For the last several months, I’ve wanted to write something to document the remarkable experience I have had being a part of the Interdisciplinary Studies program here at Plymouth State University. I keep waiting to have the time to do justice to the richness of this experience, but it’s clear that uninterrupted time like that is not likely to come along anytime soon. So in the spirit of sharing, I’m going to put together a much quicker snapshot, and invite folks to ask questions if you need clarification or more detail on any of what I am going discuss here.
How to Access Multiple Layers of This Post
The post itself is authored by me, but students have participated in additional layers of meaning, woven into this post in two ways. First, you can check out the Hypothes.is annotations on the right hand sidebar. Hypothes.is is an app that allows anyone to annotate most any website on the internet. Check out the 150+ annotations of students in this year’s sections of both the introductory and capstone courses in our program, and if you have an account (or want to make one for free), you can also jump in to the annotations and participate by replying to the students or starting your own new annotation.
You can also click on the “Student Voice” icons when they appear throughout this post to read more detailed thoughts from current Interdisciplinary Studies students. If you are using a screen reader to access this page and have trouble easily reading the Student Voice pop-ups, you can also access them in an alternative format on this separate page.
Some folks might also like to check out the raw Padlets where students first contributed their Student Voice ideas; I wasn’t able to use them all in the post, and they are terrific. Here’s the intro class Padlet, and here’s the capstone class Padlet.
The Synopsis: #PlymouthIDS
The Interdisciplinary Studies program at Plymouth State (affectionately known to students by its hashtag, #PlymouthIDS) is a customized major program. We currently have about 125 majors who are customizing a wide variety of B.S. and B.A. degrees. The program has existed since 1974, but from 1974-2014, we averaged 10 total students per year enrolled in the major. In 2014, we developed an Open Pedagogy approach to the curriculum, and since then, we’ve grown in enrollments by 1,150%. This is not a story about scale. This is a story about what happens when a program refocuses pedagogy around learners, and retools program design in order to create more flexible structures to support degree completion and student agency.
Who We Serve
Our program serves three main types of students. First we serve students who are highly self-motivated, creative, and autodidactic. These are students who have out-of-the-box ideas for interdisciplinary degrees that are based on their own personal passions and life goals. Examples right now include Sports Statistics, Medical Illustration, Theater for Social Justice, Sustainable Event Planning, Outdoor Science Education, and a host of others. These are generally highly successful students who feel ownership over their educations right from the get-go. They might enroll in our program as first semester first-year students. They are at risk of transferring to other schools, but they are generally not at risk of not completing college.
Second, we serve students in interdisciplinary fields that are well-established at other colleges but which Plymouth State, due to its size and resources as a small, rural, public university, does not offer as a discrete major. Most Physical and Occupational Therapy students currently build programs through #PlymouthIDS, as do Pre-Med students. We have Women’s Studies majors (currently, the university only offers a minor) and Industrial Design majors (we have coursework across many departments– Studio Art, Graphic Design, Computer Science, Media and Communication Studies– but no major). These students might also be students who would transfer out of PSU to enroll in an established program somewhere else, but they are able to complete requisite coursework here and stay through to graduation.
Third, we serve students at high risk of dropping out of college altogether, who find themselves as juniors or even seniors failing out of or disconnected from their current major. These students have the choice to transfer to other majors, but that will often add years to their time to graduation, which is not affordable for most of our demographic. Students here include some health-related majors (such as those who don’t hit the minimum grade requirements for Nursing); Athletic Trainers who have trouble passing Anatomy and Physiology multiple times; teacher certification students who approach their student teaching semesters and realize with horror that they have no interest in being in the classroom; students who find new passions late in the game who lament having to use their precious final semesters to finish a major they now would prefer to leave in the past. These students are often using a clever backwards-design process to determine their majors. They start with a generalized interest and usually iterate through new pathways each year until near the end, they look back and find the cohesion and hone the final synthesis. We used to devalue this kind of process, and faculty sometimes referred to IDS as a “bail-out” degree because of it, but this kind of rigorous synthesizing and reorganizing of interoperable curricular parts is much like the process of research itself, where as we learn, we take a general topic and turn it into a focused study or argument, crafting and naming our conclusions only after lengthy exploration and discovery. I have come to think it’s one of the best ways to arrive at a college major, and I thank my students for teaching me how this works.
In some ways, these three kinds of students (and of course, we have many students who really don’t fit any of these profiles, or who interestingly fit all of them) are radically different from each other. But we are finding that they all succeed in #PlymouthIDS at about the same rate. And our data is a bit spotty (PSU reports that we have a 100% retention rate for our majors, but this is clearly overstated), but there is no question that we are retaining students left and right. In fact, in our last two years of exit surveys, between 60% and 70% of graduating #PlymouthIDS majors claimed that they would have left PSU if they hadn’t enrolled in the IDS program. There is something to pay attention to here in terms of how the program has served motivated and confident students; students who have interests that seem to extend past what a small college can support; students with significant credits who “fail” out of majors and are at risk of “failing” to complete college; and students who, through the course of their educations, change their minds about where they want those educations to take them in life.
Our program has two required #PlymouthIDS courses:
Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies: This course introduces students to basic interdisciplinary theory (what is a discipline? what does it mean to work across disciplines? how can we integrate knowledge across different epistemological domains? how can academics work in transdisciplinary partnerships with external stakeholders? etc.) and also supports students as they construct their own major applications. These two main curricular components are squarely embedded in a larger Open Pedagogy framework. Students (if they want– opt-out is always an option) create their own ePorts through the Domain of One’s Own program; they contribute to the program-created OER textbook that we use; they engage in a Connected Learning PLN-building experience to grow their own custom networks over the course of their educations; and they are made aware of the program’s support scaffolds that are in place to help them face barriers (more about all of this later).
You can check out our syllabus here, and if you dig in, it will show you a bit about how students propose their individual majors, which is quite an involved process. Students work with three faculty members (me and two disciplinary advisors) to design their contracts and craft a program statement; many students do not get their programs accepted by the Interdisciplinary Studies Council (seven faculty who serve from different areas of the university) on their first try (so far, 100% of students are admitted on their second try after receiving constructive feedback from our Council).
Follow our class hashtag at #IDSintro.
Senior Seminar in Interdisciplinary Studies: This course, taken just before graduation, is primarily focused on research and an applied project. Students create a significant long-read, multimedia, research-based article on a topic related to their major, and engage in a small-scale applied project in their field. They are required to focus on impact in this work, and find ways to engage their scholarly and professional communities of practice in their processes.
Follow our class hashtag at #IDSsem.
Our office is open weekdays plus one evening a week (and generally on Sundays as well). Unlike most academic departments, students can walk in anytime and get help directly from us (from me, our Program Support Administrator, our paid Peer Mentors) on technology (ePorts, annotation tools, Twitter, etc), writing, class assignments, program applications, general advising, etc. Everyone who works in our office– faculty, staff, and students– are qualified to assist students with all of the components of being a part of our major. This drop-in ethos has been hugely helpful to keeping our retention levels high, since it’s harder to slip through the cracks when there is near-constant support available. We also have a commitment to replying to student emails within 24 hours (generally within 30 minutes) and the ability to use low-tech videoconferencing (usually through appearin) to accommodate commuters and online students more easily.
This year, we opened a very visible food pantry in our office, which also stocks basic staples (feminine products, detergent, toothbrushes, winter coats). While it gets moderate use, it also helps our students understand that we see food insecurity as an academic issue, and we understand that they will not be able to learn or succeed if they are hungry. Similarly, we offer a child-care co-op program that lets students volunteer to babysit for their classmates’ children when there are childcare emergencies. We also offer a transportation co-op that works much the same way, where we use a text-messaging app to help students request rides from other students if their normal transportation fails for some reason, and we stock gas cards in our office as well. We offer a Veteran’s Support Group and counseling on how the GI Bill affects our military students, and we have a separate contract pathway for GI Bill students that allows them to reduce the number of issues they will run into with their government funding due to the customizable nature of their program.
— Interdisc at PSU (@PlymouthIDS) November 3, 2017
Most of these services are offered in a program that is, on the whole, radically under-resourced. But we do it by helping students see themselves as part of an academic community, and then leveraging the power of that community to support itself in the ways that it needs. Institutionally, we try to create policies and structures that make this easier.
So what part of all of this counts as Open Pedagogy? Well, it depends who you ask, for sure. What follows is my own accounting of the aspects of this program that seem to qualify. Loosely, I have four guiding aspects of Open Pedagogy that inform my assessment here:
- Approaches education from a “commons” orientation, advocating for the sharing of resources, ideas, and power;
- Bakes access and accessibility into the design of its assignments, courses, programs, and institutions;
- Empowers learners to contribute to– not just consume– knowledge;
- Connects learners with their scholarly and professional communities of practice.
So in thinking about #PlymouthIDS as an OpenPed program, here are the key aspects of Open Pedagogy as they manifest in actual practice:
- Customized majors: when students conceive of, design, and build their own majors, they ask critical questions about education that we often don’t invite them to ask in the course of traditional college. Why is this a field? Where is this field going? How do each of these courses contribute to the overall integrity of the major? Why is this worth studying? Why does this matter, to the student and to the world? When students write their program statements to get their majors approved, they ask fundamental questions that help them see the relevance of even the least appealing (to them) courses in their programs, and gives them a sense of ownership over the journey. This connects to #3 above, and moves students into the driver’s seat right from the start.
- Open textbook: our textbook is a mix of CC-licensed work from key established scholars and work written by undergraduates in our own program. Our course materials are now completely free, so that’s awesome. But equally as cool is the sense that our textbook is a community space for our program, and a place for the best of our students’ non-disposable assignments to be preserved for the next cohort of learners. (The book is a work-in-progress and far from perfect at this point, but we are cool with that.) This connects to #1, #2, and #3 above.
- Pass/No Pass “Grading”: we have a greenlight model for grading in our #PlymouthIDS courses. We don’t use letter grades, and at the end of the semester, students either get a Pass or No Pass on their transcript. For each assignment, students get the “green light” when they meet the requirements. The standard for passing that we have discussed in class is: Is this shareable? So even if it has some flaws, is it solid enough to be helpful to the commons, the student, and the field? If not, take another pass at it based on the feedback, and keep trying until you make it. If you end the semester with some assignments not being greenlighted, take an Incomplete rather than an NP and keep working. Most greenlights come from me, though for some basic stuff we have used peer mentors. When work is promising but filled with basic errors, it won’t get a greenlight. If a student is writing about an article and they don’t link to it, or they spell the author’s name wrong, it won’t be greenlighted; some of this is not evidence of a “failing” post overall, but the work isn’t shareable (in a way that would be good for the student and for the commons), so take a few minutes to make fixes and off we go. We’ve tried to de-stigmatize what it means not to get a greenlight: in fact, we don’t even have a word for it. In our classes, there is only greenlighted and not greenlighted yet. This connects to #1 above, and #3 a bit as well.
- Connected Learning: We have a comprehensive and explicit plan to connect our students with their scholarly and professional communities of practice (we call them “acaprof” networks, to encompass academic and professional communities). Students are introduced early on to the concept of the Personal Learning Network (or PLN), and asked to develop a plan for building a network of their own. Because most of our students are working in fields that are not represented in the university’s publicized offerings, it’s especially important that they find mentors, peers, and community in a broader context. Our default for doing this is a combination of Twitter (the highway that moves the work) and ePorts (student-designed and managed websites where they post their own work to share through the social media channels). But students who prefer to stay offline use conferences and face-to-face meetings with mentors, and students who have concerns about Twitter as a commercial platform that monetizes their data are directed towards tools like Mastodon. Our program has accounts on Twitter and Facebook, and we regularly share links of our students’ work. Faculty, staff, and peer mentors comment on and share student work regularly as well. In general, we view knowledge as dynamic, and believe that students will be best prepared to stay current and advance in their fields if they develop a process for interacting with current conversations in those fields. This is not a mastery model of learning; it’s a model that especially suits interdisciplinarians, who are trained to understand how shifting perspectives can offer new insight on a challenge or concept. This connects to #1 and #4 above.
- Domain of One’s Own: In particular, the DoOO program has really been a game-changer for us. Students create ePorts (we use this term to indicate that it’s not just a portfolio, but also a portal or port of call: a place where people can engage with their ideas, participate with them in their learning) in their first semester in the program, and then come back to them to publish their capstone articles and projects. But the idea here is that in between, they have a space that lives with them where they can integrate the knowledge they are gathering from across their courses, and apply it to their own interests and experiences. We read a lot about student-designed architectures for learning, and intentionally position ePorts as an alternative to the prescribed Learning Management System (LMS), which is generally locked down and generally controlled by the instructor. Work that goes into ePorts is mostly nondisposable, especially compared to work that goes into an LMS (which will almost always be quite literally deleted when the course comes to an end and the instructor imports the course forward into its next iteration). Building technology support into our office staffing (drop-in help is offered almost 50 hours a week), advocating for a university-wide laptop checkout program, and offering full opt-out options for students who wish to work in more private or less connected ways has been key to the success of DoOO. DoOO connects to #1, #3, and #4 above.
- Access: We believe that institutions need to do a better job helping students to complete college when they face barriers. We believe that many of these barriers are academic issues, despite generally being quarantined into “student life” sectors of the university. Textbook costs, food insecurity, transportation costs, childcare challenges: research shows that these are some of the main barriers that prevent students from affording college; because we know this, we actively seek solutions within our program to ameliorate these challenges for our students, even as we advocate nationally for free college. I am particularly focused now on accessibility, and trying to do a better job with our textbook and my syllabi to make them universally accessible to all learners. Basically, everything we do as we design the program starts with a fundamental question: how can we make education more accessible to everyone? This connects to #2 above.
At an accessible design workshop and will toss a few tweets into the stream as a thread on this tweet, for the next half hour or so.
— Robin DeRosa (@actualham) November 16, 2017
When I started learning about Open Pedagogy, I began to integrate key components of the approach and practices into the design of our university’s Interdisciplinary Studies program. Since 2014, we have what I might call an explicitly Open Ped program. This approach has been very well-received by students, as evidenced by our student evaluations, exit surveys, retention rate, and recent explosive enrollment growth. The program offers a good model for those who are looking to incorporate a more comprehensive open pedagogy into their teaching and possibly scale from course-level to program-level open approaches. Indeed, we might look at how this program offers colleges and universities new ways to think about student-centered learning structures, and how it might inform larger initiatives to redesign higher education– particular public higher education— so that it serves and empowers more learners. While we need to do better assessments and look more critically at our successes and failures, I wanted to pass on the narrative account to my fellow open pedagogues in case any of this is useful to you in your own work.
There are a number of people who I need to thank for helping to make #PlymouthIDS such an inspiring community:
Janina Misiewicz: Janina is our Program Support Administrator, and I can’t overstate the effect that she has had on our program since she came aboard. Not only does she share the advising load with me, but she also shares a deep commitment to the principles of access and open learning that guide our work. As a student herself, she understands the needs and perspectives of our students, and always helps to find ways for the institution to serve them better.
The IDS Council: There are seven faculty members on our Council now, and as our program has grown they have increased the amount of advising they do and kept up with the review of programs, and all of this while being fiercely brave about trying out new pedagogies and processes. They ask critical questions of me and of our students, and are truly the backbone of the program. Our Council includes Eun-Ho Yeo (Communication and Media Studies), Linda Levy (Health and Human Performance), Brian Eisenhauer (Sociology/Office of Environmental Sustainability), Chen Wu (Economics), Brigid O’Donnell (Biology), Barbara McCahan (Health and Human Performance), Mark Green (Center for the Environment). I also want to thank Rebecca Busanich, who is no longer at Plymouth State, but who was a champion for #PlymouthIDS while she was on our Council.
Mentors and Champions: I’d also like to thank Mary Campbell for the countless hours she has spent auditing our students’ programs to make sure their customized majors are correctly inputted into our online system; Mary was one of the early pioneers of the PSU Interdisciplinary Studies program, and having her careful eye on our work now helps us serve our students. David Zehr was the Associate VP who supervised our IDS program for many years, and he always made sure that we kept the highest standards for rigor even as we worked to make our structures and systems as student-centered as possible. And John Krueckeberg, a longtime Council member and chair of Interdisciplinary Studies, led the charge to add our core courses to the major, and these courses are what ultimately allowed us to build a new ethos for the program; despite the fact that his commitments as department chair and History professor keep him busy elsewhere, I will always consider him one of my closest Interdisciplinary Studies colleagues.
Our Students: Look– I can’t start mentioning names, because then this post would turn into a fifty page missive about the lot of you. Suffice it to say, your ideas for how to “do college” have become our program, and we learn so much from you about how to design better educational systems. On a personal note, you all are why I get up in the morning; you make this job a joy every day. Even when you are doing contract changes or tweeting to me about the health benefits of raw kale. I will say a special thank-you to Peer Mentors Katherine DeLuca, Mariah Davis, Christine McElreavy, Janet Currier, Carly Ristuccia, as well as our student graphic designer, Ashley Hichborn, and our student event planner, Victoria Tobin. This team has inspired me at every turn, and saved my sanity many times.
While #PlymouthIDS is a more recent invention, the Interdisciplinary Studies program at PSU has been here since 1974. There are many, many faculty and staff who have contributed their dedication and expertise and time to this program, and I am sorry I can’t mention them all here. Please know how grateful we are for what you have built here.
Need more info? Have questions? Doing something similar? Have a bright idea? Use the comments below to chime in, or use the Hypothes.is toolbar to the right to annotate this article or interact with #PlymouthIDS students’ annotations. You can also jump in with us on Twitter. I am @actualham (on Mastodon as well!), and our program is @PlymouthIDS. We also use #PlymouthIDS, #IDSintro, and #IDSsem to connect: join us!