Seeking well-rounded learners

UND AH! Talks: ‘Music of the Spheres’ panel sheds light on the importance of engaging multiple disciplinary perspectives

Ah! Talks “Music of the Spheres'

UND Professor and musicologist Gary Towne takes part in a panel discussion during the most recent rendition of the College of Arts & Sciences’ Ah! Talks, this one, titled “Music of the Spheres: the integral logic of music, mathematics, physics, musicology and biology.” The panel talked about the importance of a broad interdisciplinary education. Photo by Shawna Schill.

UND Mathematics Professor Ryan Zerr knows his math history.

At a recent panel discussion in the Memorial Union, he called upon a theory from the ancient Greeks.

“One was not a number, because ‘number’ meant a multitude composed of individual units,” Zerr explained. “So you couldn’t be a number unless you were more than one.”

Fast-forward to 2016, and this theory has become the underlying concept behind interdisciplinary studies at UND: namely, the idea that the college experience is better when students gain experience in more than one discipline. It’s that idea that spurred AH! Talks, an arts and humanities-focused speaker series, the latest of which, took place on Monday, Oct. 24.

UND Arts & Sciences Dean Debbie Storrs says the AH! Talks are a faculty-inspired initiative that started many years ago.

“Faculty wanted a platform outside of the classroom to share their expertise, a way to engage across disciplines with the public, and specifically to highlight the value the arts and humanities bring to important questions,” Storrs said.

Carefully chosen

Over the past year and a half, UND Philosophy Professor and AH! Talks co-chair Donald Poochigian has helped develop a series of faculty-led panel discussions that are free and open to all. The most recent discussion, titled “Music of the Spheres,” brought together a UND musicologist, music therapist, mathematician, biologist, logician and philosopher to make connections amongst their fields.

“The people involved on this panel in a certain way have been carefully chosen,” Poochigian said. “They all have a specific purpose.”

The conversation flowed seamlessly from idea to idea, moving from the concept of music’s harmony with nature to circadian rhythms to the use of beat in healing to the language of musical notes and beyond. This ability to create a network of ideas is exactly what Poochigian and Storrs want to share.

“The talks model what we hope students learn in college: the ability to take multiple perspectives and address complex questions,” Storrs said. “They also see scholars critically engaging with one another in respectful ways despite differences they have. We need more public displays of civil, informed, thoughtful and provocative dialogue in this nation. Our faculty are modeling this.”

Poochigian says he sees a shift in national education goals, with a narrowing focus on business and STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math), and less focus on the traditional essential studies base.

“What’s happened is an isolation of the disciplines, such that if you go into one discipline, you need not pay attention to others,” Poochigian said. “There’s a kind of annoyance at general education. What I would like to foster in students is that these are artificial kinds of distinctions and they actually mutually support one another.”

Tristan Darland

UND Biology Professor Tristan Darland addresses how some students have come to see cross-disciplinary introductions to coursework as irritating rather than enlightening. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Growing the talks

The AH! Talks panel participants agreed that these kinds of cross-talks are valuable, but sometimes difficult. Even incorporating different areas of study into a single course can cause some irritation for students. UND Biology Professor and panelist Tristan Darland sees this firsthand.

“What kills more people than anything on Earth? Heart disease,” he said. “And it depends on how fluid flows through a tube. And yet students freak out because there’s a mathematical relationship.”

Raymond Daly, a sophomore mechanical engineering major who attended the talk, said that, even though his focus is engineering, he wants to be a well-rounded learner.

“Our entire culture is kind of set in a way that you need to be really good at one thing,” Daly said. “Life is interdisciplinary, so there needs to be more of this kind of discussion, and students need to be encouraged to go outside of their majors.”

Although audiences for the past few AH! Talks panels have been relatively small, Poochigian plans to help the conversation grow. Right now the discussions are limited to the arts and sciences, but he would like to incorporate more of the professional disciplines, such as business. The idea of putting video of the panels online also has been pitched.

“People in the audience really tend to get into the subject,” Poochigian said. “I think it’s as if people have been desperately wanting something like this, and here it is, finally.”