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  • Defining Expertise in the Interdisciplinary Classroom
  • Laura Callanan (bio)

The idea begins to live, that is, to take shape, to develop, to find and renew its verbal expression, to give birth to new ideas, only when it enters into genuine dialogic relationship with the other ideas, with the ideas of others.

—Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

In the process of designing and implementing an upper-level course on disease narratives at Emory University, I faced the problem of what exactly the parameters of expertise are within the discipline of English literature. This course, cross-listed in both English and comparative literature, dealt for the most part with material and issues outside of my particular specialty: British Victorian literature. The topic, the classroom dynamics, and the institutional structures surrounding this experience pushed me to confront the issue of expertise in the discipline of English from a variety of angles. Throughout the semester, I asked myself questions such as the following: What is the purpose of studying fictional representations of disease? Is it to explicate the language, or to discern the rhetorical and social intention of the text? How are these problems affected or changed by the problem of exploring a new field? What is the relationship between scholarly and pedagogical expertise? What is the relationship to students implied in the concept of academic expertise? By exploring the ramifications of the concepts of intellectualism and expertise in the context of a particular pedagogical experience, this [End Page 385] article works toward defining the nature of expertise at work in our particular disciplinary framework. Ultimately, I argue that expertise is about relationships: relationships between information, texts, colleagues, institutions, and students. More specifically, expertise consists of a changing set of relationships dependent on the articulation of clear disciplinary, pedagogical, and intellectual ideals in dialogue with particular bodies of information that are continually reevaluated within the evolving cultural context. It includes both content and action, produced within a particular historical moment, affecting bodies in the classroom in explicit and materially grounded ways.

The Site of the Suffering Body

One of the great benefits that the open-topic composition classroom has afforded me is the opportunity to experiment with subjects outside of my specialty. I first became interested in the issue of disease narratives in discussions with a graduate school colleague, and I decided to explore it further in a composition class. What most struck me when I taught this initial version of the course was the wide variety of directions that discussion took. In one class we would be talking about individual versus community rights, and the next day conversation would turn to religion and the relationship between divine intervention and human responsibility. I quickly saw that this topic allowed us not only to consider research in other humanities disciplines such as history, religion, and philosophy, but also to engage with information from the hard sciences and public health.

The complex structural and thematic nature of disease literature precipitated this proliferation of ideas in the classroom. Virginia Woolf (1967 [1930]) noted this discursive complexity and lamented that disease had not been further explored as a basis for great fiction. Describing the imaginative nature of states of illness, she wrote the following in her essay "On Being Ill," an early reading in the course:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise in temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist's armchair and confuse his "Rinse the mouth—rinse the [End Page 386] mouth" with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when...


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