Disciplinary Beauty

by: Carol Hurney

Recently one of my closest friends described one of her dreams to me.  In this dream, my friend found herself in a large dining room, rustic yet stunningly beautiful.  Although it was unclear why she was in this dining room, she was clear that this space was beautiful and in stark contrast to the surrounding forest, which was ugly and meant to keep the beautiful dining room protected and allow only certain visitors, such as herself, entrance.  The group she was travelling with knew they had to traverse the ugly portion of the forest to enter the beautiful dining room and so that is how my friend found herself amidst such beauty.  Most people were ignorant of this wonderful room because they would have never imagined such a place could exist in this area of the forest.   And as is often the case, my friend’s dream ended there, no more insight into the meaning behind the images of the ugly forest and beautiful dining room.

This dream fascinated me on many levels.  First, when my friend described the beautiful dining room, I immediately formed my own mental image of a beautiful dining room.  I didn’t ask her if my image was the same as hers, as it didn’t really matter.  I understand beauty, so I didn’t need her to clarify.  I also didn’t challenge her image of the ugly forest.  Somehow I know something is beautiful, just as I also know something is ugly.   But how do I know this?  How do any of us know beauty when we see it?  More importantly, how do we navigate through the ugly areas of the forest to find the hidden, spectacular wonders?  During the 2011 May Symposium, Ken Bain challenged us to deliver a promising syllabus to our students and to design learning experiences that foster deep learning.  Ultimately, he challenged us to recognize the beautiful questions in our discipline and foster learning that allows students to navigate the forest to find and appreciate the beauty in disciplinary thinking and ways of knowing.  Sounds easy, right?

I spent some time during the past year trying to tease apart and explore the hidden, beautiful parts of our academic disciplines, the parts we often find fascinating and thought provoking but our students find confusing and difficult.  Decoding how trained academics think about their disciplines has been an interesting journey into many familiar and unfamiliar forests – statistical reasoning, math teaching methods, art history, and chemistry.  Each journey into these academic forests was filled with wondrous ideas and spectacular views.  All of my academic guides carefully navigated me through the ugly portions of the forest and then each guide sparkled when we arrived at his or her beautiful dining room.  They thought they had easily and successfully navigated me to the beautiful, spectacular, and challenging ideas of their discipline and seemed surprised that I was often lost or confused.  Clearly I was paying attention to them and following their instructions, so how could I have missed the beautiful ideas and concepts of their disciplines?  The answer was simple – my mental model of beauty in their academic disciplines was not the same as their mental model.  My academic guides assumed I would recognize the beauty in their disciplinary way of thinking and knowing, but I needed them to challenge my mental image of beauty in his or her discipline.  The same holds true for your students.  They understand beauty – but they don’t understand disciplinary beauty.  They easily get lost in your disciplinary forests and the ugly areas of the forest may convince them to leave or miss out on the stunning beauty of statistics, art history, or biology.  Challenge the mental models your students have about your discipline, which starts by decoding what disciplinary beauty looks like for you.  Your beautiful dining room will really sparkle when your students join you as you feast on the stunning and challenging ideas of your discipline.



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