The University Record, June 6, 1994

‘Emotions’ faculty seminar sparks interdisciplinary discussion

By Bernie DeGroat
News and information services

Although a recent faculty seminar on emotion evoked a great deal of excitement among its participants, the context in which the topic was discussed elicited the strongest feelings.

Faculty members from English, psychology, music, law, biostatistics, education, social work and art took part in an interdisciplinary seminar sponsored by the Office of the LS&A Dean and the Institute for the Humanities early last month.

“Most of what we learned was, in a sense, independent of the fact that emotion was the theme,” says Fred Bookstein, research scientist in human growth and development. “It makes less difference what the topic is than that it be a topic all the disciplines have trouble grappling with.

“What the seminar showed was that a sufficiently fearless group of scholars can engage in the same kind of wonderfully energetic scholarly wrestling about different points of view.”

English Prof. Julie Ellison, who coordinated the seminar, says it was designed to bring together faculty from different academic areas.

“The topics for these faculty seminars in some ways are merely an occasion for interdisciplinary and collegial conversation,” she says. “I think we all came into the seminar understanding how emotion had surfaced as a matter of intense interest within our particular disciplines.

“Then we started talking with one another and realized the extent to which this perception had affected an enormous range of cultural studies, the arts and the human sciences.”

Randy Larsen, associate professor of psychology, believes the nature of the topic itself warranted an interdisciplinary approach.

“Emotions are subjective experiences, they are psychological events, they are behavioral tendencies,” he says. “Because there are so many different ways to view emotions, an interdisciplinary perspective was valuable.”

Silvia Pedraza, associate professor of sociology and of American Culture, echoes Larsen’s sentiments. “I have attended many faculty seminars in the past and this is the very first one that struck me as being truly interdisciplinary. Amazingly enough, we did manage to talk with each other and not past each other, and to collaborate in understanding something.”

The seminar featured discussion on humiliation, terror, autobiography and critique, emotion and the media, and cross-cultural studies of emotion in a series of presentations squeezed into two weeks.

Bookstein thinks the short duration of the seminar, as opposed to longer interdisciplinary endeavors of this sort, helped make for lively debate.

“We were, in a way, more outspoken in the short-term of this meeting because we knew it was only a two-week affair,” he says. “So the quality of the critiques that were mounted were, in some cases, utterly magnificent.

“This was conversation of the highest sort in which each of us was being made aware of things he or she hadn’t realized before.”

English instructor Lillian Back agrees. “Julie Ellison organized this study program in a way that encouraged us to question all simple answers—I do think she made it impossible for us not to emerge with a sharpened critical edge to our thinking.

“Certainly, the students in my forthcoming classes of writing and literature will gain from my educated experience as a member of this seminar.”