Encouraging collaboration

IPLAI uses interdisciplinary approaches to advance teaching and research

Among the various course codes one might see when scrolling through Minerva picking courses, the acronym PLAI seems like a relatively new addition. PLAI represents courses offered by the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI, pronounced “I-Play”), a humanities-based research and teaching institute that focuses on presenting scholarship in an interdisciplinary public forum, an approach more than welcome in McGill’s sometimes rigid departmental boundaries. The Daily interviewed Desmond Manderson, a Law professor and director of the IPLAI since its inception in 2009.

The institute conceptually arose from both Manderson’s connections to academics in other faculties upon arriving at McGill and, in 2003, the creation of the Shakespeare Moot Project and an accompanying course with Paul Yachnin, a Shakespeare scholar and current Chair of the English Department.

“[This] interdisciplinary project [brought] together Law Students and Graduate Students in English around a Moot [or, simulated court proceedings], which was built around contemporary legal problems but in which the works of Shakespeare were treated as the law, as the constitution,” Manderson stated.

The Moot Project proved to be a success, with pairs of English and Law students arguing cases before scholars flown-in for the occasion; audiences sometimes reached several hundred people, according to Manderson. Intellectually, the event fostered what he sees as the most beneficial type of interdisciplinarity, one “in which we both learned from each other, rather than simply informing the other about what we knew… In other words, the way in which it created within us rather than between us a sense of interdisciplinary knowledge and understanding was very exciting and satisfying.”

In 2007, after four years of the Moot Project, Provost Anthony Masi announced a new initiative that would provide particular funding for the humanities in an interdisciplinary sense. Masi asked Yachnin to create a working group on “Languages, Literatures and Cultures” (the current name for the administratively unrelated area studies department merged this year). After over several months of planning with a committee composed of professors from seven different faculties and six proposals sent to Masi and faculty deans, the IPLAI was finally created in the fall of 2009.

The IPLAI incorporated the intellectual models of both the Shakespeare Moot Project and Yachnin’s own interdisciplinary project called Making Publics, which focused on the creation of the public sphere in the early modern period. It aimed to function as an institution that “had this broad mission of interdisciplinarity in the humanities, but also had this more specific and public focus, looking at how ideas and the humanities effect the world, and how the world effects ideas and the humanities,” according to Manderson. Interdisciplinarity and the impact of humanities became the twin foundations of IPLAI, from which the institute would aim to create bridges within McGill’s academic, intellectual, and artistic communities and to imagine versions of these in the community at large.

It seems that interdisciplinarity as such is not a novel concept, both in intellectual production and pedagogy.
“If you go back a fair way, earlier than the 19th century, you find that almost everybody is interdisciplinary,” Manderson explained. “They’re interested in all sorts of different objects, sites, or projects rather than particular disciplinary logics.”

“I think the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are seen as the ‘rise of disciplines,’ the idea that we can have specific bodies of knowledge and we need to be specialists,” he continued. “And I think certainly since the 1960s, there’s been [a move] against that sort of [approach], that sort of disciplinary isolation.”
And though Manderson maintained IPLAI’s interdisciplinarity is not necessarily unique within McGill, some students have seen it as a new pedagogical approach. Ted Ledford, a U3 Cultural Studies student who took the PLAI course “Studying Place and Reinterpreting Choreography” taught by Architecture professor Ricardo Castro, stated his frustration over stringent disciplinary lines in other courses: “I’ve taken lots of seminars in other departments outside of my major and I found the conversation very narrowing and closed off to divergent thinking.” His PLAI course featured weekly guest speakers and a variety of experimental and sometimes personal assignments.

Manderson emphasized IPLAI’s emphasis on a kind of active pedagogical environment, to perform interdisciplinarity.

“It’s important in our courses [to] have more than one teacher in the class at the same time for there to be a dialogue amongst the teachers so that students themselves can see how different disciplinary frameworks engage with the same material,” he said.

His Shakespeare course with Yachnin often featured the two instructors debating each other in front of the course. This performative aspect to teaching is one tenet of the IPLAI’s approach to pedagogy, along with the development of new collaborations. IPLAI selects resident faculty fellows to both teach courses and conduct research on a particular theme (“Memory and Echo” was last year’s), pairing them together in productive combinations after choosing the best applicants.

In general, Manderson sees teaching as integral to the research undergone at IPLAI: “It had been the experience of many of us that it was through teaching that we became exposed to new ideas, that we got on top of new literatures, and we could try out our ideas with intelligent audiences like students.”

In addition to advances in the classroom, the IPLAI has strained to move outside certain typical university spheres. In addition to traditional conferences and guest speakers, the institute has held a series of “Great Trial” public lectures at Westmount Library, wherein professors discussed notable cases and trials relevant to their research. The series is now being held at Atwater branch, and IPLAI is hosting a “Theater and Danger” lecture series at the Segal Center for Performing Arts. Reading groups hosted by the institute have drawn in undergraduates, graduates, professors from four of the city’s universities and people from the community, including local artists.

“We’re developing collaborations with The Walrus, we have internships with the McCord Museum and with art galleries,” Manderson added. “We’re trying to build those links in a whole lot of different ways, because it matters, in the end to, as how the humanities are funded, as to whether they’re visible in the rest of the world.”

Yet the IPLAI is still fairly new, and is still facing certain structural challenges, such as funding and finding a more efficient implementation of their pedagogical strategy.

“It’s very hard for us to get funding from generally grant institutions or even more specifically from the university,” Manderson elucidated. “[McGill] was very generous when it set up [the institute’s funding], but in order for it to keep going in the future we need to sort of secure commitments from other parts of the university, and, because of the funding situation now, it’s been very hard to do that.”

Furthermore, Manderson commented on the difficulty of acting on the IPLAI’s founding intellectual principles: “Finding the ways in which we can work together, finding collaborations that actually work rather than just saying that this is a good idea is still something which we’re working on and trying to develop.” In his PLAI course for example, Ledford mentioned certain visiting professors “weren’t familiar with how the class was conducted, or the general vibe.”

But despite growing pains, the IPLAI may be able to fill a niche in the McGill academic experience. Ledford noted, “the interdisciplinary institute has provided a great way for people to explore things that disciplines would otherwise not investigate.”