Rigorous Interdisciplinary Pedagogy:
five years at ACE (appendix)

The following text is the final section of the paper Rigorous Interdisciplinary Pedagogy five years of ACE in its original version. This section was deleted from the version published in Convergence due to space issues.
Simon Penny, 2008

Institutional Pragmatics - Curriculum and Administration

My fundamental pedagogical premise in designing the ACE program was that, because the practice was inherently so interdisciplinary, no existing disciplinary context was adequate to the task. Nothing but a thoroughgoing and radical interdisciplinarity was demanded. It was strongly felt that being positioned under the discursive umbrella of (any) discipline would be an impediment: a program based in, say, engineering which made a patronising nod to the Arts, or a program based in Arts which made a deferential nod to Engineering - or any other arrangement, would not permit the interdisciplinary freedom demanded by the situation. Nothing but parallel deep training in both fields, and rigorous engagement of the problematics of combining such different practices would do. Nor would such a combination of technical and artistic practice be adequate without a deep and equally interdisciplinary historical contextualization and the development of rigorous analytic and critical thinking. A level of critical autonomy from the discursive contexts of the supporting disciplines was necessary in order that the pedagogical demands of the area of concern which might be best identified as emerging digital cultural practices.

Admissions, mentoring and careers

The ideal recruit would reflect this approach with demonstrable experience in an artistic field and a technical field, with evidence of attempts to combine them and to address theoretical challenges emergent in such work. In practice, only some of our recruits have entered with such an ideal profile. Given educational programs, recruits are generally grounded in one field, with scant knowledge of the other relevant fields. And lacunae being what they are, applicants with such scant knowledge cannot easily recognize them.

So as to admit the sparkling mavericks rejected by more conventional programs, I was reticent to specify prerequisites. Experience has shown us that excellent transcripts in an area of disciplinary specialisation (and results in standardized tests such as the GRE) are often a poor indicator of aptitude in ACE. This understanding puts an interdisciplinary program at odds with the conventional wisdom of the institution. In fact, quite a number of ACE students who have distinguished themselves were regarded as dubious or marginal by various more conventional admissions bodies. This was often because their academic careers appeared inconsistent - say: three years of biology followed by two years of dance. Contrarily, such a path is usually perceived in ACE as a positive indicator of active or open inquiry. Other ideal ACE candidates have gravitated towards ACE as a result of professional experience. In the admission process, estimation of a students compatibility with the program and their awarenesses and abilities, is best assessed by personal contact, their statement of intent and portfolio, with resumes, transcripts and letters offering supplementary details.

Over the period of one, two, three quarters, a professor or advisor slowly and incrementally becomes aware of the areas where the students have knowledge/experience voids, usually before the student does. What ensues is an intensive, conscientious and individually tailored teaching program [1]. This intensive and personalised attention is one of the (invisible) and costly aspects of such an interdisciplinary enterprise individual assessment and remedial attention to every student across diverse realms, including: technical capabilities in coding, electronics and material construction, familiarity with art history, modalities of artistic practice and contemporary art forms, procedures of technical design and development, academic literacy and critical reading and writing, familiarity with the history of technology, and contemporary debates and discourses around the politics of technology and emerging techno-cultural forms.

The goal is not to impart a canon, or to produce expertise is a pre-defined field, but to prepare students to originate relevant and rigorous practices and pursuits in fields which are emerging and ill-defined, where open-ended creative thinking is crucial. Each student develops their own zones of practice as a result of their unique combination of technical aptitudes, artistic and theoretical interest and life experience. And the exchange of ideas between students researching diverse fields is always generative.

The results of this process are demonstrable and measurable. Among its small number of alumni, ACE has placed students in PhD programs in Humanities, HCI, Computer Graphics and Visualisation, at UCI and at other universities. ACE students have gone directly into full time faculty positions, into hardware, software and entertainment technology research positions (including at Apple and Linden Labs) and into individual artistic practice. ACE students regularly present at US and International professional conferences in Humanities, Arts, Engineering Computer Science, and other fields.

Program structure

The Arts Computation Engineering graduate program at UCI accepted its first intake of student in September of 2003. From the outset, the program offered three parallel masters degrees, one based in each of the three schools sponsoring the program. The program positioned itself outside the three schools: jointly supported, but to a significant degree pedagogically separate, in its methods and goals, from its three sponsoring schools. The administrative arrangement, with administrative functions distributed across three schools and numerous staff members, was an ad-hoc invention cobbled together in the absense of an existent relevant structure. It was chosen for principled pedagogical reasons in the recognition that it is seldom possible to dissociate administrative and pedagogical processes. But it transpired to be very unwieldy [2].

Curriculum structure

AS discussed above, in keeping with the commitment in ACE to both theoretical and practical achievement, graduation in ACE is by publicly presented project and by written thesis these two are approached in parallel. This is supported by a rigorous program of course work. The general scheme of the two year, six quarter curriculum includes program (core) curriculum, school based electives and campus (breadth) electives. The ACE core is itself divided into ACE Interdisciplinary Seminars (academic seminars) and ACE StudioLabs classes which are thematic combinations of technical and artistic practice. Within this there is flexibility students take five seminars and four studiolabs, chosen from a range of options each quarter. In addition to the core, taken by all students, each student pursues a program of graduate classes in the school they are affiliated with (Arts, Engineering or ICS). Beyond this they are able to take two classes on the campus or from anywhere the UC system (UC is comprised of nine campuses) [3].

In practice, it became clear that a set of required classes in the first quarter would serve the students and the program by addressing lacunae and providing a baseline of skills for later classes. As a result, in the first quarter we now mandate a coordinated set of three classes, an ACE academic seminar and two studiolabs: Microcontroller Electronics and Programming and Hardware Intelligence (see below). Beyond the content of the specific classes, this immediate immersion in a context which interleaves and combines rigorous academic, historical and theoretical discourse, technical training in the logic and skills of electronics and programming, and material design and fabrication (manual and artisanal intelligences) sets the context for the program. It is nothing short of heartwarming to hear students discussing seventeenth century analogic reasoning while tapping a thread in a block of steel, or probing epistemological questions while laminating plywood.

Program Faculty

The ACE program boasts a diverse group of self-identified program faculty, representing disciplines across the campus, from biology to media studies, from sociology to mechanical engineering, and from music and art to informatics, from biomedical engineering to womens studies. The involvement of these colleagues in instruction and the day to day operation of the program varies, and this variation often has as much to do with the support each colleague experiences in their home department as with the individual will and motivation of the person in question. Each department has its curricula and budgets to consider. The result is that often, departments are unwilling to facilitate such initiatives. Nor should they be expected to. Interdisciplinarity should be a matter of intellectual commitment, not charity.

Institutional justification

Below, I address the question of evaluation of faculty work for career advancement in this field. Here I address the related issue of the varying motivations and validations for institutional players. One of the challenges of mounting interdisciplinary initiatives is that various parties evaluate success in wildly different ways. Often, engineering-related parties will expect tangible payoffs for such ventures in terms of technology development in forms which lead ultimately to patents, technology transfer and financial income. There is often also an expectation of research grant income. Rigid enforcement of such criteria can lead to relatively narrow application-driven development, and a washing-out of open inventive practice valorised in the arts. More than one institutional program has gravitated in this direction. To parties from the arts, these criteria are usually not simply irrelevant, but non-existent: assessment is likely to be based on the success of the work qua work, and/or the prestige of venues at which the work is presented. Parties from the humanities and social sciences are more likely to find validation in terms of the theoretical sophistication of the work and the presentation of papers for conferences and professional journals. For an institution ostensibly dedicated to research and the formulation of new knowledge, such validation might well be deemed cardinal. Other criteria might include the pedagogical success of the enterprise as measured by student survey or alumni placement. These criteria are orthogonal to each other, nor are they necessarily mutually incompatible. In any particular context, any or all of these criteria may be deemed relevant, but in all cases it will be advantageous to the institution, the initiative and those centrally involved to establish some clarity concerning criteria for evaluation of success.

Institutional support

This brings us to the question of appropriate forms of institutional support. Given the variations in institutional structures, this discussion cannot be specific, but whatever the span of the interdisciplinarity envisaged, a higher organizing authority at the campus level is necessary, normally some form of umbrella management structure. In the case of inter-institutional and other unusual arrangements, it is critical that a governance and managerial authority adequate to the task be put in place. Such a structure must make the mandate of the initiative explicit, and must have explicit resources to deploy. It must accord the entity a level of agency and autonomy appropriate to its needs for self determination. Most importantly, procedures for adequate two-way consultation and review must be present.

The absence of explicit structure can lead to inconsistency, especially in cases of changes of personnel and lapses in informal institutional memory, or worse, to capriciousness. To the extent that such a management structure is ad-hoc, inattentively elided or optimistically hand-waved, the initiative and those directly involved with it will, in the short or long term, suffer. The catch is that, to the extent that such projects are interdisciplinary, they will inevitably and necessarily move into a territory unfamiliar to the institution and its staff, and thus it will be difficult to predict, in detail, the procedures which will be necessary. This reality reinforces the importance of an alert and motivated management. Such management falls into several aspects: most importantly support for academic personnel and support for the initiative as an entity. Support for students and support for facilities is also crucial. Disciplinary Economies, Research, Grad Students and Fundraising Cultures of graduate student support vary wildly across disciplines. In Science and Engineering, graduate students attend grad school with the understanding that they will work in their advisors lab, on their advisors research more or less full time, and will receive pedagogical and financial support in that context. Explaining the difference between such cultures and those of humanities and arts to an engineering colleague, I said: When a you accept a potential grad student, you say come to my department/program and you will help me with my research, whereas in the humanities and even moreso in the arts, a professor is likely to say come to my department or program and I will help you with your research. In science and engineering then, a professor raises funds via grants to support students pursuing her research program in her lab. In the US, and in many other countries, there exist state funding structures for Science and Engineering in the US, funds come from the NSF, NIH, DOD, DARPA, NASA and other bodies whose funding structures are integrated with and support such an economy. And in turn, departments and schools expect faculty to raise funds for this purpose. An expectation of half a million dollars every year per faculty member is not unusual. Research in the humanities are an order of magnitude less than those of Science and Engineering, if that. Many entire schools of humanities or arts do not take in half a million dollars in a year and indeed, the network of funding agencies does not exist. Funding in more likely to come from endowments and foundations than government sponsored agencies. And, as one would expect, funding for experimental and interdisciplinary initiatives is rare. The upshot of this is that in planning the development of an interdisciplinary initiative, care must be taken to ensure that expectations for fundraising are not unrealistic, or, innovative fundraising initiatives must be endorsed and supported as part of the interdisciplinary project.

Support for academic personnel

Support for faculty members, and these both may be divided into financial, administrative and procedural aspects. Interdisciplinary initiatives are often humble in scale a cross listed or co-taught class, a class taught for an entity outside the faculty member home department, a reading group, a PhD committee, a collaborative research project (interdisciplinary research, though relevant and related, is not the subject of this paper). One important way in which central administrations can facilitate such interdisciplinarity is to support departments to support their faculty to undertake such initiatives. An available fund to support course relief in cases of interdisciplinary engagement would relieve departments of the burden of supporting such enterprises and would smooth the relationship between such faculty and their respective departments. This is important as perceived absenteeism can cause ill feeling in departmental contexts which can work against faculty in the long run, in review processes and the like.

Assessment of service and professional practice

Procedures for evaluation of faculty performance vary widely from institution to institution. Without specific attention, interdisciplinary initiatives by faculty/staff can be undervalued both quantitatively and qualitatively. Faculty involved in interdisciplinary initiatives are often disadvantaged because the demands of their work remains invisible to their departmental colleagues. Almost inevitably, in addition to the extra academic and intellectual load placed on faculty to negotiate the interdisciplinary context, an extra load of administrative set-up, liaison and management is experienced. This can and should be minimize by a conscientious administration. Formal criteria for review can also be problematic. In many cases, faculty research is validated by external institutions funding bodies, professional organizations, etc. In the case of interdisciplinary practice, such external entities may not yet exist, and established entities may not recognize interdisciplinary initiatives. Any academic institution which has interest in the mid and long term success of interdisciplinary initiatives would be well advised to be proactive in establishing mechanisms whereby such activities can be fairly represented and evaluated. The question of formal faculty appointment can also be fraught with difficulties. While a joint appointment appropriately symbolizes such interdisciplinarity; in practice such appointments are colloquially regarded as a professional kiss of death, with good reason. Egregious situations can occur when faculty appointments cross or are shared by multiple departments - all the worse if the disciplinary span is wide, and the entities have differing academic and administrative cultures, or are not used to working together. Again, administrations should be proactive in ensuring the faculty in question are provided with a supporting context and are not disadvantaged by a vacuum of process or it could fairly be percieved as creating, if only by neglect, an unsupportive context for such faculty.

Support for the initiative as an entity

The initiative in question may be of limited scope, such as one or several jointly offered or crosslisted classes, or a more complex administrative entity, but in any case, potential for success will be enhanced if appropriate support functions are in place. Financial support is of course fundamental, as is facilities resourcing offices, teaching rooms, labs, and relevant equipment. Plans must be made for student support, where appropriate, as must agreements for adequate administrative staffing

Curricular, Procedural and Admistrative facilitation.

Many administrative procedures which seem trivial in an established administrative context of a department or program become onerous in interdisciplinary contexts. Course listing, enrollment records, faculty evaluations, grading, all become complex when multiple systems and multiple offices become involved. Lack of centralized management and storage of such data has immediate and long-term negative consequences for the faculty member and for the initiative. This is a case where organizational centralization can be enormously facilitating.


[1] It is unusual for graduate students to receive such intensive, personally focused attention across such a breadth of fields.

[2] This administrative structure was always envisaged as transitional, and by the time of this publication, it is hoped that this situation will have transitioned to a more substantial and long-term viable institutional form.

[3] details of ACE curriculum can be found at www.ace.uci.edu

Simon Penny. Irvine, CA 2008