Print This Issue

Talk About Teaching and Learning
January 20, 2009, Volume 55, No. 18

Teaching Without Borders

Jonathan D. Moreno

There’s a story, or maybe an urban legend, about the most successful swimming coach in Yale history, a man who led the US Olympic team to numerous medals. According to this story he couldn’t swim a stroke. As one of my journalist friends likes to say, the story is too good to fact check.

Apocryphal or not, this story captures the way I (and, I suspect, many colleagues) feel about teaching, especially “interdisciplinary” teaching. A philosopher by training, here at Penn I teach bioethics in the Department of History and Sociology of Science and the Department of Medical Ethics.  But that only begins to describe my irresponsible disregard of respectable disciplinary protocol.

I routinely cross borders without benefit of visa or in some cases formal credentials, including territories of ethics, history of medicine and science, medicine, law, military history, and political science. I like to think I’ve picked up a few medals along the way, but like most teachers I can’t tell you how or why.  When challenged on the notion of interdisciplinarity I’m at still more of a loss to explicate my pedagogy. I’m not even always sure when I’m teaching from one discipline or several, and in candor I have preferred not to examine my classroom methodology too hard. Perhaps the twentieth century philosopher Michael Polanyi was right that there is tacit knowledge that cannot be transmitted but can be learned. Or perhaps I fear that if I take too close a look at what I do it will take the fun out of it, that such a loss of spontaneity would perhaps make me a better teacher in some technical sense but would on the whole impair my ability to transmit my love of subject to my students by rendering me too self-conscious about what I do. 

One advantage of teaching within a discipline, as against, across or among disciplines, is that it tends to be grounded in a history and embodied in a literature. The socialization of a disciplinary graduate program at least gives us a sense of what we are supposed to know and be prepared to present before stepping into a classroom, whether we are actually prepared to convey the whole of the discipline or not. The old saw about staying one chapter ahead of the class was surely true in my case when I was a green philosophy professor. Yet there’s always the danger that while teaching, say, a certain Platonic dialogue, a student will ask a smart question about, say, what other dialogues dealt with the same issues. For the novice professor an honest answer will often be something like, “Sorry, six months ago I was hired to teach the philosophy of language but two weeks ago I was also assigned this class and what I’m talking about this morning is about as much as I know about Athenian philosophy other than what I read on the label of a bottle of Retsina.” However sincere and justifiable, such an answer is unlikely to inspire confidence, partly because everyone in the room knows that it’s not unreasonable to expect a philosophy professor to know what’s going on in Plato. So when I was starting out as a teacher of philosophy at least I knew what my students could reasonably expect me to know. 

In 1979 no one knew what the qualifications for bioethical expertise were. Sociologists of knowledge observe that one way a field defines its territory is through its important textbooks. Thus Richard Rorty once said that a necessary condition for philosophical competence was mastery of The Critique of Pure Reason. When I started teaching bioethics, there was no remotely definitive text. Bioethics books, countable on one hand, were mostly anthologies of papers published in the two or three bioethics journals of the day, and who was to say whether those journals were selecting the “right” material for a new field?  One could, indeed, keep one article ahead of the class, but there didn’t seem to be much theory tying the selections together or underlying rationale for their order. Perhaps the only reliable feature of these early bioethics texts was the section headings: euthanasia, justice and health care, organ transplants, and human experimentation ethics were on the list then as they are now.

So I did have the rudimentary textbooks, but I was still unprepared for that aspect of bioethics teaching that required some background in clinical medicine. We could read about the legal case of Karen Ann Quinlan and several analyses of the euthanasia issue written by lawyers and philosophers, but then students would ask questions about the diagnosis of a persistent vegetative state, about the prognosis of such a patient, about techniques for supportive medical care and the conditions in nursing homes. To say I was unprepared for such questions would be generously understated. 

Fortunately, my first experiences teaching bioethics had me teamed with a physician. The model of a physician-humanist team is still common in medical school bioethics courses, as in our own here at Penn.  It’s a labor-intensive system that embodies the challenges and the opportunities of the interdisciplinary classroom. I am confident that most of what I know about the clinical side of bioethics I have learned from my physician colleagues over the past 30 years. Similarly, as I gained confidence on the medical side I felt the need to be prepared to address related questions: the history of medical ethics and of medicine, the sociology and politics of health care systems, the economics of medicine and financing medical care. The disadvantage of this revelation was the horrible sense that I would never be fully prepared for my profession; the advantage was that I knew I would never be bored. Those naked-in-public dreams have a way of focusing the mind. More recently, as my interests have shifted from clinical ethics to the ethics of basic research and the history of science I have relied still more on the kindness of colleagues.

So today I’m immensely privileged to be surrounded by remarkably talented people from a wide variety of disciplines in both a school of arts and sciences and a medical school. They are my colleagues but, as I get older, I appreciate more and more deeply that they are also my teachers. In the end, I am the beneficiary as much as the instrument of the interdisciplinary teaching that has characterized the main part of my career.


Dr. Jonathan D. Moreno, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor with joint
appointments in Medical Ethics, School of Medicine, and History and Sociology of Science, School of Arts and Science


This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.

Almanac - January 20, 2009, Volume 55, No. 18