On a muggy April afternoon in St. Paul, Christopher Michaelson stood in front of a class of St. Thomas undergraduates and lectured about business ethics and instances where relying on supply and demand can fail the market.

That probably sounds just about what you’d expect from an associate professor of ethics and business law, right?

But the class answering Michaelson’s queries about what role ethics should play in business and what role business should play in setting drug prices wasn’t a business class at all. Instead, members of Amy Finnegan’s sociology class were stepping up to the challenge. The day before had seen the opposite play out, where Finnegan had crossed the river to Michaelson’s business class on the Minneapolis campus to talk sociology and justice and peace studies.

Several faculty swapped classes in anticipation of the World Café event the following week: Classes from the departments of Business, Theology, Sociology, Justice and Peace Studies (JPST), Biology, and Health and Human Performance all gathered at the end of April to discuss HIV and AIDS; what the concerns around that topic were from their respective disciplines; and how they could work together for more effective problem-solving in regard to the HIV and AIDS pandemic, as well as future global health issues.

Creating a World Cafe event

While this was the first year that the World Café was this large at St. Thomas, business and JPST classes have participated in the past. They centered around the themes of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, which focuses on the work of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and other international issues of peace building. At St. Thomas, the classes had a faculty member from the opposite discipline discuss the topic through his or her respective lens, and all the students would come together for discussion at a culminating event.

There are many benefits to such an event. One of the primary objectives is for students to consider a topic from an interdisciplinary view with the hope they’ll consider more perspectives as they continue their education and head out into careers.

“What St. Thomas provides is a liberal arts education,” said Mary Maloney, an associate professor of management in the Opus College of Business, on why she decided to join the project. “The essence of liberal arts is to get exposure to a variety of disciplines and to use that knowledge and training to help you problem-solve and think critically.”

In addition, students can learn how to work more effectively with disciplines that can sometimes seem to be at odds.

“On some college campuses, there are stereotypes: on one hand, that business students are sell-out money-grubbers, and on the other hand, that arts and sciences students are idealists who will eventually face reality and become business people at some point in their careers,” Michaelson said. “Just having these different majors get together and realize that they’re all humans can be eye-opening. The business students aren’t uncaring about a crisis like HIV/AIDS and have knowledge that can contribute to a solution. Meanwhile, the non-business students aren’t impractical, and their knowledge is also essential to solving complex problems collaboratively.”

When the Nobel Peace Prize Forum moved into the summer, faculty decided they wanted to keep the World Café event going; they picked their own topic and expanded the number of disciplines and departments involved. This year, Finnegan, Mike Klein and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer came from JPST; from business, Maloney and Michaelson; Paul Wojda from Theology; Starr Sage from the Health and Human Performance Department; Steven Bennett from the Biology Department; and Roxanne Prichard from the Psychology Department.

After considerate time and deliberation, they selected HIV/AIDS as their topic, believing it was a subject all the disciplines could contribute to and  would challenge students in a meaningful way.

“We wanted each discipline to have something meaningful to bring to the table,” Klein said. “It’s a pressing social issue, but it doesn’t get as much attention as it might need to.”

The faculty each had one or two classes involved in the project, and they prepared their students by swapping with another faculty member in the group. Faculty talked about the broad issues someone in their field would consider in regard to HIV/AIDS. For example, Sage talked about the ethics of doing research in resources-poor communities that may not be able to eventually afford the treatments that are tested on them, while Bennett discussed the biological aspects of HIV/AIDS, such as the early history in the early 1900s in West Africa.

The students were also asked to watch Wilhemina’s War, a PBS documentary that explores the story of a black family living in the rural south – a population disproportionately affected by HIV within the U.S. The film was intended to make more personal an abstract idea that is often thought of playing out primarily in developing nations.

“That sense of inserting yourself into a person’s experience is the issue we’re trying to cover,” Klein said. “PBS did a great job of complicating those two simple categories of HIV and AIDS to talk about how race, class, education and access to health care are part of the story and part of the analysis.”

Forging connections

After the students had time to soak in all that information, around 240 of them came together on the evening of Wednesday, April 27, for the World Café event, which is inspired by the World Café Method, a flexible and effective way of holding large-group dialogues.

The students were put into small groups, with each group having a blended mix of departments. They went through three rounds of questions, which they were supposed to consider through the lens of their respective disciplines, and after each question, they would swap to a new group.

“When you move to the new table, you’re bringing yourself, but you’re also bringing the ideas and experiences from the first round and other people are doing the same,” Finnegan said.

The first round focused on explaining the causes of the HIV/AIDS epidemic; the second on what has been learned from the HIV/AIDS epidemic; and the third on what should be done now.

Several of the students described the experience as “eye-opening,” because they hadn’t considered such a multidimensional approach before or because they were learning more about HIV/AIDS, which can still be a taboo topic.

“For me, personally, and for, I think, a lot of the classmates I talked to, I really had no idea how [HIV/AIDS] affects so many people,” sophomore Anika Johnson said. “It’s got a heavy social stigma around it. By talking, learning and being more educated, we can start to eliminate the stigma, and maybe do more fundraising for research to make the make drugs more available, if it were looked at more like breast cancer.”

The experience was also empowering for many students, who believed they walked away with a better understanding of how to enact change.

“We have this community of scholars and Tommies, and it was this moment of, ‘We have the tools to do something. We have this collaboration,’” said third-year student Tatjana Mortell.

“I think this interdisciplinary approach is something students and officials around the world need to take into account when allocating resources,” echoed Elizabeth Mauk ’16.

For many of the faculty members who were involved, that sort of feedback was exactly why they had involved their classes in the first place.

“It complicates things. I think that’s my favorite part about this event,” Klein said. “[Good interdisciplinary] work takes us out of our silo or our discipline and challenges us to realize that we have to connect across these differences.”

That held true for many of the faculty members as well, who forged new connections: Finnegan and Michaelson plan to co-teach a class together soon, while Klein is taking some of the research that Prichard discussed on the science behind storytelling to shake up a writing component in one of his courses in the fall.

The committee of faculty involved hope to hold the event again next year, with a new topic, and also that the World Café event may serve as an example or inspiration for other curricular efforts across campus.

“It’s important for us to create spaces to have conversations, to have conversations with people we don’t see eye to eye with or are from really different backgrounds,” Sage said. “We’re not going to come up with the solutions to any of the world’s problems, whether it be infectious diseases [or anything else], unless we’re able to cross those boundaries.”

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