‘Difficult Thinking’ and Interdisciplinarity

‘Difficult Thinking’ and Interdisciplinarity

At the SRHE conference on Structuring Knowledge last week, Gareth Williams said that we need people in our universities to do the ‘difficult thinking’. I agree. Elsewhere on this blog I have argued against education being too easy, or even too much fun – at least in a superficial sense. Great rewards come from overcoming great difficulties and in the intellectual sphere this sort of work takes place in universities.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against having fun – at least I don’t think I am – maybe you’d need to ask my children! But funness sometimes trivializes the sort of intellectual work and concomitant fulfilling experience that can be so deeply rewarding, important and beautiful ; these sorts of intellectual and emotional experiences are had pretty much in direct proportion to the amount of hard academic work we put into our studies.

However, there is an assumption by many (not Prof Williams, so far as I know) that the difficult thinking can only take place in a disciplinary context. From the situation in which he spoke, it was not clear if Prof Williams was speaking more specifically about research or the work that undergraduates do. But the assumption is often that, at undergraduate level, the thinking can only be tough and only demonstrate the type of progression we are looking for in universities if the student progresses through levels 1, 2 and 3 in History, Physics, Economics, whatever. I don’t think this is right.

For one thing, in case it is not obvious, history shows that the disciplines are contingent. Joe Moran’s  book on interdisciplinarity has some entertaining examples. The establishing of a degree in the new discipline of History was resisted (around 1850); this was followed by an academic historian (in 1887, by which time his own discipline was safely established) resisting the suggestion of a degree in English. More recently, my colleague Vin Walsh tells me, the British Psychological Society was founded only in 1968 – which shows, arguably, that Psychology was only established as a bona fide discipline within living memory. There are numerous other examples.

Looking back, can we say that thinkers of these periods who were ‘thinking like a Historian’ in a disciplinary sense but before the establishment of the discipline of History in British universities, or pioneering the sort of ’close reading’ that went on to become a core part of English degrees, were not engaged in ‘difficult thinking’? Surely it is the other way round: those thinking hard in ways which are not yet codified into academic disciplines have a more difficult job to situate their studies, form the appropriate vocabulary, decide on what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ work in their area.

Disciplines come and go, then, and from the undergraduate point of view, what is taught and how one is assessed and awarded marks depends on the university department’s view of the discipline at the time one is studying there. It may be ’easier thinking’ to go along with what your department tells you is the right way to do things than to offer a critique, a new synthesis or some new connections.

But what about the issue of a broad, high level education? How do we provide a university education which is broad in its interdisciplinarity (and therefore more rounded than studying one discipline alone)? How do we find criteria for assessing and valuing such work?

Well, it starts with what the institution values as knowledge and that, of course, means what the people within the institution value as knowledge. (I use ‘knowledge’ in an inclusive sense here to mean ‘practice’ as well as demonstration or recall of facts.) If we are to value and assess such achievements in our students, then somewhere in the institution we need academics sympathetic to broader and more interdisciplinary education. This is eminently achievable, but it takes vision and a degree of institutional consensus. Just as those who had to fight for the establishment of English as a degree (figures as great as F R Leavis, no less) had to define what they were looking for as signs of excellence in their students, so those offering interdisciplinary programmes must do the same. To repeat: this is achievable but requires imagination and flexibility on the part of the institution, and the consensus of enough respected scholars.

I will blog later on what specific criteria we might look for in this regard, but for now: What sort of courses, what interdisciplinary approaches, might we look to assess?

Firstly, we can offer courses which are inherently interdisciplinary, which require students to cover a good deal of ground, to provide either a large and comprehensive survey of intellectual terrain, or to be able to critique meaningfully a wide range of academic thought and practice. A course in Interdisciplinary Research Methods is one such example. Such a course can take in an analysis of which methods are appropriate in which contexts (qualitative/quantitative, structured/unstructured etc) and progress to the application of an appropriate method in a research context (perhaps including field work) and a collection and analysis of data. This course could be made, quite simply, as easy or difficult as we like! No danger of a lack of ‘difficult thinking’ here.

We can also look to provide courses that give insight into a range of different academic perspectives. I have used the notion of academic empathy elsewhere and I think this is a notion worth developing. It certainly involves difficult thinking for a hardcore Marxist materialist to understand the point of view of a religious Platonist, or for a scientist convinced of the primacy and fundamental value of science to understand the perspective of a post-structuralist feminist  who may approach science with a different set of assumptions and values. Such work is both an essential part of the academic enterprise of open, critical thinking, and it is difficult: challenging one’s fundamental positions, whether they are held on rational or irrational grounds, is always difficult.

I have heard it voiced that such courses promote relativism, but I don’t think this is right at all. It is rather that they promote classic academic values of critical thinking, open enquiry, respect in debate, ability to construct arguments and articulate one’s viewpoint, and a tolerance of different positions. Speaking of empathy, the business sector now argues that it seeks empathy in its leaders and managers (see e.g. Doug Belshaw’s blog on this). Fostering such academic empathy in a university environment seems an excellent way for our students both to engage with something academically challenging, and to learn things that will go on to serve them well in their working lives outside of universities.

Secondly, we can look to provide spaces in which students are able to approach their studies in existing disciplines from new, interdisciplinary angles – perhaps by putting on conferences or debates where this can be explored. This is harder to organise than simply providing new courses, a. because such things do not fit easily within most university timetables and assessment structures, b. because the disciplines (rightly) insist on retaining what they see as valuable and worthy of credit in their respective domains.

But all this is do-able. If English was first considered a degree ‘for books I already read on the train’ and even science was pooh-poohed as being unfit for a gentleman’s education, who is to say that today’s creative interdisciplinary courses will not be regarded in 50 years time as the really significant moves in the way we structure knowledge?


Moran, J. (2010) Interdisciplinarity, 2nd Edition. London and New York: Routledge.


Photo under CC license from Sklathill


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