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Interdisciplinary education in an established environment – emerging thoughts

I feel at risk once again of getting sucked into the discipline of interdisciplinarity, prompted this time by some excellent articles on such things published by colleagues of mine. But I resist. I want to stay as an outsider, to try to see things continually afresh. Of course the danger is that one ends up re-doing what has been done before or missing a trick or a short-cut that could save time or help students out. But we have to trust that I and my team can bring at least as much to this project by spending our time looking at interdisciplinarity continually afresh, and using our time to pursue our own avenues, rather than becoming bound up in any sort of theory about the disciplines. It seems to me that fundamentally this is what interdisciplinarity is about. It must be free, continually converging and then diverging again, sometimes anarchic, sometimes consolidatory.

This is not to say I do not learn a whole bundle about theories of interdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary working from those who have gone before! Of course I do – all the time, and will continue to do so. But in the end it is about how much time one apportions to this sort of reading and learning and how much time one gives oneself to keep reading outside and away from any narrowly targeted area, in order to bring fresh insight to what one is doing. This itself is a conversation related to interdisciplinarity, and the sub-conversation about creativity which goes on within conversations about interdisciplinarity. Koestler’s famous remark about creativity arising from the intersection of two different frames of reference comes to mind. But, to business.

What are the challenges in introducing interdisciplinarity in an established university?

1. Working out a timetable which fits in an established and highly devolved institution where academic departments have determined the structure and running of their own degrees for decades

2. Working out types of assessment which encourage and reward interdisciplinarity

3. Finding ways (and people) to mark or grade these assessments

4. (Related to 3) Finding ways to allow students to spend time on growing and expressing new interdisciplinary ideas which are then recognised, even though the students may not have absorbed all the content of traditional courses

5. Exploring ways to offer courses which are both interdisciplinary and which yet allow and oblige students to progress in disciplinary knowledge

6. Finding ways to stitch together such courses (as in 5) so that there is progression and a sense of holistic achievement for students on an overall interdisciplinary programme – i.e. one containing many individual interdisciplinary courses

7. Finding ways to allow students to convince senior academics or employers that their particular interdisciplinary skills add new value and can be progressed in academia or bring new value to employers

8. (Which underpins several of the above) Identifying new ‘literacies’ so that students can learn what they need to in order to navigate and learn successfully

Each of these probably requires a blog in itself. But let’s leave that for another day. To other things for now…

I have been interested recently in the educationalists’ idea of a ‘threshold concept’, introduced to me by Rosalind Duhs at UCL. The idea is that there are certain concepts in each discipline which it is essential to grasp before one can really proceed. In mathematics this might be the idea of limit, in Physics, Newton’s Laws, in Literature, perhaps the ideas of the reader or the text, and so on. The thinking is that learners would be better off spending time to really grasp such threshold concepts, so that they were then able to play with, manipulate and use them productively, rather than spending time absorbing content associated with a discipline.

There is certainly something in this approach to learning, but it has its risks. The notion of content, I think, is becoming deeply problematic in the internet age. Content, static facts, are pretty much instantly accessible to everyone. What is not available to everyone is the correct interpretation of these facts or knowledge of the process of how to use them.

Being properly familiar with the threshold concepts in any discipline, then, allows one to take the facts and use them, play with them in the correct way. To use an analogy, the facts are the fuel to put in your machine but you will only get interesting stuff out if you have a machine capable of interesting processes. Such a machine can be put together by an understanding of the threshold concepts.

One risk, of course, is that some students will simply never grasp the threshold concepts – then what do you do? I know highly intelligent people who claim they have never managed to learn a foreign language. I know PhD mathematicians who do not understand the concept of a limit – and so on. Would we not allow these people to pass through the system? Would we fail them in their exams? It is a dirty little secret that many university subjects have always included enough exams questions on their exams papers of the type that anyone could learn to pass just by memorising stuff  – without any proper understanding of the threshold concepts. That’s how the sausage machine works. And everyone is comfy with this: it seems to do the job. So although a return to threshold concepts might seem to be exactly what educators would like, it risks upsetting the big and powerful apple cart.

I am also increasingly interested in the relevance of method, of teaching ‘methodologies’, and this must tie in with ideas associated with ‘process’ above. I am thinking not just of interdisciplinary courses, but perhaps especially so. This is a departure for me. I have a strong memory of my grandfather E H Gombrich picking up the phone and saying, with some irritation and in a strong Viennese accent to a journalist or other caller: ‘I don’t have a methodology!’. Popper, too, hated talk of ‘methodology’: they bonded over that. So it is fairly deep in me not to fuss about method and just to get on with it – even though this goes very much against the thinking of about the last 40 years in academia. (Ironically, of course, Popper is responsible for a lot of talk about ‘the scientific method’ – whilst methodological talk is now absolutely rife in the humanities and social sciences.)

But – and this ties in with the talk of ‘process’ above – why really learn facts any more? And if we are not to learn facts, but we are still to learn something, then learning ‘method’ is a good candidate for that something. A computer can teach you pretty much any fact you like. But it is still some way from teaching you how to interrogate those facts: what method you should use. And I am becoming more sympathetic to some of my colleagues in STS and elsewhere who argue that how you collect the data, how you then interrogate it, what you decide to do with it, are all important facets of learning and knowledge in the internet age.

So interdisciplinary courses can work with this. We need facts to act as nodes to build our methods on and around. But an understanding of methods is increasingly important in knowing what to do with those facts. Of course many methods will still require rigorous training – in mathematics, laboratory technique, design, whatever – this is not just about theory – but I am coming around to the view that a proper study of methods has an important place in an interdisciplinary programme.

These are emerging thoughts in a long and fascinating journey. All comments welcome.

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