Posted tagged ‘academic disciplines’

Being disciplined

June 8, 2015

In an interesting comment on one of the posts from this blog, Dr Greg Foley (of my old university, DCU) argued as follows:

‘My view is that when people are immersed in a discipline and they gradually acquire the basic knowledge and skills of that discipline, they acquire the ability and the confidence to become critical thinkers – in that discipline. To extend that critical thinking ability into other realms requires further study to gain the requisite discipline-specific knowledge and skill.’

In fact, how we address disciplines, and the extent to which we allow, encourage or insist on ‘interdisciplinarity’ has become one of the major questions of higher education over recent years. Research projects and centres, and increasingly university courses, have tackled topics that cross one or more disciplinary boundaries – something that would have been very rare when I was a student.

Nevertheless, this is not exactly a new issue. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz was born nearly 370 years ago. He was a mathematician, a philosopher, a lawyer, a scientist, an alchemist, a theologian, an inventor, an archivist, an historian and a political scientist – and maybe other things besides. He was German, but he wrote in Latin and French. He strayed across the different disciplines and activities with consummate ease.

But what would we make of Leibniz today? Would we admire his eclectic scholarship, or would we suspect him of dumbing everything down? Would we see him as the typical modularisation project, with all its benefits and risks?

There are few who would still dispute that many of the world’s problems can only be resolved by people who are able to engage different areas of knowledge in order to reach a coherent analysis and propose solutions. But it is also common to hear doubts expressed about the intellectual integrity of interdisciplinary teaching and research, and the charge that it involves superficial analysis.

It may well be true true that scholars need to have a good grounding in the disciplines they wish to study. But we need to ensure that specialisation is achieved within a broader context, including an understanding of relevant knowledge from other areas; and not just adjacent areas, but from across the whole spectrum. For example, addressing questions of ethics is becoming increasingly important for discovery in science. In any case, we need to remember that ‘disciplines’ are relatively arbitrary constructs, and that it is perfectly possible to have deep learning and scholarship by addressing issues within different boundaries. Some subject areas now described as ‘disciplines’ are in themselves new amalgamations of what were previously discrete areas, such as biotechnology, or indeed economics. It is not that long ago that only philosophy, theology and mathematics were accepted as true disciplines.

We could therefore do worse than looking again at some of the great polymaths of past ages, including Gottfried von Leibniz, and ask whether their approach to knowledge was in fact rather modern by our current standards. We might ask whether our higher education programmes are still too much constrained by subject area boundaries, and whether as a result our graduates do not find it as easy as they should to address the problems facing society. And we should ask how we can protect intellectual integrity and rigour in that setting.

For what it is worth, Leibniz received another interesting accolade: he had a biscuit named after him.

A post-disciplinary academy?

October 14, 2010

It has been my view for some time that attachment to the traditional disciplines is making it harder for universities to adapt to changing circumstances. Most universities organise themselves in accordance with disciplinary boundaries that, in the case of the humanities, go back to the Middle Ages, and in the case of engineering and science, to the 19th century.

Now, in a recent issue of the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education where a number of prominent thinkers were asked to describe ‘the defining idea of the coming decade’, Professor Elaine Ecklund of Rice University’s Institute for Urban Research suggests that it might be necessary to abandon disciplines in order to ‘think beyond old boundaries’. She points out that the problems universities are asked to help solve all tend to lie between disciplines; but universities, organised into disciplines that stay shielded from others often for budgetary reasons, can find it hard to embrace interdisciplinary methodology. Their work is often determined and assessed by peer review panels, which are overwhelmingly established on disciplinary lines.

In fact the academic attachment to disciplines is far-reaching. As people progress in their careers, the discipline they are in tends to determine working methods and even personal friendships. Often a lecturer will feel that their primary allegiance is to their discipline, with the university often coming a rather poor second. Breaking down this particular order would be very difficult and could meet very significant resistance; but it may well need to be done. But if it is done, it may fundamentally alter the nature and atmosphere of the university.

I think that change is necessary, but it will fail unless it is properly prepared and unless academic consent is secured along the way. All of this should be part of a broader campaign for universities to regain society’s trust and confidence.

Feeding the ‘smart economy’

June 30, 2010

Nearly two years ago the Irish government published a paper (Building Ireland’s Smart Economy) in which it identified what it called the ‘smart economy’ as the best support for economic regeneration and an escape from the deepening recession. In the paper, the idea of the ‘smart economy’ was explained as follows:

‘The Smart Economy has, at its core, an exemplary research, innovation and commercialisation ecosystem.’

Leaving aside for a moment the increasingly irritating use of the term ‘ecosystem’, the general concept is fair enough: that research, innovation and commercialisation come together to create new economic activity. This happens in two ways: more directly but with fewer short term benefits, the intellectual property from some research can be turned into economic value through licensing and spin-outs; and secondly, high value research linking with industry can generate conditions in which both foreign and indigenous investment may create jobs.

But one issue which perhaps has not received all the attention it deserves is this question: which areas of research are relevant here? Could it be any area at all, or do we need to focus on a small selection (given that we are a small country and cannot do everything)? And if we need to focus, which areas should attract our attention?

The ‘Smart Economy’ report did not itself specify exactly where the focus should lie, but it did make frequent references to areas of research that would align with industrial priorities, together with the provision of transferable skills from other disciplines. On the whole it is assumed that Ireland’s focus should be on the areas highlighted by Science Foundation Ireland – i.e. biotechnology and ICT and, more recently, sustainable development. But is that adequate?

Last weekend the Sunday Business Post published an article by TCD Professor of International Business, Colm Kearney. In a nutshell, he argues that the focus on the areas identified by SFI and in other reports is not necessarily right. In particular, he takes the view that the arts, humanities and social sciences (as well as other science areas that have not been prioritised nationally) have lots to offer that could benefit Ireland’s ‘smart economy’ and assist in regeneration. And this is what he concludes:

‘Ireland’s knowledge society must be broadly conceived. It will be inhabited by committed citizens who have access to a broad range of artistic, cultural and recreational opportunities in a sophisticated and tolerant society.’

It is certainly tempting to agree – and it is clearly right that a broad range of disciplines and areas of expertise will help to educate skilled graduates and develop vital benefits from research. But at the same time, Ireland needs to offer a highly focused set of key areas where it can add value to international and local investment. We cannot possibly compete with the best in the world if our priorities are too thinly spread. In fact, it seems to me that the SFI priority areas (the result of a Technology Foresight exercise in the late 1990s) are far too wide now. On the other hand, it is right that we should look more closely at the arts, humanities and social sciences to see what contribution they can make, either in their own right or in collaboration with other disciplines.

The biggest risk we face is that this whole debate has simply been taken over by clichés. ‘Smart economy’, ‘innovation’, ‘knowledge transfer’, ‘ecosystem’ – all of them no doubt ‘going forward’ – have been so over-used that in many ways they are now meaningless. That is why a restatement of priorities has become so important, because it forces us to address matters of substance rather than just churning out slogans. We must move, because we have an economy (and a society) to save.

Does interdisciplinarity destroy academic freedom?

April 24, 2009

Here’s an interesting item: Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, has trained his guns at what he describes as the ‘new fashion’ of interdisciplinarity. Well, I suppose it all depends on what you consider to be ‘new’. As I argued in one of the early posts in this blog, you could say that in earlier ages almost all scholarship was interdisciplinary; and a spectacular example of an intellectual devoting himself to interdisciplinarity was Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, born 362 years ago.

In fairness, I think that Thomas Docherty has a more specific target: the attempt by research funding agencies to specify certain interdisciplinary themes in their funding programmes (he uses ‘science and heritage’ as an example). But he cannot really mean – and if we read further, we find he does not mean – that academics should not cast their eyes over the boundaries of the discipline into which they were trained. In fact, he goes on to recognise that his own ‘discipline’  of English grew out of other disciplines. So what is he on about? When stripped down to its essentials, his point really is that nobody, and in particular not those with money to fund research, should be suggesting to anyone else what aspects of life they should be researching. He believes that such funding programmes are all about securing the ‘compliance with policy’ of the academic community. So the latter should determine themselves what they propose to work on. Anything else erodes or destroys academic freedom.

There are two aspects to this, and both deserve a brief analysis. The first is Thomas Docherty’s attack on interdisciplinarity; and here he is on very shaky ground. Disciplines are all artificial to some extent, and reflect an understanding of knowledge at some point in history when they secured recognition. In the early development of universities, when they were essentially off-shoots of monasteries, the only disciplines were theology (the ‘queen of sciences’), philosophy and mathematics. It was only with the Enlightenment that other subjects were added. The biggest burst of new disciplines came in the 19th century with the growth of science and engineering, and then in the 20th century various ‘new’ profession-oriented subjects claimed the discipline label. Now there is a rather charming Wikipedia page that purports to ‘list’ all of the disciplines, and for what it’s worth (not much, I think) it comes up with 42. 

All of this is highly artificial. If we believe that disciplines are such because they can lay claim to unique intellectual tools that are different in each one, then we should think again. For example, Professor Docherty’s ‘discipline’ has (perfectly properly in intellectual terms) tried out all kinds of tools borrowed from other areas, such as political science, sociology, history, philosophy etc. It seems to me that there is no magic at all in the boundaries between disciplines, and they have merit (if they have that) chiefly because in each case the academy has created some pedagogical tools that have some use in educating students, and which might not be recreated effectively if a student’s education were to meander too much between all these areas. But that is almost entirely meaningless once you are talking about highly skilled academics undertaking expert research.

The second aspect is Thomas Docherty’s dislike of a set agenda for research. In a nutshell, he doesn’t think that the taxpayer has any business directing programmes of research. If taxpayers have any particular concerns or needs that research may solve, they should sit back and wait for the academic community to get there, all in their good time. But that is wholly unsustainable. We need to see academic research as fulfilling two functions, both of them deserving of funding and support. One is to push out the boundaries undirected; and the other is to answer those questions that society urgently needs to have solved. An example of an area of research that he really doesn’t think should be specifically funded by government is the environment; but we know that there are huge issues putting the planet in peril which the research community needs to address urgently, and it seems to me to be wholly silly to suggest that the government and its agencies cannot set out a ringfenced fund for this.

It is of course always right to be vigilant to ensure that academic autonomy is protected. But to argue that this precludes government from funding interdisciplinary research is absurd. There is nothing sacred about the subject areas we now sometimes call ‘disciplines’. Our academic ancestors would have been horrified to hear that, say, ‘management’  or ‘architecture’ might be considered a discipline. So let us not think that there is anything sacred about their boundaries; or that society as a whole has no business asking us questions that cannot be answered from just within one of them; or even less, that society has no business asking our scholars any questions at all.

So do we need the historians here?

January 27, 2009

Yesterday I was engaged in a discussion with a number of colleagues from various universities, and the conversation turned to the disciplinary mix needed in a higher education institution to ensure that it can be a credible university. We agreed that it was possible to be a perfectly respectable university, and successful, while not having, say, a range of minority languages in the portfolio. But then someone suggested that any institution that wanted to be recognised as a bona fide member of the academy would have to have some subjects or disciplines; and the example given was history.

Well, DCU does not have a history department. We have had one or two trained historians at certain points, but they have worked in other areas. And to be perfectly frank, we are not about to establish a history school. Not that I have anything against history or historians; on the contrary, I read a lot of history myself, and as they say, some of my best friends are historians. But still, we won’t have history here as a discipline any time soon. So then, are we not a university? What is more, we don’t have theology or philosophy either. That means in fact that we don’t have two of the three disciplines that, in medieval times and for a long time afterwards, were considered the basis of all knowledge.

Once again, we are up against the problem that there is no consensus any more as to what constitutes a university. Almost nothing that defined universities in the past – from the required core disciplines to the teaching methods – are universally accepted now. But then again, probably all those in the room with me yesterday would have agreed that ‘Warnborough College‘ is not a university. And I suspect we would have had views about some currently non-university institutions seeking to make the transition to university status.

Over the coming months the university sector will be subjected to increasing analysis and pressure, and rationalisation and reform will feature large on the agenda. If we are to take part in this discussion in an effective and intelligent manner – as we must – then we need to get a fix on what actually constitutes a university at this point in time. It is no longer enough – maybe it never was – to say that you cannot define a university, but that you’ll know it when you see it.  We need to have an agreed view of the concept of a university that respects intellectual integrity while also allowing for diversity.

The questions we shall need to ask, and in some measure to answer, will include: what methodology of teaching and research marks out a university? What organisation structures are acceptable, and to what extent should they be based on disciplines? What kind of links are desirable or acceptable between universities and other organisations, including government agencies, business organisations and community groups? What is the meaning and significance of academic freedom in all this?

Unless we have a shared understanding of these matters, we will find it impossible to navigate the very choppy waters we are now entering.