Posted tagged ‘interdisciplinarity’

People talk about interdisciplinarity, but will we ever really do it?

October 31, 2016

During my first year as a lecturer in 1981 I attended a workshop on ‘the protection of academic disciplines’. The event had been organised by a group of academics from various subject areas who wanted to draw attention to the risk, as they saw it, of scholarship and knowledge being put at risk by an obsession with interdisciplinary studies and research. In the opinion of these colleagues such work would compromise academic excellence because those doing it would have to know something about too much, and so their knowledge of anything would not be very deep; ‘skimming across the surface of knowledge’ was how one participant described it.

At the time this was of more than passing interest to me. I had been an undergraduate law student, and had then written a PhD thesis that covered law, sociology and economics; and subsequently I began my academic career as a lecturer in industrial relations in a business school. In fact that business school had amongst its senior staff a philosopher, another lawyer, and a mathematician. We used to meet most mornings in the School Head’s office and discussed books we were reading. But outside of this congenial circle it was often a different story. I remember attending a law conference during that period and finding myself under sustained attack by a very senior academic from another well known university for ‘pursuing a cheap and unscholarly route’ in my publications. He presumably felt I was skimming.

In any case interdisciplinarity was, for me at least, soon put back in its box. I changed jobs and joined a law school, and at about the same the powers that be in the UK introduced the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE – now the Research Excellence Framework, or REF). The law school did have some interesting interdisciplinary work, but the RAE didn’t recognise such stuff (review panels were always overwhelmingly or even exclusively made up of single-discipline people), and with us as elsewhere the focus moved back into the disciplines.

But more generally the search for insights going beyond just one intellectual frame of reference never stopped, and advances in various areas made excursions across disciplinary boundaries more and more desirable. In the United States interdisciplinarity was promoted increasingly by funding agencies. The National Science Foundation has for some time recognised ‘the value of interdisciplinary research in pushing fields forward and accelerating scientific discovery.’ But in the UK it has been argued that any early career academic going down that route may find it difficult to gain recognition and promotion.

Nobody says any more what I was told in the 1980s – that interdisciplinary work is intellectually deficient. But actually doing it can still be just as frustrating and can still fail to find proper recognition. We are too often emotionally committed to particular boundaries between areas of knowledge which were often, in their origins, entirely arbitrary. It is time to think again.


Is collaborative research just for scientists?

September 14, 2010

Some years ago I sat on a promotions committee in my then university, and one of the things that struck me was that almost every scientist seeking promotion presented evidence of collaborative research – working with another colleague, a postgraduate student or with industry. It was clear that these colleagues believed that jointly conducted research was a sign of excellence, and other members on the panel with a science background concurred. On the other hand, every single candidate from the humanities and social sciences stressed the fact that they had worked alone and that they would not require funding support.

No scientist, or at least none that I have comes across, would have any doubt or hesitation about collaborative research. Academics from the arts and humanities, however, often consider joint research work to be inferior and intellectually suspect. Just last week I heard another little diatribe from one lecturer who told me that all he needs is a room with a desk; here he can get on with his work in a solitary environment. Partnering with another lecturer in his own area would be unnecessary, and could provide opportunities for plagiarism, he felt. Partnering with colleagues in the sciences or even engineering would, in his view, be ‘bizarre’. The suggestions aired from time to time for such collaboration were, in his view, mischievous and would if implemented wreck the integrity of academic work.

How all this will play out in future is hard to predict. But for many members of the public, what they expect of universities is not disciplinary purity, but rather a capacity for researchers to answer the major questions facing society – about illness and health, about security, about sustainability, about ethics and high standards. Almost none of these questions can be answered from within one disciplinary area. In this setting the idea of academics locked away in small offices beavering away on their own, writing about the mating habits of grasshoppers, brings out a lot of anti-university sentiment.

Research methods cannot of course be forced on unwilling academics. But it may be time for the humanities academics themselves to consider the potential for more interdisciplinarity and collaboration.

Keeping universities traditional

September 7, 2010

The reform and modernisation of higher education has been one of the themes of the past decade. This has not always been greeted enthusiastically within universities, but nevertheless recent years have seen restructuring, modularisation and commercialisation, and while some aspects of higher education have remained largely unchanged, the sector as a whole has gone through significant renewal.

The reform drive has often been prompted and pushed by government, the media and industry. Nevertheless, it appears that not all modernisation is seen as good. To illustrate this point, let me quote from an article in the Sunday Telegraph of this past weekend. The article, on what are described as ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’, contains the following passages:

‘An analysis of courses available through the university clearing system has disclosed that while most traditional courses are now full up, there are empty places in scores of “eccentric” degree courses. Education experts said it was unfortunate that such courses appeared to be proliferating at a time when school-leavers with good grades could not get places in core academic subjects….

Yet despite record demand for places at top universities, hundreds of places are still available in less well known higher education institutions, many of them offering unconventional courses. Northampton University initially had 250 places available through the clearing system, including such courses as Third World Development with Pop Music, Dance with Equine Studies and joint honours in Waste Management and Dance…

Mr Willetts  [Universities Minister] said: “In tough times I suspect some of these more eccentric courses, which date from the excesses of the dying days of the Labour government, will disappear because students see they are not a route into a well-paid career. Some of them sound like very odd courses indeed.”‘

It is not my intention to assess or defend particular programmes of studies in any university, but rather to point out that the whole intention behind modularisation (which has been backed strongly by governments and funding agencies) is to allow much greater flexibility so that students can assemble degree courses to suit their interests and/or career intentions, while maintaining appropriate academic grounding. Whether that has been achieved in programmes mentioned above is not necessarily the point, because the comments quoted there make assumptions about the dubious merit of unconventional subject combinations – comments which on the face of it fly in the face of the whole point of modularisation. The pedagogical idea, and indeed the perception of what society needs, is that making links between different subject areas opens up the possibility of interdisciplinary analysis and the acquisition of significant skills on the part of students. Universities should be the home of ‘eccentric’ initiatives, whereas here the assumption appears to be that traditional prudence is better than innovation.

Of course we should not defend programmes of study that have been assembled without proper pedagogical planning or which have inadequate intellectual foundations. But the people to make this judgement should appropriately sit on peer review panels; they are probably not going to include journalists from the Telegraph, or even the English Universities Minister if he makes such casual judgements.

Academy for single issue fanatics?

November 2, 2009

There was an interesting comment in yesterday’s Sunday Independent by columnist Eilis O’Hanlon. Writing about the increasing tendency of campaigners on this and that to criticise comedians for being insensitive (which I think she is arguing is what comedy occasionally needs to be), she adds the following:

‘Single-issue fanatics are boring, that’s the worst of it. It’s like being trapped in a lift with people who only care about the North or immigration or the environment or reproductive ethics. They’re fiercely passionate about one thing, but mentally dead to every other manifestation of the richness of humanity.

Whatever happened to the notion of the rounded individual? The same thing has happened in academic circles. Specialisation and intellectual protectionism have made disciplines contract around trainspotterish experts who know an awful lot about a small number of things, and have come to the bizarre conclusion that this makes them voices to whom it is therefore more interesting to listen.’

It might seem a stretch to suggest that the natural home for fanatics is the university, but it may be worth a quick analysis. Eilis O’Hanlon would not be the first to wonder whether a retreat into the finer details of complex academic disciplines has created an academic world of nerds who understand in great detail whatever it is their work is focused on, but who have no overall concept of society, community and life. On the whole I don’t recognise the university world in that caricature; but perhaps it reinforces a point I have made previously, that the key questions that concern humanity are to be found between disciplines rather than within them, and that academics need to make connections between different branches of knowledge.

This has in fact become the standard basis on which many new research centres are built. For example in DCU, the National Centre for Sensor Research utilises insights from chemistry, physics, biology, genetics, engineering, computing, and the humanities. Similar connections between disciplines are visible in many of the leading research units in Ireland today. Certainly I don’t believe that our programmes of research and teaching encourage the single issue crusader.

Having said that, I would have to accept that some quite narrow social and political campaigns have been led by academics, as is their right. But I would hope that as our approach to knowledge develops and adapts, this will not be typical of the academy.

And for what it is worth, I would hope that the academic community is finding just the right balance between sensitivity and daring in its appreciation of humour and comedy.

Academic themes

August 5, 2009

At a recent diplomatic reception that I attended a senior public servant offered the following comment to me: ‘You guys [and I think he meant academics] are so caught up in your abstract studies and disciplines that you can’t really say anything useful to the rest of us.’ Well, of course I didn’t agree with him, but whether his comment had any merit isn’t my point here. Rather, I wonder whether perhaps we need to make it more obvious that we do concern ourselves not just with interesting but obscure abstractions, but also with precisely the issues that will determine economic prosperity and social stability.

It has seemed to me for some time that society is clustering its concerns into a number of themes. You can work out your own, but I would identify the key themes as (i) health, (ii) security, (iii) transport and communications, (iv) globalisation and trade, and (v) environmental sustainability. All of these are both sources of anxiety and also items producing political dissatisfaction. We do not think that our political leaders have a grip on them, and so we despair of our leaders and simultaneously worry some more. And perhaps, when we look at our universities and what they are working on, we don’t always identify the connection with our general themes.

Partly because of this, it has been my view that universities should present their ‘shop windows’ in a more thematic way, with less of an emphasis on traditional Faculty structures (law, economics, physics, mechanical engineering, and so forth), and more on issues of general social concern. This can also help to drive interdisciplinarity, which has become academically important.

Since 2001 DCU has presented its strategic priorities in a thematic way, and has sought to present its strategy in terms of thematic projects. Whether this can be done easily is another matter, but I believe it to be important to communicate our priorities in this way. If we say, for example, that we are bringing together teams of academics to address key health issues, this makes a case to the public that is easier to grasp than if we say we are building up a School of Biotechnology.

I am not suggesting that (possibly transient) themes should replace disciplines in academic formation, but rather that they should drive strategic interactions between those disciplines, and in doing so should reassure the public that what we do will benefit all.

Guest blog: A festival of ideas

July 29, 2009

A Festival of Ideas
by Dr Iain Mac Labhrainn, Director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at NUI Galway

It was nice to see TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) receive such coverage in much of the press last week although one suspects that it is perhaps the celebrity attendees (via the “entertainment” part of the label) that may have lured the photographers at least. TED though is both a celebration of ideas and a binge of creativity, style and eloquence. Carefully selected speakers are each given just 18 minutes to describe their ‘big idea’ or reflect on a particularly resonant experience to a live audience on stage, surrounded by cameras and in the knowledge that it will be broadcast to the world via the website, YouTube and iTunes.

Despite the outrageously expensive ticket prices (thousands of Euros per head), the event is popular (and of course is highly expensive to run) and all the presentations are ultimately made available and released under a Creative Commons license that ensures that they can be used for a variety of purposes by educators across the world. Many university courses now embed some of these in their courses and many academic staff also find them inspiring, not just in terms of the content but also in providing to some extent, interesting examples of how to capture an audience’s rapt attention.

From my perspective, in some ways this is a vision of what at least part of a university’s mission can and should be about – not just creating and nurturing new ideas but sharing them and indeed celebrating the joy of learning, of research and of creativity with a wider public – a place where ideas are the currency and where different disciplinary traditions meet and knowledge is contested. Of course it’s not possible to really get at the detail and the subtlety of academic research and scholarship in 18 minutes, nor should we forget to remind others of how much hard graft is involved in research (and learning a particular discipline). Nor can all of our statisticians swallow swords, nor all of our neuroscientists be recovering from a stroke ! But despite the slings and arrows of outrageous budget cuts and administrative loading, we all have somewhere within our heart a love for our subject that drove us deep into the discipline in the first place and perhaps at least those who have the ability to share in this way can be encouraged to do so and for it to be seen and recognised as a valid contribution to the academy and not just sneered at as part of ‘dumbing down’ or a ‘culture of celebrity’.

Even to talk to one another within the university (“in-reach” perhaps, rather than ‘outreach’), breeching the disciplinary barriers and going beyond the “academic tribes and territories” would have great value, particularly at a time in which funders and policy-makers are increasingly distinguishing between subjects in terms of funding and perceived economic relevance. A simple but rewarding aspect of our local programmes in Academic Practice, for example, is the ‘field trip’ where participants walk across the campus and visit each other’s labs, classrooms and buildings, describing their teaching and research in accessible terms.

TED itself is also now nurturing local events across the globe that follow the same basic structure of short, powerful talks or performances to an invited or selected audience that encourages cross-fertilisation of ideas and perspectives. It would be remiss of me not to mention that TEDxGalway is already being planned for December.