Thinking through the hallmarks of interdisciplinary education

Interdisciplinary opportunities within the curriculum can be transformative. But for Duna Sabri, their educational value could be better articulated – for both students and staff

Duna Sabri is Associate Director for Interdisciplinary Education and Research Fellow in the Centre for Public Policy Research at King's College London

There’s a lot of vitality and foresight in the way that many universities across the sector are designing new interdisciplinary education initiatives.

But given the considerable investment and the fiendish administrative complexity of facilitating new cross-institutional choices for students, we could do with some clarity of vision about the educative benefit to students, and importantly for staff as well.

The long game

Study between and across disciplines is not new. Programmes in the natural sciences, liberal arts and across the social sciences have flourished for some decades. But there is a particular species of interdisciplinary education that started in the early 2000s and is accelerating in the 2020s in a growing number of universities. It is organised as part of the undergraduate curriculum alongside single discipline or cognate-discipline programmes and brings students together from contrasting disciplines to tackle “real world” problems through specially designed “discovery”, “innovation” or “challenge-led” modules.

Last month’s conference on interdisciplinary education hosted by Anglia Ruskin University showcased a myriad of recent initiatives in the sector. While all of us are very often negotiating the very same barriers and internal debates that both Nicky King and Geraint Thomas highlighted on Wonkhe last year, we conceptualise what interdisciplinary education is going to mean for our students in different ways.

Some institutions centre the employability imperative and see interdisciplinarity as developing a set of generic skills for operating across cultures and professional boundaries and thinking in entrepreneurial ways. The long game is to help students situate themselves as citizens and workers making their way in an uncertain and potentially crisis-ridden future. In this model students often (not always, of course) report that the experience has been transformative in ways that can be highly personal, intersecting with the kind of existential identity work that we associate with “finding ourselves” or “finding voice”.

Home and away

What can be missing in this model is an integrating space that allows students to relate what they have learned in challenge or discovery modules to their home discipline. I wonder, if by conceptualising interdisciplinarity as a generic skill, we simply create an extracurricular activity albeit within curriculum time, one that is focused on personal experience and ultimately lay responses to generalised problems?

Implicit in the idea of interdisciplinarity is an awareness of disciplinarity, or at least programme specificity (since many programmes combine closely related disciplines). If we first create the conditions in which students can notice and critically engage with the values and conventions of their home programmes, perhaps then they will have a meaningful basis to engage in cross-disciplinary and ultimately interdisciplinary working.

Awareness of the problems and possibilities of our own area of expertise is surely a precursor to appreciating the potential contributions of others. This is not an argument for engineers to have a “taster” of psychology, but rather that engineers would benefit from understanding how to work alongside psychologists, what questions they can ask and expect to be asked, and how best to articulate their own “take” on a given problem.

Subject to change

As a second-generation migrant, I can say that there is nothing more powerful for making your home culture explicit than to see it in contradistinction to the culture of your destination community.

Disciplines and the programmes they design are not just intellectual homes but also social worlds, with their own languages and ways of learning about the world. Of course, they share some values and their assumptive worlds overlap – but they are also distinct and at times hold divergent views about such concepts as causality, evidence and what makes good scholarship.

So, students’ engagement in interdisciplinarity cannot stop at simply introducing the notion that there are different “takes” on a given problem. They need to know why these perspectives differ and ultimately be able to articulate when and to what extent they are complementary or irreconcilable. Only then can they come to have an appreciation of working across boundaries for the sake of an interdisciplinary understanding that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Not all disciplines were made equal. And their positions in relation to one another are very much a product of their social and historical context. In our current policy context, the humanities and to a large extent many of the social sciences have felt it necessary to justify their value in the face of falling student recruitment and a Treasury increasingly focused on valuing higher education in terms of how quickly graduates are able to pay back their student loans.

The contraction and, in some universities, closure of humanities departments has created a challenging environment for those that remain and a new and urgent imperative to re-establish their worth in the (somewhat jarring) language of employability and research impact. In contrast, societal shifts and the policy environment favour STEM subjects, business studies, law and psychology.

Teaching across borders

In this context disciplinary departments come at the interdisciplinary projects with very different needs and stances. The “value added-ness” is somehow less clear when your courses are selecting rather than recruiting students. Though interestingly, the professional regulatory bodies are keen to encourage their accredited courses to support students to communicate across professional and disciplinary boundaries.

But there are also deeper personal imperatives that inform those committed to interdisciplinary education. Some of those individuals have themselves migrated across discipline boundaries and, not uncommonly, have second PhDs or master’s qualifications which enabled their transition. They see the multi-dimensionality of perspectives as intrinsic to problem-solving, and especially for tackling complex “wicked” problems such as climate and sustainability, poverty, peace, and the ethics of AI.

Of course, we cannot rely on the (exceptional) minority of colleagues who have got themselves two doctorates to carry forward the interdisciplinary project. We need to pay close attention to the incentives and interests that motivate all of our staff members. Among the barriers that Geraint Thomas mentions is the organisation of staff recruitment around research brands – but this can also be a strength.

Our interdisciplinary curricula are potentially a site of dynamic interplay between research coming to fruition and communicating its significance to students from a broad range of disciplines. We might then widen the intellectual horizons of the next generation of undergraduate students to develop those research endeavours as PhD students and beyond. As well as ensuring that our future curricula are relevant to our students and their twenty-first century world, we need to offer staff the possibility of renewing their research and educational interests through their participation, and potentially remaking their discipline identities.

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