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A trend in UK higher education towards more interdisciplinary courses offers significant benefits to students, but also presents challenges to academia, says Professor Jackie Labbe, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield.
As a recent article in the THE illustrated, there is a new educational trend in British universities: ‘liberal arts style’ courses that emulate a common mode in the US. The clue is in ‘style’: as with many imported models, the UK versions select bits and pieces and come up with courses that range from ‘faux’ (merely combining a variety of humanities subjects) to bespoke (using the name but constructing a fairly inflexible course of study: single-honours in fact).
The customary UK model of higher education is predicated on depth over breadth: it’s highly specialised and offers disciplinary concentration, continuing the contracting of choice that begins when children move from GCSE to A-levels. This early specialism and the linear and progressive model of single and dual honours create graduates with a strong understanding of a very straitened syllabus; moreover, it forces students whose interests cross the arts and the sciences to choose one or the other. Should higher education be in the business of narrowing learning horizons?
True liberal arts study specifically enjoins the bridging of this gap; it’s fully informed by multiple disciplines and privileges breadth, while allowing for in-depth study of a major subject, sometimes complemented by a minor as well. In the US, this can work because full disciplinary specialisation happens at postgraduate level, for those who desire to really get to grips with their subject-based knowledge. Liberal Arts undergraduates are allowed the freedom of choice within certain parameters that ensure discipline coverage and create a humanities/social science/science nexus.
Introducing this mode of study into UK higher education, therefore, requires some major adjustments to our traditional modes, which is probably why there are so many types at the moment. And given the disruptive nature, why should we do it at all? Single and dual honours are well-beloved, and many academics notoriously don’t like change, with a conservative approach to teaching and learning that belies the adventurous creativity characterising most research. We raise concerns about rigour, coverage, workload. We worry about pre-requisites and preparedness. And, importantly, we wonder what, exactly, this mixed mode of study is aiming for; and what is interdisciplinarity, anyway?
While I don’t believe that university course content should be led by the not always fully informed opinions of ‘employers’, I am sure that graduates who can think flexibly and creatively, apply concepts outside their usual contexts, and work across barriers imposed by knowledge silos, are eminently ‘employable’. And I know that there are many students with a hunger for gaining knowledge, who want to keep their horizons broad, who are dismayed and disheartened by the strictures of single and dual honours.
Tripling of applications for Triple degree
At the University of Sheffield we’ve created the Combined Honours Triple degree, which offers students the chance to creatively combine three subjects through guided module choice. Now with its first intake of very highly-qualified students, we’ve seen a tripling of applications for next year, and the current students are models of initiative, independence, and talent. It’s humanities-based at the moment, and it’s teaching us how we might think through what we mean by interdisciplinary teaching and learning. It’s forcing us to figure out ways to enable access to subjects that traditionally want to see a subject-specific A-level. We’re confronting some interesting attitudes about discipline hierarchies and course ownership. The crucial underlying principle of student-led choice has thrown up some challenges in logistical terms as well as academic support. The proof will be the students themselves, their achievements in negotiating (with support) a structure built for a different model.
So, is ‘liberal arts’ the same as ‘interdisciplinarity’? Our degree is emphatically not liberal arts (yet): although the aim is to create opportunities for study in the sciences and other disciplines, this will require careful thought and discussion, particularly for lab-based subjects and those with accreditation requirements. Indeed, one question the sector is not yet grappling with, but should, is whether multi-subject study will be possible within accredited disciplines. The desirability of trying this out has struck some educators in the US; a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article specifically sought to make common cause between Humanities and Engineering.
Still, this doesn’t address the question. And I would say no, liberal arts and interdisciplinarity are not the same. The former combines subjects; it’s multidisciplinary. The latter requires disciplinary knowledge to be gained first and then delved into. At Sheffield, we’re addressing this by offering an interdisciplinary dissertation module as a capstone to the creative subject combination followed by students on the Triple degree, but this will be open to other students as well, those who feel ready to cross the boundaries their single or dual honours study has imposed. Interdisciplinary study requires the preparation offered by (multi)disciplinary learning.
Truly interdisciplinary teaching and learning is a challenge and the sector is still learning what it means, finding its way through a bewildering array of formats. Sheffield’s is only one of them. But it’s a necessary evolution. Our students need a form of education as complex and fluid as the world they’ll find themselves in.
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