Disciplinary tribalism 'is stifling creativity'

Are students being short-changed by a narrow approach to learning? Matthew Reisz reports

June 23, 2011

Although the division of knowledge into discrete, and often tightly policed, disciplinary blocks may be effective in creating "academic tribes and territories", it often fails to serve the needs of students and society, a scholar has argued.

Gill Nicholls, deputy vice-chancellor (academic development) at the University of Surrey, discussed "the changing nature of disciplines and scholarship" at the recent International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities, in Granada, Spain.

In what she described as "a provocative paper meant to stimulate discussion", she explored the implication of the power that individual disciplines have on teaching, learning and pedagogy.

In today's university, she argued, "academics are deluged by vast quantities of new information. To avoid drowning, and to attain some kind of security, (they) seek to come ashore...on ever-smaller islands of learning and enquiry."

Yet "the problems of society do not come in discipline-shaped blocks" and it is all too easy to find recent examples of "the dangerous, sometimes fatal narrowness of policies recommended by those (who claim to) possess expert knowledge".

Today, said Professor Nicholls, we are witnessing the continuing growth of disciplinary speciality.

The very notion of a discipline, however, implies "both a domain to be investigated and the methods used in that domain...emphasising characteristics that separate discrete units of knowledge as opposed to those that might relate them".

This in turn tends to "separate the academy" and make it difficult for universities to implement an integrated approach to learning. Courses that "aim to impart a pre-defined and fixed amount of established knowledge, concepts and skills" effectively ignore the need for the student to explore and be creative.

At the heart of the problem, said Professor Nicholls, is that disciplines are based on "divisions of know-ledge which are useful for the purposes of groups of people: academics, professionals, capitalists and state bureaucrats".

But although they provide territories, career tracks and identities to the people working within them, they also have the effect of squeezing out anyone who does not fit, excluding the mavericks who can often bring crucial insights.

Asked about the practical implications of her analysis, Professor Nicholls said that "panels and journals need to find ways to allow academics to do interdisciplinary work and be recognised for it".

Many practical problems require a variety of complementary perspectives, she said. To create the best prosthetics, for example, experts in computer engineering, health services and material science need to come together, and routes to promotion and prestige should aid, not prevent, such collaborations.

There are also important implications for teaching. "Students are often inculcated into asking questions which reinforce the strictures of their disciplines," she said. "Instead, we should encourage them to look at different ways of interrogating the discipline they love."


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