Multidisciplinary departments: do they work?

Tim Hall describes staff and student experiences of interdisciplinary mergers, including an awkward departmental ‘speed date’

January 8, 2015

Source: Rex

While university managers clearly see the multidisciplinary department as an administratively neat and financially expedient model, the experience on the ground is probably more mixed

My first department meeting as an academic in the early 1990s was a reasonably intimate affair. Eight of us, all geographers, sat around a small table and talked solely about the students on our course. Twenty years and one university later, department meetings had become somewhat more complex. Forty academics from criminology, sociology, psychology, geography and biology sat wedged around several large tables and struggled to articulate a common departmental narrative. I have since become head of a (smaller) multidisciplinary department at another institution. This move into multidisciplinary departments will be familiar to many academics in the UK and elsewhere.

Although no comprehensive data exist, this trend appears to be characteristic of most disciplines to some extent. Royal Geographical Society data, for example, show that single discipline, autonomous geography departments in the UK have declined in number from 47 in 1995 to 30 in 2013. The majority of UK geography departments are now multidisciplinary in some form.

This is a trend mirrored across the social sciences and humanities. Paul Rowlett, professor of French language and linguistics at the University of Salford and vice-chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, thinks that “a lot of this has happened, specifically for us in languages, leading to individual language departments being merged into schools of languages or with other humanities and social sciences”. Although single discipline science departments may be more resilient, they are certainly not immune to reorganisation in this way.

Disciplinary landscapes are undoubtedly becoming more complex within UK universities. David Duff, former chair of the Council for College and University English, recognises this in his discipline. “Institutions vary greatly in their administrative arrangements,” he explains. “English is a large subject, and universities often have separate English departments. But in some institutions, English is not a separate administrative unit but is part of a department or school of humanities, of arts, of communication, of creative industries, or whatever other umbrella term is used.”

Departmental configurations are also becoming more susceptible to regular change. Duff’s own department at the University of Aberdeen, for example, has gone through five different configurations in 20 years.

Department restructuring, whatever the outcome, is driven by both financial and disciplinary logics. The integrated perspectives offered by inter- and multidisciplinary approaches are often advanced as appropriate ways of addressing the complexity of contemporary global risks. Research Councils UK’s current cross-council initiatives, for example, explicitly speak of the value of work across and between disciplines and include “global uncertainties; security for all in a changing world”, “living with environmental change” and “global food security”. Funding regimes such as this will undoubtedly affect how disciplines approach research problems and are likely to feed into the restructuring discussions that happen within individual institutions. Further, it is often argued that inter- and multidisciplinary teaching best prepares students for a world characterised by change, uncertainty and complexity.

However, disciplinary and financial logics are not necessarily complementary forces. In a 2007 article in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education, Chris Gibson of the University of Wollongong argued that “these pressures are sometimes less about making disciplines speak to each other, and more about dissolving disciplinary identities altogether for convenient, short-term financial savings”.

While university managers clearly see the multidisciplinary department as an administratively neat and financially expedient model, the experience on the ground is probably more mixed. The big drivers of departmental reorganisation include the robustness offered by larger student cohorts, administrative and teaching efficiencies (I once responded to the imperative to develop more efficient modes of teaching by going from delivering a course on globalisation to 40 geography undergraduates to presenting the module to more than 100 geographers, criminologists and sociologists without radical changes) and innovative interdisciplinary research initiatives. These outcomes, though, are far from automatic.

Two men playing checkers on back of horse

Significant drops in attendance on some multidisciplinary modules were an issue, with some students deciding to take very instrumental approaches to their learning

Increasingly within smaller, typically teaching-focused institutions – which are feeling the most acute risks within higher education at the moment – it is the potential for teaching efficiencies that is uppermost in university managers’ minds when they review the configurations of their academic departments. These efficiencies are achieved by, for example, delivering common research methods or academic skills modules across two or more degree courses and, on some occasions, sharing work placements or field trips, and co-validating, or perhaps simply sharing, modules that are of relevance to more than one course. However, there has been little systematic research mapping this process or its impact on students’ disciplinary identities and allegiances.

I was recently involved with a small group of colleagues in a Higher Education Academy-sponsored project to look at the experiences of students on multidisciplinary modules within the undergraduate curriculum (“To Sociology and Beyond…”: Teaching Cross-disciplinary Undergraduate Audiences within Geography Degrees, conducted with Charlie Parker, Phil Toms, Mark McGuinness and Neil Roberts). The research surveyed students at my own (now former) institution, many of whom I taught, and at one other institution where a co-researcher was based. The outcomes were somewhat mixed. The student respondents to the surveys and focus groups we ran tended to be either positive or ambivalent about sharing modules between courses – they cited the benefits of meeting new people and encountering different perspectives, for example. However, significant drops in levels of attendance on some multidisciplinary modules were an issue, with students from some courses deciding to take very instrumental approaches to their learning that rapidly became based around attending to assessment tasks rather than engaging with taught sessions. This is hardly unique, I know, but it was much more apparent here than in many single discipline modules I taught, in many cases to the same students that we surveyed in the research project. There were also mutterings about the relevance of the content of these modules within some course committees.

My approach to multidisciplinary teaching was pretty traditional: take an existing module and tweak the contents a little to acknowledge the broader student constituency. There are undoubtedly more sensitive multidisciplinary pedagogies that I could have explored, but these were largely precluded by the limited time afforded to redeveloping the curriculum and the other (usual) pressures of the job.

Successful (ideally large) interdisciplinary research collaborations are often the big prize underpinning the development of multidisciplinary departments. Michael Hauskeller, head of sociology, philosophy and anthropology at the University of Exeter, explains the potential: “Our department’s research culture is markedly interdisciplinary. There are three main research groupings, with virtually all staff participating in more than one of them, producing considerable cross-fertilisation research across the unit. Having to deal with three different disciplines and trying to connect them by discovering and developing existing research synergies can be a challenge, but it is also immensely rewarding. It allows people to adopt a wider, more comprehensive perspective on issues of mutual interest and opens up opportunities for exciting new research projects.”

However, there is some evidence that interdisciplinary research is disadvantaged within largely disciplinary focused models of research assessment, in the UK at least. An analysis of the results of the 2008 research assessment exercise by Neil Roberts, professor of physical geography at Plymouth University, suggests – in geography and environmental studies at least – that multidisciplinary departments fared marginally less well than single discipline departments. These results are far from conclusive, but they add weight to the suspicion among many inter- and multidisciplinary scholars that their work is less easy to place within the research excellence framework.

Man and woman sharing-milkshake

I asked someone why he and his colleagues were so reluctant to engage with the other discipline. ‘Well,’ he intoned, ‘it all goes back to something that happened in 1983…’

Despite the fact that it might be possible to achieve efficiencies in the delivery of the curriculum within large multidisciplinary departments, it does not necessarily follow that the types of research collaborations described by Hauskeller will develop out of cross-disciplinary mergers that are primarily predicated around curriculum initiatives. However, this assumption sometimes goes unquestioned by those driving disciplinary mergers. What further scuppers or at least inhibits collaborative cultures within new multidisciplinary departments can be the disciplinary tribalism that might have built up over many years within institutions and is never wiped away just because your department has a new name and bigger meetings.

In a former job, after the merger of three previously separate natural and social science departments, I was charged with making some of these newly co-managed disciplines work together. There was much utopian rhetoric of shared teaching, new interdisciplinary courses and mutual research interests dissolving, seemingly overnight, the disciplinary divisions that had hardened over the previous 30 years.

A year into the new department, nothing had changed. Amazingly, the institution did not think to move us from our separate corners of the campus to a common location, which cannot have helped. The mismatch between the geographical inertia of staff office space and changing departmental administrative configurations is all too common an experience as campus accommodation becomes increasingly squeezed. The low point in this process for me was probably being told to organise a “speed dating” event to force staff from different wings of the new department to talk to each other. Yes, it was as bad as it sounds.

Two disciplines, who genuinely shared many mutual concerns, were proving particularly recalcitrant. At the end of my tether one afternoon, I asked someone why he and his colleagues were so reluctant to engage with the other discipline. “Well,” he intoned as if imparting a nugget of great wisdom, “it all goes back to something that happened in 1983…” If I had not realised it before, I knew then that I was wasting my time.

I have found that it is common to lose staff, particularly long-serving staff, after departmental mergers. A number of colleagues took early retirement or moved to other jobs in the year described above, although it was probably my speed-dating event that did it. This shedding of institutional memory, while regrettable in many senses, is probably inevitable and perhaps necessary if new department configurations are to begin to work and fresh cultures are to emerge.

In my own experience, multidisciplinary departments work when there is a degree of bottom-up, organic development shaping their strategy. Academics typically respond best when they are allowed a little capacity to shape their own development and that of their immediate institutional context. The balance between guidance from above (from the head of department, faculty dean and senior university managers) and input from the “shop floor” is impossible to prescribe and is clearly something that varies from situation to situation. However, unless staff can have some ownership of the changes that they are experiencing, there will be problems, inertia and probably resistance.

Multidisciplinary departments are not necessarily about eradicating disciplinary allegiances, although they will undoubtedly alter them. Such allegiances are central to many academics’ sense of identity and provide both foundations and points of departure for their work. Nor are multidisciplinary departments inherently a good or bad thing in my experience. However, to make potentially difficult department configurations work requires serious engagement by both management and staff. Perhaps the trick is to encourage staff to recognise their own agency and to allow them the time and space to deploy it in shaping the development of the more eclectic departments they increasingly find themselves located within. This is a long-term project, though, and it takes far more than a badly organised speed-dating event to make it happen.

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Reader's comments (2)

I wish Tim Hall, the author here, had quoted students. If profs are doing multi-disciplinary work, isn't there only reason for doing so -- that students get multiple perspectives for stories or discussions they in turn can tell? You want to evaluate student "success," or "outcomes"? Then quote students. Describe the narratives students got engaged in. Cite how students going in this or that direction, in their discussions, got turned nicely into other perspectives by noting input from other disciplines. Tim Hall's a nice guy, I'm sure. But how can he discuss academic life, and university progress, if he simply totally ignores what the students are doing, saying, writing?
Interesting piece, but I'm surprised that the author ignores both the longer story of the historical formation of disciplines - our current arrangements are of relatively recent establishment - and also, still more importantly, the cultural and geographical (sic) particularity of those disciplinary boundaries. There is wonderful work of many colleagues across the world attempting to question the constraints of the current disciplinary paradigms, and it's unfortunate that the author lacks the international perspective from which it's possible to see multi- and interdisciplinary approaches as more open to epistemologies and forms of knowledge that have been, for whatever reason, obscured or ignored in (UK) institutions as they are currently conceived.