Extract from: Education in a Changing Environment 13

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Extract from:

Education in a Changing Environment 13th-14th September 2004

Conference Proceedings

Negotiating the Boundaries of ‘Discipline’: Interdisciplinarity, Multi-disciplinarity and Curriculum Design

Viv Caruana, v.caruana@salford.ac.uk

Dorothy Oakey, d.h.oakey@salford.ac.uk


This paper reviews differing conceptualisations of the academic discipline and of multi and interdisciplinary learning and teaching. The review is based on the findings of a small scale study into academic attitudes towards, and experiences of, learning and teaching across the disciplines within a single university. Key issues and potential tensions are explored, both attitudinal (influenced by, for example, notions of specialisation and professional status,) and administrative, managerial and organisational. Our research indicates that whilst academics may strive for interdisciplinarity in their practice many such endeavours actually work largely at the multidisciplinary level. We suggest that this may be because tensions and dilemmas which are frequently articulated in the organisational, managerial and administrative contexts may reflect deeper epistemological differences, which remain unarticulated in cross-disciplinary conversations regarding teaching and learning.


In its Strategic Framework (2004/5) and Learning and Teaching Strategy (2002) the University of Salford (UoS) clearly seeks to emphasise the importance of an environment that nurtures learning and teaching across the disciplines:

Multi-disciplinarity... is implicit in adopting a real world focus in that issues outside the laboratory do not come in neat uni-disciplinary packages, but inevitably have many dimensions interacting in complex ways. Taking this seriously in our teaching...means absorbing as much of this complexity as we can by creating appropriate responses...by creative programme design...

(UoS, (2004) The Strategic Framework, Building the Enterprising University 2004/2005: 9)

The University’s academic strengths combined with its links with the community, enable it to offer relevant and high quality study opportunities. Salford has a reputation for inter-disciplinarity and for flexibility, enabling the University to offer programmes to a wide range of learners.

(UoS, (2002) Learning and Teaching Strategy: 1)

This current emphasis on curriculum development across disciplinary boundaries is reflected across the HE sector as a whole, fuelled by conceptualisations of a ‘knowledge economy’ placing universities at centre stage in creating, applying and extracting value from knowledge, the 21st century’s ‘engine of growth’ (Leadbeater and Oakley, 1999). Castells and Hall (1994) have gone so far as to suggest ‘Universities are to the knowledge economy what the coal mines were to the industrial economy’. Our focus on teaching and learning stems from a contention that despite being a key concern for both the University of Salford and the sector as a whole, empirically the issue constitutes relatively neglected and uncontested terrain.

We suggest that conceptualisations of the notion of ‘discipline’ juxtaposed with experiences of, and attitudes towards, inter and multi-disciplinary teaching and learning at the ‘grass roots’ may not only impact on practice, but also importantly determine the bounds of possibility in relation to institutional strategy. In this paper the findings of a survey of inter and multi-disciplinary teaching and learning in a single institution, designed as an initial pilot investigation, are therefore couched in the broader context of a critical exploration of conceptualisations of the discipline, of cross-disciplinary teaching and learning and potential barriers to development.

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