Interdisciplinarity and inter-cultural learning in Area Studies curricula

Date: 6 May, 2003
Location: CILT, London
Event type: Conference

Programme | Event report

Past event summary

This event focused on the different approaches and teaching and learning issues raised by multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches on Area Studies Programmes. The event consisted of a series of presentations and interactive workshops which explored the role of curriculum design, assessment, student learning styles, the relationship of disciplinarity to interdisciplinarity and multi-disciplinarity, and the development of intercultural competence.

The conference was relevant to everybody involved in interdisciplinary teaching on an Area Studies programme, and addressed generic issues, illustrated by particular examples of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary teaching in practice.


1030 - 1100 Coffee and registration
1100 - 1145 Session 1
Disciplinary discourses and student learning.
John Bradbeer (Geography University of Portsmouth)
1145 - 1230 Session 2
Case Study: The interdisciplinary curriculum: a view from Area Studies
Alan Rice (American Studies, University of Central Lancashire)
1230 - 1330 Lunch
1330 - 1415 Session 3
Intercultural competence: Study abroad in the "non-western" world.
Lynne Brydon (West African Studies, University of Birmingham) will talk about the biennial fieldtrip to Ghana she organises.
1415 - 1530 Session 4
Debate: The role of language learning in Area Studies: Essential skill or hindrance? Do students "miss out" on understanding a culture if they can't speak the language? Would students be better off living abroad rather studying in the UK to learn a language? Does a strong emphasis of the importance of language study defeat the purpose of Area Studies? Michael Derham (Spanish/Latin
American Studies, Northumbria) and Alison Phipps (German, Glasgow) will outline their different perspectives. Chair: Marie-Annick Gournet (French/ Caribbean Studies, University of the West of England).
1530 - 1600 Tea Break
1600 - 1645 Plenary
Open plenary session chaired by Dick Ellis (American Studies, Nottingham Trent and Chair of the Subject Centre Specialist Group for Area Studies).
Opportunity to raise and discuss any issues from the day.

Event report

by John Canning

About 20 people attended this exciting and invigorating Area Studies event. After brief introductions, John Bradbeer, a geographer from the University of Portsmouth began proceedings with his presentation entitled Disciplinary discourses and student learning. Mr Bradbeer outlined the implications of varying learning styles and personality types in developing interdisciplinary curricula. As a student’s learning style and personality type will influence their choice of discipline they will often find it very difficult to combine disciplines which are predisposed towards conflicting learning styles. Interestingly, languages and business represent two disciplines which are difficult to combine cognitively.

Alan Rice of the University of Central Lancashire led the second session. He teaches on the American Studies programme which was praised as “innovative”, by the TQA in 1998. Dr Rice attributes this success to the programme’s interdisciplinary focus right from the start of the course. Concepts from cultural theory are taught from the first semester of the first year of the course in specialised American Studies modules which equip students to deal positively with the interdisciplinarity of the course in the second and third years. Although the American Studies department has only three staff, colleagues from English and History also contributed. Options are also available in Latin American business and Canadian Studies.

After lunch, Lynne Brydon from the Centre for West African Studies at the University of Birmingham talked about the biennial visit she organises to Ghana. This optional month long visit takes place during the summer vacation and gives African Studies students an opportunity to experience Africa for themselves. Dr Brydon makes every effort to use her contacts and local knowledge to minimise the cost of the visit, which works out at about £700-£800 per student. Unlike many such field visits very few group excursions are organised, but students develop their own research projects which contribute 20 credits towards their degree. The flexibility of the visit is such that student’s partners and children are also made welcome. Some mature students use the visit to join projects where they can use their skills acquired in their previous employment.

The next session was devoted to a debate about the role of language learning in Area Studies chaired by Marie-Annick Gournet of the University of the West of England. Michael Derham from the University of Northumbria argued that language learning detracts from and leads to a neglect of Area Studies. He felt that students would benefit more from learning Spanish in Spain and ab initio Spanish students in the UK are failing to reap any benefits from the Area Studies side of the course due to poorly developed language skills. Non-specialist teaching of politics, history and economics by ‘non-specialists’ (often native speakers with no postgraduate qualifications) was dumbing down the curriculum. Alison Phipps from the University of Glasgow gave a passionate talk on the need to go ‘language learning’ towards “languaging”. Dr Phipps called for thinking beyond ideas of ‘awareness’ and ‘competence’ in languages. Languages are lived. If we miss out on languages, we miss out on being intercultural. From the perspective of ‘language learning’ a language is a pragmatic skill, but ‘languaging’ sees the purpose of language as an ontological skill. Languages are not objective, but a part of material life. Languaging means to be living in and with a culture rather than about a culture. She ended her presentation with the thought that, “If we miss out on languages we miss out on life.” Far from representing two extreme cases, one participant felt that it was possible to agree with both cases as the two speakers had approached the debate from very difference standpoints. It is clear, that there is still much to cover in this debate and further contributions will be made very welcome.

To round off the day, Dick Ellis, Professor of American and English Literature at Nottingham Trent University and chair of the Subject Centre’s Specialist Advisory Group led an open plenary session. Further to discussions about the day’s proceedings, Professor Ellis outlined his desire to be involved in a professional organisation for Area Studies. CCASA (Co-ordinating Council for Area Studies Associations) had played this role in the past, but now appears to be defunct. A new organisation, focused on teaching and learning as well as research, would go a long way towards building up an Area Studies community in the UK.