Integrating interdisciplinarity

Date: 10 September, 2007 - 11 September, 2007
Location: Clare College, Cambridge
Event type: Conference

Registration form | Location map | Programme | Keynotes | Abstracts

UK Higher Education Academy Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning Group

This second conference organised by the Higher Education Academy Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning Group will address issues of interdisciplinary teaching and learning from a variety of perspective, including the student experience, institution leadership, local initiatives and national agendas. The conference will interest higher education practitioners with an interest in interdisciplinarity, and especially those with leadership roles in course design, interdisciplinary / inter-professional learning, and those involved in senior management of institutions.

The first conference took place in July 2006: Disciplines in dialogue II: interdisciplinary teaching and learning

Provisional programme

Day one: 10 September 2007
Time Session
10.30 - 11.00 Registration and coffee
11.00 - 11.15 Welcome and housekeeping
11.15 - 12.15 Keynote: Pidgins, creoles and intercultural communication? Why interdisciplinary education is difficult and what to do about it
David Good, University of Cambridge
12.15 - 13.15

Theme 1: Key concepts in interdisciplinary teaching and learning

What prepares you better for leadership and life? Learning disciplinarity or interdisciplinarity?
Balasubramanyam Chandramohan, University of Wolverhampton
Disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity in teaching
Angelique Chettiparambil Rajan, University of Cardiff
13.15 - 14.15 Lunch
14.15 - 15.45

Theme 2: Disciplines and the real world

What do engineers and lawyers have in common?
Jim Roach, University of Bournemouth
Experiences in developing an interdisciplinary EBL module
Julia McMorrow, University of Manchester
Interdisciplinarity and the QAA subject benchmark statements
Jane Davison, University of Wales, Newport
15.45 - 16.15 Tea
16.15 - 17.15 Keynote: From interdisciplinarity to sustainability science
Tim O'Riordan, University of East Anglia
19.30 Conference dinner


Day two: 11 September 2007
Time Session
09.00 - 10.00

Theme 3: Leadership

Impossible to trust?: Treachery, translation and magic tricks
Alison Phipps, University of Glasgow
Othering: disciplines and post-colonialism
Shân Wareing, University of the Arts, London
10.00 - 10.50 Keynote: Bridging disciplines: opportunities and challenges
Peter Halligan, Cardiff University
10.50 - 11.15 Coffee
11.15 - 12.15

Theme 4: Interdisciplinarity and national agendas

Supporting academics teaching on emerging and 'uncovered' courses: cognitive science as a case study
Tom Simpson, Psychology Network
'Holistic' institutions and sustainability: efforts to integrate inter-disciplinarity alongside 'greening' and 'globalising' strategies
Colin Brooks, Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archeology, and Alex Ryan, freelance
12.15 - 13.15 Lunch
13.15 - 14.15 Keynote: Creating space for interdisciplinarity
Mary Stuart, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Kingston University
14.15 - 15.15

Theme 5: The postgraduate experience of interdisciplinarity

Student experiences of interdisciplinary Master's courses
Lindsey McEwen and Ros Jennings, University of Gloucestershire, and Rob Duck, University of Dundee
An evaluation of the student experience of interprofessional learning (IPL) at Masters level at Suffolk College
Jane Parr and Jane Harvey, Suffolk College
15.30 - 16.30

A bit of an adventure at the end of the day

Play as a paradigm: a novel pedagogy
Anna Newell, Queens University Belfast



Pidgins, creoles and intercultural communication? Why interdisciplinary education is difficult and what to do about it

David Good, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Cambridge

When previously unconnected linguistic groups meet, their first challenge is to find a basis for communication suited to their purposes. Out of such contacts pidgins are born, but they are much less than a full blown human language and their transition to that status through creolisation is in the hands of successive generations and may take many years. Not only will a pidgin not support many of the human communicative activities which are supported by a full blown language, but its speakers usually suffer from low status in the eyes of others largely because they do not have in that pidgin the resources, which are available in their native tongue, to establish their competence and identity. In a similar, but importantly different vein, non-native speakers of a language may have a high level of competence in formal terms, but may have difficulty establishing a satisfactory status and identity in their relations with native speakers.

This paper will take the research on intercultural and interlinguistic communication and explore how it provides an insight into the problems of interdisciplinary education, and how they might be solved. One important part of that resolution, it will be argued, lies in providing a closer engagement with interdisciplinary research than is often the case.

From interdisciplinarity to sustainability science

Tim O'Riordan, University of East Anglia

Interdisciplinarity is now in vogue. Yet it is still not fulfilling its promise. Part of the reason is that there is no common agreement amongst funders, principal investigators and administrators as to what precisely is interdisciplinarity. Part, too, is the RAE, which tends to drive young researcher work across the discipline bound departments and publishing pathways. Yet there is enormous scope for interactive an integrated sustainability services that create a training dialogue amongst researchers and researched places, a premium in holistic thinking and innovative decision making arrangements, and enables citizen groups, businesses and public service organisations to reach out across the familiar boundaries to start a common identity with sustainability. Samples of such innovative approaches to the emerging "discipline" of sustainability science will be offered in the talk.

Creating space for interdisciplinarity

Mary Stuart, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Kingston University

The role of creative management in Higher Education. This address will argue that Higher Education Managers have a responsibility if they want to encourage the production of new knowledge to find creative ways to enable academics scope to engage beyond boundaries. Reflecting back on the visionary Asa Briggs and looking at the needs of Higher Education in the 21st century, the paper argues for a borderless higher education to facilitate interdisciplarity and suggests ways that higher education senior managers can make it more possible.

Bridging disciplines: opportunities and challenges

Peter Halligan, Dean of Interdisciplinary Studies, Cardiff University

Although most university education and research is still organised around 19/20th century disciplines - there is a growing awareness from Government, Higher Education Councils and major research funding agencies that many of todays hot research challenges (e.g. ageing and health, climate change, energy, sustainability, neuroscience, and biodiversity) require the combination and application of knowledge from several disciplines. Interdisciplinary research however is not without its challenges and needs to be carefully planned to complement important ongoing work in the traditional disciplines. This paper will review some of the opportunities and challenges for interdisplinary approaches both in the US and more recently at Cardiff University.

Session abstracts

What prepares you better for leadership and life? Learning disciplinarity or interdisciplinarity?

Balasubramanyam Chandramohan, Centre for Learning Development, University of Kingston

This presentation will be based on a survey of perceptions of approximately on 100 third year undergraduate students followinginterdisciplinary courses in British universities. Similar number of students following disciplinary courses will be covered to compare and contraststudent perceptions of learning in Higher Education as a preparation for leadership and life. The selection of courses will cover both research-intensive and teaching-intensive institutions. Data will be collected through student interviews, and questionnaires and other information from teaching staff, administrators, and career advisors. Questions will focus on curriculum, resources, course delivery and assessment strategies.

Disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity in teaching

Angelique Chettiparambil Rajan, School of City and Regional Planning, University of Cardiff

The theme of interdisciplinarity has gained popularity in recent times in policy, practice, teaching and research circles. Even as scepticism for the concept exists, it has gained moral overtones with arguments for why interdisciplinarity is both desirable and inevitable. In UK, within policy circles, interdisciplinarity has been normatively accepted and in both teaching and research and the drive for interdisciplinarity is being encouraged both through the Higher Education Academy and the Research Councils.

This presentation aims to accomplish two objectives. The first is to review views on disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity in the light of this 'external' compulsion grounded in the concept of usefulness. The second is to examine some ways in which the concept might transfer into pedagogy and teaching, given that this requires much more than just an understanding of the concept.

What do engineers and lawyers have in common?

Jim Roach, School of Design, Engineering and Computing, University of Bournemouth

A growing number of faculties are recognising that Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) competence and awareness are key attributes contributing to engineering and design graduate employability and entrepreneurship. As a result there is a growing interest amongst engineering and design academics as to how best to include IPR topics in the syllabus. The presentation will describe a possible approach which draws upon collaboration between academics from law and engineering, supported by web resources. All the engineering and design students cover aspects of IPR. This is developed further by cross disciplinary work, second year IPR students are paired with final year Product Design students where they work in a consultant and client relationship. The IPR students' assignment is to offer advice to the Product Designers on the IP rights in their final year projects. This theme has been further developed in joint workshops with presentations from practising IPR lawyers and professional designers.

Experiences in developing an interdisciplinary EBL module

Julia McMorrow, Senior Lecturer in Remote Sensing. School of Environment and Development (Geography), The University of Manchester and Faculty of Humanities Coordinator, Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-based Learning (CEEBL), The University of Manchester

Enquiry-based learning (EBL) offers a unifying framework for interdisciplinary work if organisational barriers can be overcome. The paper reports on experiences in using EBL for undergraduate and postgraduate interdisciplinary learning across five disciplines and three faculties at the University of Manchester. Volunteers were provided with an opportunity to pool their disciplinary knowledge in collaborative problem-solving. Students and staff gained valuable insights into other disciplines' ways of working and practical skills including negotiation, teamworking, the EBL process and oral presentation.

The one-semester undergraduate project with year 2-4 students evolved over three years and was informed by student feedback. Topics had to be of societal or environmental relevance and involve each discipline, but were identified by the student teams themselves. An online worked example was provided, illustrating each stage of the EBL process. The 3-week postgraduate module used two contrasting PBL scenarios with less structured support. Both culminated in an oral presentation and a Question Time plenary, with a poster for the undergraduate module. A virtual learning environment was developed for both to facilitate communication, deliver course documentation, receive work and provide feedback. Tutors facilitated weekly face-to-face sessions.

Because content was negotiated by the student, with emphasis on the process of enquiry the undergraduate unit is potentially transferable to any combination of disciplines. However, institutional constraints hinder the embedding of such initiatives. A compartmentalised Faculty-based resource allocation model does not sit easily with the reality of teaching across three faculties, raising issues of staff workloads, FTEs and differing requirements for quality assurance.

Interdisciplinarity and the QAA subject benchmark statements

Jane Davison, Associate Dean (Academic Development and Planning), University of Wales, Newport

There is growing evidence to support the view that higher education should better prepare students to work with other disciplines. This paper reports on a comparative study of the QAA subject benchmark statements that has highlighted significant differences in how disciplines develop the skills needed to work effectively within an interdisciplinary team. Further analysis of the benchmark statements has also revealed that group work, communication skills, problem solving and social and ethical awareness are areas of common ground that could provide new opportunities for interdisciplinary learning at undergraduate level. To conclude, the session will discuss why some subject communities appear to take such a narrow view of their discipline, and the extent to which the interdisciplinary skills and attributes described in the benchmark statements are a true reflection of what happens in practice.

Impossible to trust?: treachery, translation and magic tricks

Alison Phipps, Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies, School for Education, University of Glasgow

In this paper Alison Phipps will reflect on the fancy foot work involved in interdisciplinary research, teaching and in academic leadership across a range of disciplines and Faculties. She will consider the clashing discourses of Higher Education management and Higher Education research, the necessity of translation for different audiences, the place of event-based methodologies of teaching and research and the place of trust in a culture of audit. She will consider all of these aspects of her work in the context of questions of discipline, disciplinarity.

Othering: disciplines and post-colonialism

Shân Wareing, Dean of Learning and Teaching Development, University of the Arts London

Orientalism (Said, 1978) is the discourse by which cultural difference is ideologically created and understood. It describes and predicts the processes by which a dominant social group attributes positive qualities to its own members (for example, intelligence, creativity and logic) and projects negative qualities onto the members of minority groups perceived to be 'Other' (for example, irrationality, naivety and immaturity). Post-colonial theory builds on Said's work and has been used in feminist analysis of gender relationships (e.g. Lewis and Mills, 2003).

I draw on the theory of Orientalism to explore some of the dynamics of disciplinary relationships which may operate to the detriment of interdisciplinarity. I suggest a process to promote understanding of Other disciplines, while deepening our understanding of our own disciplines.

My argument has been developed from a case study at a research-led university, in which academics from a variety of disciplines conducted reviews of the literature in discipline-specific learning. Despite codified national requirements for academics to understand how students learn 'in their disciplines' (Higher Education Academy, 2006), there is very little empirical evidence of disciplinary differences in student learning. I suggest that the ideological discourse which reinforces the perception of disciplinary difference can in fact be understood as a manifestation of Orientalism.


  • Becher, T and Trowler, P. (2nd ed. 2001) Academic Tribes and Territories: intellectual enquiry and the culture of the disciplines Open University Press: Buckingham
  • Higher Education Academy (2006) The UK Professional Standards Framework for Teaching and Supporting Learning in Higher Education,
    accessed on 16th February 2007
  • Lewis, R. and Mills, S. (eds.) (2003) Feminism and Post-colonial Theory: a Reader Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh
  • Said, E. (1978, 2003) Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient Penguin: London

Supporting academics teaching on emerging and 'uncovered' courses: cognitive science as a case study.

Tom Simpson, Academic Coordinator, Psychology Network

This session will discuss a collaborative project undertaken by several Higher Education Academy Subject Centres to develop support for staff involved with teaching on Cognitive Science courses. This work was led by staff at the Psychology Network and the Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies, and was funded in part through the Academy's Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning Group Project D funding.

'Holistic' institutions and sustainability: efforts to integrate interdisciplinarity alongside 'greening' and 'globalising' strategies

Colin Brooks, Director - Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archeology and Alex Ryan, freelance researcher

Two years into the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, many UK universities are beginning to revise their strategic objectives, to bring into being various 'green' or 'think global, act local' agendas. Inter-disciplinary initiatives are a significant component of such revisions, aiming to join 'campus, curriculum and community' in configurations that will provoke fresh analysis of the issues at stake. Yet criticism is also leveled at institutions that are deemed to be using sustainability merely as a marketing tool, and without intellectually credible inter-disciplinary foundations. 'ESD', therefore, appears to provide a 'locus classicus' for some of the problems and opportunities of inter-disciplinarity.

In this session we will provide some observations from institution-level discussions we have organized as part of the HE Academy 'ESD' project. We will spend 10-15 minutes on the presentation and use the second part of the session to involve the audience in discussion relating to experiences within their own institutions. We would like to explore some of the ways that institutions generate inter-disciplinary innovations and connect them to existing and emergent strategic priorities, as well as the factors that can mean that a problem in one institution is a significant opportunity in another.

Student experiences of interdisciplinary Master's courses

Lindsey McEwen, Head of the Pedagogic Research and Scholarship Institute University of Gloucestershire, Ros Jennings, Research Director for the Faculty of Media, Art and Communications, University of Gloucestershire and Rob Duck, Professor of Environmental Geoscience and Dean, School of Social Sciences, University of Dundee

While undergraduate student learning experiences have undergone extensive research, the learning experiences of taught postgraduate students have received less attention, despite significant recent changes to the character of UK provision. Many UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have added vocationally-orientated 'taught' Masters' courses to their postgraduate portfolios with accompanying increases in interdisciplinarity. In addition, there is the increasing interdisciplinarity of research and its relationship to learning and the curriculum. Cohorts of students on taught Masters' courses are also increasingly diverse in terms of prior academic and vocational expertise.

This paper presents results from a recent HEA funded study that has evaluated the student experience of interdisciplinary taught Masters' courses in two comparative case-study Universities. The courses selected allowed exploration of: the interaction between different discipline areas in interdisciplinary courses; differing balance between academic and vocational foci and varying emphasis on theory and practice.

Key themes explored include:

  • The existing knowledge, understanding, abilities, motivations and conceptions/ styles of learning that students bring from their disciplinary homes and how this is brought to a postgraduate co-learning environment;
  • How postgraduate students in interdisciplinary Masters' courses perceive the teaching-learning environment and approach learning and studying in an interdisciplinary context; and
  • How students perceive the learning outcomes achieved in interdisciplinary Masters' courses.

An evaluation of the student experience of interprofessional learning (IPL) at Masters level at Suffolk College

Jane Parr and Jane Harvey, School of Allied Health Professions and Science, Suffolk College

There has been a drive from the government for interprofessional learning in health and social care. In response to these drivers, IPL has been in place at Suffolk College for several years. With the development of additional Masters provision at Suffolk College, our project investigates student perceptions of interprofessional learning.

A bit of an adventure at the end of the day - Play as a paradigm: a novel pedagogy

Anna Newell, Artistic Director of the Centre for Excellence in the Creative and Performing Arts (NI), Queens University Belfast

Anna Newell is the Artistic Director of the Centre for Excellence in the Creative and Performing Arts (NI) - an interdisciplinary arts programme at Queen's University Belfast. Previous to that she was a freelance theatre director working for 16 years with an eclectic range of professional and community companies of all shapes and sizes, creating performances and projects with professional actors, dancers, women's groups, prisoners, young adults with learning difficulties, students and primary school children amongst others.

This session is an immersive interactive encounter replicating a pedagogy of adventure and play that she has been developing with creative and performing arts students and beyond - most recently with medical students.

This experience is about play as a paradigm, play as a leveller, play as a way of unlocking creativity, play as a tool for collaborative development - play as A Good Thing.


Application procedure

Download and print: Conference application form (pdf) | Conference application form (Word)

To apply for a place, please complete and return the application form to:
Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies,
University of Southampton,
SO17 1BJ
Fax: 023 8059 4815

Places are limited, therefore early application is advised.

Cancellation policy

In order to keep prices as low as possible, it is our policy not to refund fees for cancellations received after 3 September 2007. However, we will be happy to accept alternative participants, provided we receive written notification 24 hours before the conference.