Summary and Reviews of Interdisciplinary Higher Education: Perspectives and Practialities

Interdisciplinary Higher Education: Perspectives and Practicalities. International Perspectives on Higher Education Research, Volume 5, Emerald: Bingley. ISBN: 978-0-85724-371-3


The idea for this book began after I completed a commissioned paper for the Centre for the Study of Higher Education on the topic: Interdisciplinary Higher Education which I co-authored with Marcia Devlin and published as part of their Resources for Teaching Series. Not long after this, at the Provost’s Summit in 2007, Marcia suggested we collaborate on a book on the same topic. I readily concurred that this was a good idea. A few years later, and this is the result.

Martin Davies, Marcia Devlin, Malcolm Tight (pp. xiii – xxi)
List of contributors (pp. ix – xi)

Part I: Theoretical Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity

Chapter 1, Interdisciplinary higher education
Martin Davies, Marcia Devlin (pp. 3 – 28)

Chapter 2, Complexity and mastery in shaping interdisciplinarity
Philip MacKinnon, William D. Rifkin, Damian Hine, Ross Barnard (pp. 29 – 53)

Chapter 3, Interdisciplinary leadership and learning
Paul Blackmore, Camille Kandiko (pp. 55 – 74)

Chapter 4, Working successfully in university interdisciplinary teams: Learning from embedded intergroup relations theory
Meaghan Botterill, Barbara de la Harpe (pp. 75 – 96)

Chapter 5, What kind of interdisciplinary space is academic development?
Tai Peseta, Catherine Manathunga, Anna Jones (pp. 97 – 111)

Part II: Vignettes of Interdisciplinary Practice

Vignette 1, (Inter)disciplinary Dublin descriptors? Implementation of the Bologna Process in a Dutch University
Ellen Jansen, Martin Goedhart (pp. 115 – 131)

Vignette 2, Facing the realities of implementing an interdisciplinary approach in institutions of higher learning in Malaysia
Sarjit Kaur, Gurnam Kaur Sidhu (pp. 133 – 149)

Vignette 3, Interdisciplinary survival: The case of Murdoch University
Lorraine Marshall (pp. 151 – 167)

Vignette 4, Explicating interdisciplinarity in a postgraduate materials conservation programme
Marcelle Scott (pp. 169 – 180)

Vignette 5, The getting of interdisciplinarity: The everyday practice of environmental curriculum design
Ruth Beilin, Helena Bender (pp. 181 – 193)

Vignette 6, Pluridisciplinary learning and assessment: Reflections on practice
Sandra Jones, Kim Watty (pp. 195 – 207)

Vignette 7, Many disciplines – common approach: experiences in the development and delivery of an interprofessional health subject
Helen Cleak, Dianne Williamson, Glenys French (pp. 209 – 223)

Vignette 8, Revisiting higher education’s heartland: (Inter)disciplinary ways of knowing and doing for sustainability education
Kathryn Hegarty, Barbara de la Harpe (pp. 225 – 237)

Vignette 9, Interdisciplinary scholarship for novice students
Charlotte Brack, Lisa Schmidt, Philip MacKinnon (pp. 239 – 253)

Vignette 10, The role of inter-faculty relationships in special project collaborations: A distinctly New Zealand experience
Cath Fraser, Lin Ayo (pp. 255 – 267)
Article type: Chapter Item

Vignette 11, Developing students’ academic skills: An interdisciplinary approach
Kate Chanock (pp. 269 – 278)

Vignette 12, Structuring interdisciplinary collaboration to develop research students’ skills for publishing research internationally: Lessons from implementation
Margaret Cargill, Patrick O’Connor (pp. 279 – 292)

Vignette 1,3 Promoting interdisciplinary practices through ePortfolios
Juliana Chau (pp. 293 – 310)

(pp. 311 – 337)

(pp. 339 – 349)


Interdisciplinary higher education: perspectives and practicalities, edited by Martin Davies, Marcia Devlin and Malcolm Tight, Bingley, UK, Emerald Group, 2010, 349 pp., £77.95 (hardback), ISBN 978-08-5724-371-3.

Higher Education Research and Development, Vol 30, No, 6 (2011) pp. 827-829.

It was 1983 and I was in the office of the Head of the English Department to discuss my M Phil. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I want to study the sociology of . . .’ – ‘We don’t do sociology in this department’ came the reply. And that was that, bar a few mumbles on my part, before I was back in the corridor. I went across the road to the Sociology Department and a professor there agreed to do the paperwork so I could proceed to study the sociology of literature as long as I did not darken his door again until I was finished. However, many mentors were very supportive, in principle. ‘Ah, interdisciplinary studies!’ they would day, ‘Wonderful, you are on the cusp of a wave.’ All I can say is that it has been a long surf and the beach is still nowhere in sight. This book might not bring it into view, but it is worthwhile for many reasons. Two of them are that it reminds us how important interdisciplinarity is and it assures us that, despite the difficulties, much has been and is being achieved in this area. Interdisciplinarity has become more important in recent years. The big problems facing the world today are multi-faceted and they need the skills of many different experts. They also need interdisciplinary experts, people who know their own fields but who can also understand issues from different perspectives and who can communicate with others from different disciplines. Thus, not only is this book important for practitioners in the field, it is important for educators. It is broad in scope, with contributions mainly from Australasia but also from the Netherlands and the UK. It also covers a range of disciplines: accounting, academic development, agriculture, food and wine science, biotechnology, employment relations, environmental science, the health sciences, higher education, land and environment, languages and cultures, occupational therapy, science, social work and social policy. It is presented in two parts, with the first presenting theoretical perspectives. There are five chapters here and the book is worth having for these alone.

The opening chapter by Davies and Devlin notes the interdisciplinary nature of problems such as global warming, water shortages, AIDS and financial markets. It is then especially welcome for its exploration of definitions, beginning with the very idea of what an academic discipline is. This, in my view, is often the elephant in the room in academic discussions about what we should be teaching. Davies and Devlin discuss the insights of Squires and others and go beyond the work of Max-Neef to present an accessible and usable typology and nomenclature. Their model comprises a movement across a horizontal axis from disciplinarity, through multi-disciplinarity, cross-disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, to a vertical axis identified by the poles of ‘benign’ and ‘extreme’. The label ‘benign’ struck me as odd, especially in contrast to ‘extreme’. On this axis, interdisciplinary is elaborated as moving down from a ‘benign’ pole of relational, through exchange and pluri-disciplinarity to the more extreme forms of modification and transdisciplinarity. The implications of the model are critical for pedagogy and of course the central trade-off is between breadth and depth. There is, as Davies and Devlin point out, the common-sense argument for a sound discipline-based education with opportunities for interdisciplinarity. Striking the right balance has to confront several important issues. The first is the fact that disciplines have particular ways of viewing the world, or mental models, cognitive maps or frameworks. Such maps enable and entrap. Related to this is disciplinary language, from the level of semantics – a physicist’s ‘mass’ is not an architect’s ‘mass’ – to the level of what constitutes a fact or evidence.

Brack, Schmidt, and MacKinnon advance several aspects of Davies and Devlin’s discussion in interesting ways. The first point they make about the history of disciplines should be heeded by any educator. Disciplines change and come and go. Disciplinary structures help order knowledge, but boundaries are not always useful and they are permeable. This helps us understand the unpredictability of advances in scientific research that make the location and nature of interdisciplinarity largely unpredictable. This chapter is a study in boundary transgression. I would endorse the suggestion that students be explicitly taught interdisciplinarity. However, the authors here also argue that it is mastery within a discipline that enables good interdisciplinary understanding. Their model of interdisciplinarity, built on selective attention (not to be confused with reductionism), complexity and mastery has profound implications. Funding of interdisciplinary programmes is problematic, but it is obvious that advances in the disciplines will come from the fringes. I found their model – at the least the illustration of it – a little clunky and I do sometimes question the effort to put a conceptual model into a two-dimensional illustration. It can impede rather than facilitate understanding.

There is a neat segue from the problems raised by Brack et al. to question of leadership, investigated by Blackmore and Kandiko. Interdisciplinary leadership lies at the intersection of identity, discipline and learning. The authors here remind us of the fact, which cannot be overemphasized, that academic identity is founded on discipline. Hence the growing interest in interdisciplinarity from a sociocultural perspective and, in this case, particularly about leadership. Not surprisingly, the capacity to cultivate relationships lies at the heart of leadership in a learning environment and Blackmore and Kandiko offer valuable insights into the complex challenges involved. Their insights are enriched by considering interdisciplinary teams within universities, the subject of the following chapter. This chapter makes the valuable point that the benefits and challenges of working in interdisciplinary teams are better understood against the large backdrop of the changing nature of academic work and evolving views on the place and purpose of universities in society. Academic development or teaching and learning support programmes are interdisciplinary spaces and they are well-situated to support academics to develop and interdisciplinary approach to their university teaching and learning. Peseta, Manathunga, and Jones draw mainly on Rowland to discuss academic development as a ‘critical interdisciplinary space’ and they then present a narrative of a Graduate Certificate programme to analyse their thesis. Their conclusions are drawn under the intriguing notion of the ‘absent-presence’ of interdisciplinarity; much is assumed about interdisciplinarity rather than specifically developed. Part two of the book comprises 13 vignettes that are analyses of practice. They cover a large range of topics and most readers would find something of value. They are all good quality. This first deals with the Bologna Accord and descriptors of graduate attributes and learning. Competencies are often expressed in generic terms which seem amenable to an interdisciplinary approach, but in practice they are modified and the conclusion here is that disciplinary pressures persist and there is a long way to go before true interdisciplinarity teaching is achieved. Another vignette addresses the particular problems of implementing interdisciplinarity in an established context (Malaysia).

Of particular interest is a review of Murdoch University in Australia, which was established in 1975 with a focus on interdisciplinary undergraduate studies. The University has recently adopted the graduate attributes framework. The originators have moved on and the early support for interdisciplinary studied has waned, but the flexible curricula structures remain. But the question of survival remains moot. Other vignettes address collaborative teaching, assessment, developmental alliances, the role of writing, the link with professional development, the role of generic foundation courses, the link with academic careers and the value of ePortfolios. I found one of the vignettes particularly valuable. Hegarty and de la Harpe focus on the inherently interdisciplinary topic of education for sustainability, which is really a nest of wicked problems. First they identify the tensions in the academy that hamper interdisciplinarity and in response they sketch a five-point plan of change management, which is cyclical and iterative. One does not batter the disciplines; one develops interdisciplinarity through the disciplines. It is ‘a complex, fraught dance’. This book reminds us just how persistent the challenges of interdisciplinarity are. More importantly, it reminds us how crucial the pursuit of interdisciplinarity in higher education is and provides a great deal of insight to help us achieve it.

Higher Education Research and Development, Vol 30, No, 6 (2011) pp. 827-829.

Damian Ruth, School of Management, Massey University, Wellington. Email:

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Inter (sic) the future? Review in Australian Universities Review, Vol. 54, No. 2 (2012): pp. 92-93.

This book is a valuable resource for university staff wishing to engage in interdisciplinary research or teaching, or to design or manage interdisciplinary teams or degree programmes. It provides extensive theoretical discussion of the nature of interdisciplinary activity and a treasure trove of thoughtful reports from Australian and international practitioners on the practicalities of engaging in such work.These two offerings are presented in that order in the two sections of the book.This greatly helps the clarity of the presentation.The sectional divide is not strict.The theoretical section uses plenty of general examples to present the theory and the ‘vignette’ authors of Part II relate their experiences back to theory.

The theoretical sections of the work explain and discuss in great detail the taxonomy of the numerous shades of interdisciplinary collaboration in research. There are a number of schemes presented by various authors.The first degree of movement away from entirely discipline based work is to multidisciplinarity in which each team member produces their contribution to the joint effort using skills, knowledge and methodology drawn from within their home discipline with minimal interaction with those from other disciplines. Beyond this, there is a scale of increasingly integrated interdisciplinary activity in which staff engage more intensely with colleagues from other disciplines. At the far end of the spectrum participants are deeply involved in each other’s methods, culture and mind-set.

There is some irony to be found at this ‘extreme’ or 100 per cent end of the spectrum. If the collaboration is close enough and the outcomes productive enough, a new discipline may be produced. If this is the case then the contributing authors may shortly find themselves drawn into a new discipline of interdisciplinarity, a development that may have its awkward aspects.

The theories concerning the psychology of team interactions including leadership, group dynamics, identity, belonging and so forth are well covered in this book. This is consistent with the notion that the main function of the work is as a guide for those running interdisciplinary activity.

A shortcoming of the work is that there are no dissenting or critical voices.The volume and the series titles claim to provide Perspectives but it seems that only perspectives that advance the message of a greater role for interdisciplinarity appear here. By contrast, the Practicalities of the volume title are thoroughly explored.

The justification for interdisciplinary research and teaching in higher education, and problem solving in the wider society, is given only brief attention. The supporting argument, advanced a number of times, is that the problems and challenges of the world we live in are complex and require the knowledge and skills found across a number of disciplines.Therefore interdisciplinary teams are necessary for finding problem solutions and answering the challenges.

Brief though it is, I find this argument persuasive when used to justify interdisciplinary research in which team members with deep knowledge and skills in their disciplines contribute their expertise. This practice is widespread outside higher education. Any large or complex engineering design or construction project works this way. Indeed, any large organisation works this way, including universities in which there are academics, administrators, librarians, technical officers and so on.

A number of authors stress that an important pre-condition for engaging in interdisciplinary research is a pressing need to do so or rewards that make it well worthwhile. A good deal of the book is devoted to discussing the significant barriers to such collaboration, such as the considerable effort required to get to know and understand cultures and approaches in other disciplines, the admin- istrative overheads of having staff from several Schools/ Departments participating and so on. Clearly, with academic workloads high everywhere,there need to be some pretty compelling incentives.

Davies and Devlin make the point that it is hard to convince researchers to engage in interdisciplinary work because recognition is most readily received for progress made by staying narrowly and deeply focussed on research within one’s own discipline. Additionally, those initiating a deep engagement in interdisciplinary work may feel that making this transition would deprive them of their base in their home discipline and that they are taking a risk that the project will fail to produce outcomes valued by their peers.

A critical voice is particularly needed when what we might call the complex world argument, outlined above, is applied to justify interdisciplinary teaching.The argument’s possible shortcoming for this purpose can be appreciated by first accepting the need for an interdisciplinary team approach to world problem solution then wondering what role interdisciplinary degree programme graduates might play in such a team. What expertise could these graduates bring to the team that could not be more comprehensively supplied by a sensible mix of graduates from discipline-based degree programmes? If the problem to be solved is difficult, then surely it needs deep knowledge in the relevant areas. Perhaps the answer lies in having the interdisciplinary degree graduates bring their cross-disciplinary cultural understanding to bear to fill facilitating, communications or management roles.The point is that questions such as this need answers from those advocating interdisciplinary teaching.

A related area that needs more attention is the balance between disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary breadth in interdisciplinary teaching programmes. Davies and Devlin (p. 23-4) pose the question but the answer only goes as far as pointing to the need for care in balancing the mix.The paucity of guidelines or suggestions in this area contrasts with the considerable practical help given in the work in relation to other areas such as programme management etc.

Little is said in the work about the genesis of the interdisciplinary teaching programmes examined. Often what is said is along the lines that interdisciplinary programmes are becoming more popular or widespread and our university is joining in the shift. It would not surprise me in the least if a decent fraction of the growth were being driven by intervarsity competition for undergraduate students with the decision to introduce the programmes being announced in an edict from on high.The consequent increase in workload coupled with weak or non-existent heartfelt need would explain the reported tendencies of staff to let the programmes slide.

There is considerable discussion on the obstacles to interdisciplinary research posed by the cultural and methodological differences between disciplines.This is cited as one of the barriers to the more integrated forms of interdisciplinary collaboration. Some authors see interdisciplinary education as at least a part cure for this problem because students in such programmes are exposed to alternative intellectual approaches and cultures from the outset.

An alternative to thoroughgoing interdisciplinary pro- grammes is to organise such exposure through having students in a disciplinary programme take a few courses in other disciplines on their way through.This would not significantly dilute their exposure to their core discipline. This is the practice at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) where I did most of my teaching. I am unsure how well it works.The UNSW website states that students report ‘greatly valuing’ their two General Education (GE) courses, as they are known.This is at odds with my experience but,then,I am well accustomed to being at odds with website claims.The engineering students I taught consistently reported resenting the GE courses, doing their best to choose the easiest options and generally treating them as a distraction, more’s the pity. Only the wisest used them as an opportunity to experience some wider intellectual diversity in their programme. Still, such an alternative, peppered with more encouragement of some sort, might permit continued deep learning in a discipline while preparing students for the wider world of thinking rather than have it come as a shock after graduation.

In conclusion, a good book for the theory of interdisciplinary activity and how to do it well but a bit weak on critical analysis of the questions of why you would want to do it. It may be a canny purchase if you work in a university in which the CEO’s edict may arrive unexpectedly at any time. I understand that there are approximately 38 such universities in Australia.

Australian Universities Review, Vol. 54, No. 2 (2012): pp. 92-93.

Dr Neil Mudford is a Visiting Fellow with UNSW and a Casual Specialist Lecturer with the University of Queensland. Prior to his retirement in 2011, Dr. Mudford was a senior lecturer in aerospace and mechanical engineering with UNSW Canberra. He is a member of the Australian Universities’ Review Editorial Board.

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Interdisciplinary higher education: perspectives and practicalities, edited by Martin Davies, Marcia Devlin and Malcolm Tight, Bingley, UK, Emerald Group, 2010, 349 pp., £77.95 (hardback), ISBN 978-08-5724-371-3.

The term “interdisciplinary” has become common within academic discourse about teaching. With discussions on courses, majors, and university collaborations, many use the term indiscriminately and without clarity. As a religion-trained professor in an environmental sciences program self-described as “interdisciplinary,” I was drawn to this book in content and concept. My research involves the intersections of environment and religion and is thereby intentionally interdisciplinary. Since teaching is not confined to a particular discipline, interdisciplinary teaching and research can complicate promotion and tenure reviews, collaboration, assessment of student learning, and classroom practice.

Key words in the title, namely, “perspectives” and “practicalities,” aptly describe the nature of this volume. As one part of a series on International Perspectives on Higher Education, this edited volume includes work by thirty-seven contributors from Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. This geographic educational context diversity underscores particular global commonalities associated with interdisciplinary teaching in higher education.

With two main sections highlightingtheory and practice, the volume is straightforwardin its organization and is userfriendly, but by no means is this a “quickread.” Part I focuses on various theoreticalframeworks and operational definitionsand nomenclature. For example, a fewyears ago, an administrator corrected mewhen I used the term “interdisciplinary,” telling me that “transdisciplinary” wasmore appropriate. What is the real differencebetween these terms? This volumeexplains that one is a variant or subset ofthe other. That is, interdisciplinary inquiry involves the use of methods and concepts from different academic disciplines in novel ways. Transdisciplinary inquiry is a very specific subset along an interdisciplinary continuum, involving the emergence of new disciplines through the collapse of specific academic borders.

This volume includes and clarifies other terms often used in association with interdisciplinary teaching. For example, “multidisciplinary” refers to the existence of more than one academic discipline. To explain the term “cross-disciplinary,” the physics of music was used as an example; more specifically, in the cross-disciplinary enterprise, musicians do not learn detailed physics, nor do physicists learn a great deal about music. Conversely, as issues to study, such as AIDS or climate change, that may be too complex to be fully addressed by a single academic discipline emerge, “pluridisciplinary” inquiry requires experts to learn from other disciplines.

The theoretical section examines the definition of “academic disciplines” and looks at disciplinary boundaries as obstacles and opportunities. Involving both specialization of knowledge and community discourse, the volume stresses the importance of collaboration and institutional support systems in the success of interdisciplinary higher education, as well as the inclusion of professional development. The volume includes models of interdisciplinary work as well as both quantitative and qualitative surveys of Reviews requirements for successful interdisciplinary higher education.

Part II of the book contains thirteen practical vignettes that highlight the inclusion of authors from a number of countries, as well as perspectives from varied disciplines. These case studies include institutional level as well as undergraduate and graduate program and course level analyses. In addition, issue-based vignettes are included to illustrate application of the theoretical frameworks through study of global issues and perspectives. The cases also look at differences in changing existing programs versus establishing new interdisciplinary programs.

Course and program design, as well as specific pedagogical tools and assessments, are described. For example, one vignette explores the design of an assessment for a project involving students from four disciplines; the design requires a balance of common elements as well as specific disciplinary elements. Another case study looks at the difference in student and faculty perceptions of an ePortfolio project for language learning.

The organization and diverse content of this volume make it an ideal resource for metered doses of theory and practice of interdisciplinary higher education. Portions of the book may assist in the development of interdisciplinary collaborations by providing a common language for discussion among scholars across diverse academic disciplines.

Interdisciplinary Higher Education could serve as a valuable resource for graduate students as they develop awareness about distinctions between theory and practice. The volume will be of major interest to academic deans, curriculum developers, and assessment professionals who are leaders in conversations about interdisciplinary programs – from conceptual ideas to implementation. The book’s themes, chapter headings, summaries, and disciplinary perspectives allow readers to choose how much or how little to read for specific purposes.

Teaching Theology and Religion (2013), Vol 16(2): pp. 191-192.

Dr Marcia Allen Owens, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University

Rev. Dr. Marcia Allen Owens is Assistant Professor in the Environmental Sciences Institute at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. She is an environmental attorney, college professor, and ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

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