Friday, September 26, 2014

Making Sense of Universities' Disciplines

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This is my new academic home. But this isn't a post about it but rather what we do in universities. It is the concatenation of several events over the past few weeks. They are my immersion into a new law school, a conversation with a director of a public affairs think tank, and reading some articles about the role of university disciplines. And finally, visiting an art exhibition held in the science department at UCD.
I have always been a hybrid. I'm trained in both law and sociology and and I am happy to straddle the boundary between them. This doesn't always fit in with the ways universities like to organise themselves. That is done according to disciplines or subjects so we can have schools and departments. And, when, as in the UK, one has reviews like the Research Excellence Framework (REF), disciplinary boundaries become sharp indeed. Funds, PhD students, research fellowships are jealously guarded and ring fenced.
But is this the best way for us to educate and to do research? Administrative convenience is no reason for continuing this state of affairs. It is by breaking boundaries we discover new ideas and ways of formulating them. Law is a good example of this. For years law has followed a settled path of teaching "core" subjects. It has become habituated to it. It exists in its own bubble. Yet from all around are voices talking about commodification of law, the globalisation of law, and law as an offshoot of behavioural economics, for example. None of the core courses take account of these.
Just recently there has been a mini-revolution in the teaching of university economics. Students have clamoured for a more realistic type of economics, one that recognises its failure in the recession. Oxford and many other institutions are now putting forward a new curriculum. It isn't exactly May 1968 all over again, but there has been change. Unfortunately, law has not been so visited. Even the Legal Education and Training Review in the UK seemed empty of student contributions.
Terry Eagleton wrote that he was worried that with the commercialisation of higher education the humanities could suffer, even be eradicated from the university, which would result in their death. He's right. If we take the commercial route--let's have all our law graduates "practice ready"--we will impoverish our students' education. However, I'm not sure that we do much better right now. In Europe, as opposed to the US, law is posed as a liberal education. Yet much of what students learn is technocratic and rule-based. I have difficulty in characterising this as liberal education.
But with our disciplinary boundaries, it's difficult to achieve a more cohesive and blended education for students. Jonathan Wolff argues for scholarship that is more confusing and more exciting, which can be done by blurring boundaries. Taking law as my case (and forgetting Eagleton's comment "real men study law"), we can see all sorts of interesting things happening. One that appeals very much to me is the input of design into law. Margaret Hagan's work in the use of design to improve accessibility to law by users but why not students too? (See this wonderful page on beauty and law.) I will go further. I'm involved in Law Without Walls and one of our best student projects was one that Margaret was involved in called Traffick Junction. Go look. It's inspiring.
If we want to give our students a truly liberal law education then we must incorporate other subjects and approaches. We will enrich our cognitive capacities, expand our thought processes, and make learning (and research) more enjoyable and potentially more useful for society. It is by embracing this interdisciplinarity that we become imaginative and creative. Which leads me to the conversation with the think tank director. He talked of how he had to deal with disciplines by stealth because empires were at stake. It would take time, but one way of getting there was by what he called the "co-production of knowledge". By crossing boundaries, by working with students, by using social media, we take knowledge out of the silo and place it in the community where it belongs.
I hope we will achieve some of this here.

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