Problems with interdisciplinarity in the humanities

At a recent workshop on interdisciplinarity for researchers from the Coimbra Group in Trinity College Dublin, at the Long Room Hub, there were some interesting presentations (especially by Britta Padberg of ZiF and Christoph Horn of Bonn University) and conversations had about the challenges and opportunities within this area. It got me thinking about some of the theoretical and structural peculiarities of the humanities that makes the discussion of interdisciplinarity in the arts and humanities different from the STEM, and perhaps also the social sciences. As always, there are counter-examples and caveats, but here are some thoughts under the follow headings.

(i) The place of common theoretical structures in STEM and AHSS interdisciplinarity

(ii) Disciplinary and professional drivers and barriers to interdisciplinarity

(iii) Intra- and interdisciplinarity – or precision versus purity Continue reading



Excellent piece by Greg Foley responding to Morgan Kelly’s recent discussion of education in Ireland: Why ‘Grade Inflation’ is a red herring. To be read in its entirety. 

Therefore, there is a prima facie case for the ‘fact’ that the third level system has changed substantially and if we want to infer a drop in objective standards purely from grade distributions we have a pretty tough task ahead of us…

Prof Morgan Kelly on “What ever happened to Ireland” and education

Prof Morgan Kelly of University College Dublin lectures on “What ever happened to Ireland?” Discussion of the Irish education system (with some interesting observations on the PISA rankings) starts c.26 minutes in. A quote from it as a taster. He discusses the peculiarity about the Irish performance in PISA is that if you look at the number of kids who are performing very well on the test, it’s much lower than similar middle ranked economies:

In one sense that’s very good news. We’re doing pretty well, but nobody is doing extraordinarily well, which means nobody is doing extraordinarily badly either. So in terms of low-performing kids who are the ones who are hardest to teach, we’re actually doing pretty well. We’re doing the hard thing well.

But we’renot doing well by the stronger kids, and this thing gets worse as you move up to the Leaving Cert…


Rankings and other factors in US student choice, 1995 – 2012

I collected data from UCLA‘s Higher Education Research Institute‘s American Freshman Surveys (found here), and combined them all into one big spreadsheet (for download here – grey cells indicate data related to these questions were not collected for that year). 1995 is taken as the start year, as this was an exercise to look at the influence of university rankings (such as the US News & World Report, etc.) on how students make decisions about where to study, and 1995 was the first year in which information related to rankings was collected. This was done as part of my research work with Prof. Ellen Hazelkorn in Dublin Institute of Technology‘s Higher Education Policy Research Unit (HEPRU). This is intended to be indicative, rather than asserting any hard trends. I have accordingly allowed myself some flexibility. Continue reading

Overview – Irish education research funded (IRC) since 2000

This is just a quick and dirty overview of some information culled from the Irish Research Council’s website, detailing awards made since 2000. I wanted to see how many education research-related PhDs had been funded via the IRC’s Post Graduate Scholarship Scheme (PGSS). I didn’t want to do something that related the overall number of awards made how many were in the social sciences or education research, as that starts to bring us into a exercise in justification.

Approach: I used the information made available on the IRC’s “Alumni” page, going through each page for each year of PGSS awards from 2000 (i) using a keyword search (“education”, “higher education”, “university”, “learning”) on the titles of PhDs listed, then (ii) I went through each website again manually. I then excluded PhD titles that were to do with history of education topics, and I also excluded topics where research took place in a school (etc.) but where education itself was not the focus. These were fed into Excel, with pivot tables and charts doing the rest. [Link to Excel data] Continue reading

Are university lectures dinosaurs or sharks? Innovation in higher education

Hope Reese claimed in a piece for The Atlantic from last year that “Lectures Didn’t Work in 1350—and They Still Don’t Work Today”, while another article by Abigail Walthausen pleaded “Don’t Give Up on the Lecture”. Less defensively, Frank Furedi wrote elsewhere “In praise of the university lecture and its place in academic scholarship”, a laudatory genre, that ‘in praise of…’, which seems quaintly antique in its lack of that modern form of cynicism. Away from this fray of academic journalism (or clickbait in the case of The Atlantic), there is a different kind of overview report, Horizon Scanning – What will Higher Education look like in 2020 (by the UK Higher Education International Unit and Leadership Foundation for Higher Education). It notes that across the board,

“looming obsolescence in the face of seismic shifts is the theme; it is considered absurd by some that the method of university teaching has not changed much since the University of Bologna opened in 1088. The message is that universities must either embrace rapid change or it will be visited upon them, with prejudice.” [p. 10]

Much of this is futurology – that is to say, marketing. There’s no way to tell for sure. We can consider the formal properties of this situation though, and make some approaches via analogy. In this manner we can make some suggestions that if it isn’t wrong, that it is by no means guaranteed to be right. Neil Gaiman quotes Douglas Adams on the book:

“I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them.”

Who is to say that university lectures are simply redundant because of their long history? The theorist of technology Kevin Kelly makes the point that unlike biological species, technologies don’t go extinct. As he says, “technologies are forever”. Our zoology of learning and technology is getting increasingly complicated here, but the point is to be made that while the university lecture has been around for all that time, it hasn’t remained static. To speak of the university lecture as a monolithic form to whom all subscribe is nonsense. Lectures are incredibly diverse in their formats, and depend on any number of things such as the lecturer, the location, the learning culture, the content, the facilities available, and so on. As ever, on this topic there is pro, there is contra, and there is the truth.

The Gartner Hype cycle is worth invoking here. This is a graphical tool developed by the eponymous consulting firm, to represent the development and adoption of new technologies. It places these technologies within a social, market, economic context. It allows us to see not just the actual situation of these technologies (early adopters, increased market-share, full proliferation, etc.) but also the talk about these technologies. It distances us somewhat from the marketing aspect, the crude pro and contra of the form peddled by The Atlantic. Les Schmidt applied the idea to MOOCs in 2012, coming up with the following image.

This isn’t too far from the reality as we see it today. The Pearson report Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States (infographic of the report as pdf here) indicates something similar. In evaluating the future of higher education, in whatever form, we have to be aware that those new developments that come along may initially be touted as the supposed “killer app” to totally replace/transform/disrupt higher education are actually going to be but one new element in a complex and ever-changing higher education ecology.

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“Profiling (or ranking?) universities” – Comment

Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski (formerly President of DCU, currently Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen) discusses new forms of higher education ‘profiling’ over at his A University Blog

I don’t really doubt that as recipients of public money universities should present transparent data as to how this is being spent and what value is being generated by it. But comparisons between institutions based on such data always carry some risk. So for example, DCU’s student/staff ratio looks more favourable because the university has a much larger focus on science and engineering than other Irish universities, and laboratory work requires more staff input. NUI Maynooth is ‘cheap’ because the main bulk of its teaching is in the humanities, which are less resource-intensive. This information may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, who may therefore be driven to questionable conclusions. Ironically some of these risks are not so prominent in the more mature league tables, such as the Times Higher Education global rankings, which will already have allowed for such factors in their weightings. The raw data are more easily misunderstood.

It seems to me that institutional profiling is not necessarily preferable to rankings. And it could be open to mis-use.

The ‘comparisons = rankings’ conflation seems a bit premature, specifically regarding U-Multirank. It has been specifically designed not to give a one-number-ranking, and instead to provide the kind of information to those interested that they are looking for, across various variables and indicators. There are always dangers with any numbers that attempt to quantify the quantitative, that is why they require interpretation and clarification. The handwringing here just seems performative, as though one should be seen to have an issue with all attempts at benchmarking/measurement. Rankings have been around for a decade at this stage, and so our attitudes towards them should move beyond reactions that they are simply ideologically suspect, that they are to be rejected accordingly.

I would ask, that if this new attempt at improving the situation of rankings is “not necessarily preferable”, then what is? Or what could be added to the U-Multirank system? It includes teaching (which most other rankings don’t), as well as regional engagement, and technology transfer. It is going to be available to use by any number of stakeholders (rather than bureaucrats and administrators, as was previously the case), and this is the expectation today – transparency. Finally, it will include subject/discipline specific indicators for those often-overlooked areas of study (arts, humanities, and social sciences).

Websites like Eurostat are also open to “mis-use”, and mis-interpretation, but is this a good reason to reject them? Open datasets, which can be interrogated and reconfigured in novel ways by the curious, are becoming the norm (data journalism, or groups such as Open Data Dublin, etc.) For a change there is an opportunity for real bench-marking, for real transparency, which no doubt will have room for improvement, and yet it seems that some still want to protect their data fiefdom from the unitiated, the great unwashed.

[Update 17/1/14: Education Datapalooza to Promote Innovation in Improving College Access, Affordability, and Completion: “Today, in response to the President’s call, the White House, the U.S. Departments of Education and Treasury, and the General Services Administration are hosting an Education “Datapalooza”, highlighting innovators from the private, nonprofit, and academic sectors who have used freely available government data to build products, services, and apps that advance postsecondary education, empower students with information, and help colleges innovate in creative and powerful ways.”]

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