This is the fourth post in a series in a series which looks at higher education learning and teaching through a disciplinary lens. What can the knowledges, theories, methods and practices of particular disciplines tell us about learning and teaching across the university? In each post, I speak to disciplinary experts from Macquarie and seek their insights to inform the teaching practices of colleagues in other disciplines.
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Today’s post focuses on Interdisciplinary Research Training.
I spoke with Dr Kirstin Mills, Director of the Master of Research in the Faculty of Arts. She teaches research and communication skills that prepare students for further postgraduate study (Doctor of Philosophy or Master of Philosophy) and academic or professional research careers.
Kirstin is passionate about producing skilled, world-ready researchers with a strong sense of their identity and value, and fostering collaborative, interdisciplinary connections in a close-knit, supportive academic community. Our conversation expanded my thinking about disciplines and the importance of teaching resistant reading and reflective writing across the university.
What is interdisciplinary research training?
The Master of Research teaches students how to undertake research and become researchers, whether in academia or industry or not-for-profit organisations. Research increasingly happens outside of the borders of the university in areas that don’t neatly align with our disciplines. The course helps students design and disseminate research within and beyond disciplinary boundaries.
Students come to research from many disciplines within the Faculty of Arts, including History, Archaeology, Education, Law, Literature, Languages, Media Studies, Creative Arts, Indigenous Studies, Philosophy, Anthropology, Politics, International Relations, Sociology, Geography, Planning, Security Studies, Criminology, Music Studies, Performing Arts and more.
In this one minute excerpt, Kirstin talks about the positives and negatives of disciplinary demarcations:
John Aldrich (2014) defines interdisciplinarity in the following way:
Interdisciplinary research … is a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or field of research practice (p 4).
This definition highlights that a combination of knowledge and approaches from multiple disciplines can yield new insights. Research centres at Macquarie University are interdisciplinary, seeking to foster innovation by bringing different areas of expertise into conversation with one another. This highlights the power of interdisciplinarity within research and knowledge creation and the importance of including interdisciplinary approaches in teaching, particularly for researchers-in-training.
How do you teach students to think in interdisciplinary ways?
For students, the first step of interdisciplinarity is to recognise disciplines. Some people come to the Master of Research without an awareness that they have been trained specifically within a particular discipline. The course establishes a strong respect for the value of disciplines. This means helping students to recognise their own disciplinary practice and their sense of belonging to it, and the value of the disciplines of other students. One exercise involves taking a general research problem, such as a particular social or political issue, and asking students how they might approach it from their discipline. What ideas are most interesting? What theories or methods might be used? How would you design a research project about this issue? A huge variety of projects can emerge from a single issue. Students ask: What can I learn here? What insights might I get from someone who does things differently?
Asking questions is an important part of interdisciplinary research training. Kirstin describes the pedagogical value in this 30 second excerpt from our conversation:
What skills do students develop by thinking in interdisciplinary ways together?
Kirstin aligns the skills she wants students to develop with her philosophy of teaching, fostering a mindset of curiosity, critical thinking and creativity.
Listen to Kirstin describe her teaching philosophy in this 80 second excerpt:
Key skills include reflective writing and resistant or critical reading.
Reflection is a thinking process where students consider where they’ve been, where they are now and where they would like to go. In interdisciplinary research training, reflection is embodied through writing. Master of Research students in the Faculty of Arts practice personal and informal reflective writing in the form of a research diary that provides a free space to untangle thoughts, think back on their learning journey, and articulate responses to learning activities and readings. Reflective writing provides a strong sense of direction and develops confidence in what students achieve in small steps as they face the daunting project of producing a thesis.
Kirstin discusses reflective writing in this two and a half minute excerpt:
Reflective practice is also an important skill for teachers, enabling them to recognise the prior knowledge, lived experience and passion that students bring to their research studies. Kirstin describes a holistic approach to becoming researchers in this 1½ minute excerpt:
Interdisciplinary research training also develops resistant or critical reading. Kirstin draws from her own disciplinary background of Literary Studies to show students how to analyse a text and understand the techniques it is using to invite readers to interpret it in a particular way. This means dispelling the myth that there is a particular meaning embedded in a text ready to be removed. Rather, texts are constructed in a particular way to invite readers to interpret them in particular ways. In the Faculty of Arts Master of Research writing unit, students learn how to reverse engineer pieces of scholarship so they can understand how they’ve been constructed. Students exercise critical thinking and become aware of how they employ effective techniques in their own research writing.
Interdisciplinary research training involves a lot of collaboration and group work. One exercise Kirstin encourages is an interdisciplinary peer review of a research proposal. Students are explicitly taught how to provide constructive feedback. Through peer review they discover how effectively they are communicating ideas and the benefits of interdisciplinary relationships and networking. No one produces a thesis overnight. It is achieved it in small steps along the way, and it’s crucial for research students to be able to look at what they’ve achieved and feel confident that it is good work building toward a final submission.
What are the lessons for teachers across the university?
Learning the value of interdisciplinarity is important for all students. Many students will study a course within a particular discipline, but they have interactions with others in classes and the world beyond their academic disciplinary boundaries. Teachers can highlight interdisciplinary learning and acknowledge the benefits of real-world experience. That’s inclusive teaching because it recognises that lived experience is valued in the university classroom.
Resistant or critical reading has a place across all disciplines. Whether you are producing an essay for a unit in Biology or Literary Studies or History or anything in between, the ability to critically assess sources is invaluable. Students need to be able to assess and critique how a piece of writing has been constructed, and the assumptions that lie behind it. Critical reading is a skill that translates into everyday life in our media saturated world. It is crucial for researchers in all disciplines; as a scholar, you need to evaluate what you are reading.
If we’re training students to be thinkers and leaders, we’re training them to have evaluative judgement, to be researchers.
Understanding how similar problems can be explored differently across disciplines – or even beyond the disciplinary framework altogether – is valuable. Conversations in the classroom are the most exciting way that can happen. Supporting class activities with reflective practice enables students to get personal about their relationship to their learning. Students can take custodianship of their learning experience, and that is valuable for all disciplines.
Listen to the full 26-minute recording:
Download a pdf transcript of the full conversation:
Aldrich, John. (2014). Interdisciplinarity, New York, Oxford University Press.
Hughes, Jeanne M., et al. ‘The Power of Storytelling to Facilitate Human Connection and Learning.’ IMPACT: The Journal of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning. Summer, 2022. https://sites.bu.edu/impact/previous-issues/impact-summer-2022/the-power-of-storytelling/