Interdisciplinarity: a symbol for the degradation of intellectual standards?

“FASS3999 is the stupidest thing I have ever had to participate in at this uni.”

Like many students, I laughed when I opened my Facebook to find some particularly pertinent posts on USYD Rants 2.0.

“FASS3999 is the stupidest thing I have ever had to participate in at this uni,” said one.

“The unit of study outline is incomprehensible HR jargon with absolutely no useful information,” said another.

Perhaps I didn’t express it as eloquently, but this broadly reflected the sentiment of my FASS3999 Unit of Study survey last year. Judging by the reaction to the posts, I don’t think that the ‘ranters’ and I are the only people to hold this sentiment. 

This isn’t a slight on the course’s lecturers and tutors. On the contrary, I found they did whatever they could to make the course bearable, trying to tailor the generic content to our specific interests so that we at least got something out of it. My cohort was quite grateful for the seemingly extremely generous marking. But the fact remains that most students roll their eyes when they reflect upon interdisciplinary units, which were introduced somewhat backhandedly as part of the revised “Sydney Undergraduate Experience” in 2017. 

In fairness, the University is in a somewhat no-win situation. Because of an increasingly fraught and competitive job market and a lack of government funding, politicians and employers judge universities by their graduate employment rates and the “job-readiness” of students. Universities feel they have to do something to address these concerns. But courses like FASS3999 are not the way to do this. Instead, they contribute to a degradation of academic standards which contradict the very reason why they were supposedly introduced.  

Professor Annamarie Jagose, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, contends that because students “can’t presume that the implicit values and methods of their disciplinary training will be shared or even recognised by others,” collaborating with others helps students become an “effective contributor in many workplaces where people with different backgrounds work together.” 

Whilst this is a nice idea in theory, it is far from what I found in practice. Instead of working together with students applying a unique knowledge of my discipline, I found that coursework largely amounted to a potted summary of my degree. A 2000-word ‘capstone’ essay critically evaluating the research practices of Media and Communications, and comparing them to other disciplines like Cultural Studies and Philosophy, could have been summarised in a 10-minute breakout activity. I can’t think of a single thing that I learnt which promoted my intellectual growth. My final essay, which groundbreakingly concluded that “media scholars analyse the news in addition to theoretical texts,” certainly didn’t. 

The ‘intended’ benefits are a depth of disciplinary knowledge and the development of an interdisciplinary perspective. But my own knowledge was better developed through virtual exchange programs such as through the London School of Economics and Jindal University in India. Not only did I have the opportunity to study my discipline through a different cultural and institutional lens, but I also studied concepts that I previously heard in passing with a new rigour, far more than in FASS3999. 

Arguably, a course like FASS3999 is actually taking away from the true development of interdisciplinary knowledge by removing choices from students. In my degree, I only had one elective. If I’d finished my Dalyell subjects, I would have no electives. There are so many small subjects I would have loved to take that would have furthered my interdisciplinary knowledge like Sociology of The Other, Innovations for Global Education and Literacy or Business Negotiations; all subjects that I didn’t have space for, due to FASS3999. 

On this, Professor Jagose said that instead, FASS3999 “provides senior students with scaffolded opportunities to work effectively with others from different disciplinary backgrounds in the context of a real-world issue or problem… [other units do not] necessarily require students to work in interdisciplinary ways… which FASS399 is centrally designed to support.” I’m not sure I agree.  

More cynically, subjects like FASS3999 can be viewed as money-makers for the university. They take candidature and funding away from small subjects and funnel it into compulsory subjects, which by their very nature have to be broad and low-level enough to relate to a huge range of students. Although not as obvious as the largely pre-recorded OLEs, this only contributes to the intellectual degradation of academic standards. It often means that casual tutors don’t have the opportunity to teach in their field of expertise. For students, it means going through first-year course notes to try to communicate disciplinarity in the most painful and superficial way. Universities should make sure they give stable work to casuals and maintain academic standards. Instead, FASS chose the cost-saving route, the result of which is subjects like FASS3999. 

Tellingly, Jagose says that the purpose of FASS3999 is to make students an “effective contributor to workplaces.” It isn’t, importantly, about producing graduates with specific critical thinking or research skills, which would be intellectually rigorous. Instead, it sends a message in line with universities becoming more corporatised, reflecting a move away from a liberal learning structure that promotes intellectual development and growth, the traditional hallmarks of an arts degree. Even if you believe in the importance of a degree’s ‘employability’ factor above all else, this course does not achieve that. In no way does learning about ‘wicked problems’ make you ‘job-ready’, especially in the abstract terms taught in this course. Whether you take the view that an arts degree is a purely vocational course, a purely liberal course or something in between, FASS3999 ticks none of those boxes.

Perhaps FASS3999 would be useful in first year, providing students with an understanding of their discipline and how to study Arts. But the newly introduced FASS1000 already does this. Students do not need both.  So, I think it’s time for FASS to rethink their interdisciplinary focus, and to ensure that students are able to take interesting, niche and intellectually challenging electives for students to study a subject outside their major. To me, this is true interdisciplinarity.

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