Sums for scientists, Economics for Eng Lit

As we start the new term, we will no doubt partake in the usual ritual of noting how the university has changed and, in particular, how fresh faced the – well, freshers – look. Perhaps not so high on everyone’s agenda right now is the way in which Warwick has changed academically. Yet, just as the university’s layout alters with the ever-increasing demands of students, so does its academic offerings.

The Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL) has introduced a selection of interdisciplinary modules available to all undergraduates regardless of their home department. History, Maths, English and Economics students alike can now find themselves in the same lecture as one another. What this unusual cocktail of academic personalities will produce is yet to be discovered.

The concept of interdisciplinarity is still in its infancy at Warwick; the university have only recently begun to offer these. Students savvy enough to have signed up already have chosen from an eclectic mix: Navigating Psychopathology, taught by a psychologist actually responsible for committing mentally ill patients in Coventry, is not surprisingly the most popular choice. Academic Writing for the Media, which aims to teach students to present the detail of their discipline as something that the general public can digest, has scooped 12 students.
Those students lucky enough to have a place to study Forms of Identity will find themselves in an even more unusual setting as they will share their lectures in a special video conferencing room with students at Monash University in Melbourne. Yes, in Australia. In order to overcome the obvious issue of time differences, they will have to acquaint themselves with yet more alien territory: 8:30am lectures. But the early start hasn’t dissuaded the 20 students who have signed up to the course and the 15 on the waiting list.

These modules can all be taken as a core option for 15 or 12 CATs or just for interest’s sake. Although some departments, such as Law, Psychology and the Medical School prevent their students taking interdisciplinary modules for credit due to the accreditation needs of their courses, most departments including English, History, WBS, Biological Sciences and Education, are very open to the concept.

SU President, Nick Swain, reckons that “It is very easy to be taking a course with lots of similar modules; studying with IATL is a way of learning about something different and new whilst reaching the same end objective in your degree.”

It’s no surprise then, that interdisciplinarity is fast becoming popular here. A Higher Education Funding project between Kings College London and Warwick looked into the possibility of introducing interdisciplinary work into Russell Group universities back in 2009. Last year three interdisciplinary modules were offered by WBS and this year another three have been added.
Dr Nick Monk of IATL says that although it is important to keep students grounded within a particular discipline, “Interdisciplinarity is part of the university’s strategy now… This is the way that it’s going to start to be rolled out.”

There appears to be a wider trend towards this type of learning; joint honours and flexible degrees offering a variety of options are becoming increasingly popular. The majorities of universities allow students the option of taking a module outside their department or even taking a year out to study a language abroad. Higher education should certainly encourage students to widen their knowledge scope; but is this move away from specific degree courses a good thing for students?

According to Dr Monk it is. What’s great about these interdisciplinary modules is the opportunity students get to learn about a subject through different eyes, “enriching their experience at university.” And it’s not bad for our job prospects either. Current employers are complaining of receiving graduates that have expert knowledge in a very niche area and no real experience of different disciplines or, more importantly, of cooperating with people from other disciplines. The aim, therefore, is to provide students with the opportunity to enrich their knowledge base, gain an understanding of different perspectives and get to know different people in an academic, open-minded environment.

Jasmine Schembri, a fourth-year at Warwick Business School and former Lacrosse team captain, President of the Law Society and current President of Law and Finance within WFS knows a thing or two about building a good CV. She, like many students, is keen on the idea: “This is such a fantastic way of diversifying not only your portfolio but your experience at university… If only this wasn’t my final year.”

It all sounds very sociable and fun; but is it fair? Science students will undoubtedly find science-related modules a lot easier to grasp than Humanities students and, likewise, Arts students will be more practiced at writing academic essays than those studying Maths.James Louca, a fourth-year Physics student, can handle any number of tear-inducing equations but reckons writing a humanities essay would be “very difficult” for any science student: “I’d struggle to know how to structure it.”

Furthermore, some of the courses offered by WBS do have the appearance of being less academic. Coaching and Leadership Skills, for example, doesn’t have the same academic ring to it that a module in Contract Law or Molecular Biology does. However, IATL insists that whilst those at a potential disadvantage will receive appropriate support and consideration, the modules offered have “no less academic rigour” than others at Warwick, as they are all scrutinised by a committee of senior academics intent on putting us through our paces.

The concept of interdisciplinarity is still at the experimental stage, so students taking these modules are taking a chance with IATL. However, Dr Monk is quick to point out that there is no risk to students if the experiment doesn’t work as it only counts for 15 CATs out of a degree and, as they apparently say in IATL, “fail again, fail better”. The real challenge IATL faces currently is how little students actually know about what’s on offer. SU Education Officer, James Entwistle, hopes that in the long run “The popularity of these opportunities should demonstrate to the university the need to offer more of this type of study”, and the bigger this concept grows, the more people will be aware of it.

So what do we have to look forward to in coming years? According to Dr Monk we can hope to find a module on Faust; students will be able to study the myth from a business, philosophical, literary and history of art point of view. The intention is to build up a larger suite of options by encouraging professors to propose ideas that are academically challenging enough but also unusual, abstract even. “I hope that next year we’ll have six instead of three, and the following year ten maybe.”

There’s a new library extension, new student halls and Curiositea now has a carpet; but the real change is happening academically. In coming years more and more options will become available at Warwick and consequently doors will be burst open for us; it would be a shame to miss out.


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