The University and Its Disciplines

Editor(s) Carolin Kreber
Publisher Routledge
Published 2008
Pages 246
Price £21.99
ISBN 9780415965217
Reviewed by Ms Fran Beaton
University of Kent
Review published 11 February 2009

In The University and its Disciplines: Teaching and Learning Within and Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries, Professor Kreber draws on an impressive array of scholars and practitioners from the UK, Europe, the US and Canada to explore the central question: are academic disciplines up to the task of preparing undergraduates for life, work and civic engagement in today’s complex, uncertain world? This wide-ranging and challenging concern is explored from a number of perspectives which go far beyond the oft-rehearsed notions of graduate attributes. The focus here is on the social and intellectual purposes of higher education, the interrelationship of the academy and the wider world and the tensions between the development of discipline-specific and discipline-transcendent skills.

The book’s structure enables the central question to be explored in detail. The book explores five themes: Disciplines and their Epistemological Structure, Ways of Thinking and Practising, Exploring Disciplinary Teaching and Learning from a Socio-cultural Perspective, Learning Partnerships in Disciplinary Learning, Disciplines and their Interactions with Teaching and Learning regimes. With the exception of the introductory and closing sections each of these themes comprises a research-based chapter and two ’reactive’ chapters written by academics with teaching responsibilities. This format results in a compelling weave of theory and practice, exploring the ways in which disciplines conceive of themselves - conceptions which are necessarily fluid - and the implications for learners, teachers and the communities they inhabit.

The introductory section reviews the Higher Education context from two perspectives. The first perspective considers the challenges of contemporary higher education in enabling students to be active participants in and between disciplinary communities, as lifelong learners and as citizens. Kreber (and, in a subsequent chapter, Baxter Magolda) argues that the discipline is a lens through which we both look at subject matter and develop the ways of thinking and practising in disciplinary and trans-disciplinary contexts. This trans-disciplinary capacity is ‘….crucially important given that the real-life subjects that students will need to confront after they graduate are complex – one might think of issues such as climate change, intercultural conflict resolution, or health – calling for more […] multiple lenses to inform them.’ (p.13) The second perspective succinctly outlines different concepts of the university, the evolution of specialization and its role in fragmenting academic communities into Becher’s ever more specialised tribes, and how and why academic disciplinary allegiances develop and evolve. Kreber argues persuasively that notions of ‘soft versus hard’ and ‘pure versus applied’ are unhelpful in constructing university curriculum and preparing university graduates for civic life in the twenty-first century, and that cross-disciplinary encounters need to complement discipline-specific activity.

These opening sections provide the reader with a firm foundation from which to consider in more depth the book’s themes. Gail Donald investigates the processes involved in developing students’ understanding of the disciplinary commons in different subject areas: engineering, law and English literature – and addressing the central question of what it means to think like an engineer, lawyer or English specialist. She argues that each area has ‘signature pedagogies’ and differing ‘validation questions’: ‘Does it work?’ (Engineering); ’Does it fit?’(with previous case histories, Law); ‘Do you agree?’ (English) and that students learn to construct their understanding through investigating the commonalities as well as the differences between disciplinary fields. This notion is further explored by Matthew and Pritchard, who offer examples of engineering education which challenge accepted practices in that discipline with the intention of moving on from a position of ‘That’s not what WE do’ as an instinctive reaction to any form of change. This is further illuminated by the chapters devoted to Ways of Thinking and Practising (WTP) which paint vivid pictures of ways in which university teachers seek to articulate and communicate these. Hounsell and Anderson, and Reimann explore the ‘students’-eye view’, observing that WTP are integral to the subject, not discrete parts and that academics themselves need to have opportunities to discuss and elaborate their own perceptions. Pace memorably describes this as ‘Opening History’s “Black Boxes” and subsequent chapters elaborate on the role of the teacher as an exemplar and guide for students into the discipline.

The notion of guiding, which recurs in a number of chapters, also entails supporting students to develop what Baxter Magolda terms ‘self-authorship’, namely their own capacity to be self-reliant independent players ‘in the complex twenty-first –century society they will inhabit and lead.’ (p145). Baxter Magolda draws on a twenty-year longitudinal study which identified different phases in the journey towards self-authorship (following external formulas, reaching a crossroads, becoming the author of one’s life) and how this led to the development of a Learning Partnerships Model, in which meaning is constructed, situated and socially framed by teachers and learners. Baxter Magolda observes that this approach disrupted traditional notions of the curriculum and was difficult to reconcile with university structures. The subsequent chapters acknowledge this, but their authors argue strongly that a Learning Partnerships Model is potentially so fruitful that it is worth considering how to overcome these impediments to change.

The closing sections consider approaches to effecting institutional change in Teaching and Learning Regimes (TLR), including Trowler’s fascinating analysis of ‘Power:the microphysics’ and Fanghanel’s exploration of the challenges of TLRs for teachers and researchers. Fanghanel questions where TLR boundaries lie in the post-modern curriculum: do they blur as interdisciplinarity becomes more widespread, or become more generic? Fanghanel provides a gripping vignette of TLR through extracts from an extended interview with a newly appointed full-time lecturer to illustrate how a newcomer identifies and responds to his new environment: the tacit assumptions, standard practices, conventions, power relations and implicit approaches to learning and teaching, for example. T Roxa and Martensson explore the notion of building alliances between faculty communities of practice and the ‘ruling TLR’ (p216) making it possible to ‘offer arenas for scholarly conversations’ (p217) without compromising academics’ disciplinary identity and Yorke considers the ways in which assessment practices could move away from a narrowly instrumental focus towards engaging students through a broader mix of discipline-specific and interdisciplinary assessment regimes.

In the closing chapter, McCune justly observes ‘This book represents both a profound challenge and a potential source of great inspiration.’ (p231). It provides insights into the tensions and opportunities for the 21st century learner and teacher and how individuals could engage as social, ethical, responsive beings. It is essential reading for anyone who seeks to grapple with these concerns (Kreber points out that the reader will probably read selectively, and this is not a book to be tackled at a sitting) but does it answer its own question? Are academic disciplines up to the task of preparing undergraduates for life, work and civic engagement in today’s complex, uncertain world? The message overall is that they are up to the task, but that the task requires profound and careful reflection on the nature of our discipline, our context, our learners and ever-changing times.