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Why do you need to be able to work across disciplines?

Working across disciplines is essential for university study, research and working on complex projects. Watch Dr Scott McLaughlin explain more.
Scott McLaughlin: Whether you are working or studying, you learn standard ways to think about problems and to do your subject. These standard approaches make it easier for you, and they provide shortcuts that help you work with others in your field. Standardised ways of working like this are an aspect of your disciplinarity, the ways that a field of knowledge is disciplined into standardised approaches. All of this means that, for example, an engineer doesn’t have to explain everything from scratch to another engineer. She can safely assume that they know enough of the basics to skip to the complex bit of the problem, and to work back if they need to fill in gaps.
However, for that engineer to work with someone in a very different discipline, they really might have to start at the beginning, because the fundamental assumptions they both have about the world may not be the same. The things that make what you do a discipline can also make it difficult if you need to work with other people who don’t have the same background, the same shortcuts, the same assumptions as you and others in your field. So what is a discipline? At the most basic level, academic disciplines are the different taught subjects, such as maths, economics, history, arts. Disciplines also exist within the world of industry, in different fields, like sciences, politics, engineering. Within subjects, there are also different subdisciplines.
Despite being part of the same disciplines, subdisciplines may have different ways of doing things. Take the discipline of dance, for example. Within the main discipline of dance, there are a number of subdisciplines. One example is choreography, which is how dances are structured. Another example is scenography, which is how the stage is designed. These subdisciplines are relatively similar, and will share some ways of doing things, but they do have different concerns. Even with different concerns, because they’re part of the same overall discipline, they can talk to each other easily, as they have to do when creating a dance piece. They have a shared language and knowledge.
In other subdisciplines, the methods or the way that they do things can make it difficult to find common ground. For example, in mathematics, pure maths and applied maths may look at similar problems, but pure mathematicians might not be interested in the applied work if it’s simply the application of a problem that pure mathematicians have already solved. Equally, the applied mathematicians may become frustrated with the pure mathematicians’ need for a complete proof for all possibilities if what the applied mathematicians have already works fine for their application. So why is interdisciplinary study and work needed? It’s important to understand that disciplines are specialisms, and many problems in the world are too complex and interlocked to be solved by a single discipline.
Take, for example, world hunger. This problem needs the combined expertise of economics, politics, sciences, social sciences, and many more. The individual disciplines can’t solve it working alone. They need to be able to talk to each other. This means that people from different disciplines have to find a way to work together that doesn’t dilute their specialisms, but also doesn’t require explaining everything from the ground up each time they have to talk. Working with other disciplines can give you an opportunity to broaden your understanding of the world, and of your own discipline.

To study or work with other disciplines, you need a strong understanding of what they are. You will explore this over this week of the course, and look at your own discipline in detail.

Different disciplines have standardised ways of approaching activities and thinking about problems. These standard approaches make it easier for you to develop your disciplinary knowledge, and discuss issues with others in your field.

However, some issues, such as world hunger, require the combined expertise of different discipline areas. This can be challenging as people from other disciplines might not have the same background or assumptions as you and others in your field. They might also use different terminology or methodologies.

All of this can make communication of complex issues more difficult. Even within disciplines, this can be challenging as there can be sub-disciplines that have different ways of doing things.

In the video, Dr Scott McLaughlin explains how these standardised ways of working are an aspect of your disciplinarity – the ways the field of knowledge is disciplined into standardised approaches. He then explores why this is important for interdisciplinary work.

Typical characteristics of a discipline

People working in a discipline tend to share:
  • a common language, including agreed terminology and meanings
  • common ways of measuring things (and knowing when it is meaningful to measure something), which often underpin methods
  • common frames of reference that allow easy communication of ideas.
You will explore each of these different characteristics over the rest of the course.

Why do disciplines share characteristics?

Disciplines share characteristics to make solving problems easier. From developing medical treatments to refining political policies, shared characteristics make it easier for you to communicate with others in your discipline, or pass on what you have learned.
Think of disciplines as a local dialect of knowledge. People from the same place can describe local things to each other easily because of their shared common knowledge. However, outsiders might not have this local knowledge, and therefore struggle to understand what is being discussed.

Shared characteristics between disciplines

As well as shared characteristics within a discipline, disciplines tend to group into families. These families share some common approaches, but differ in the details.
For example, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines all share traits that make them different from English Literature, although to varying degrees. They all tend to follow the scientific method, where all theories and ideas are tested and developed in the same way (you will explore this in more detail later this week).
This is how knowledge is generated in STEM, and trust in the rigour of the scientific method is a large part of how STEM researchers can feel confident in their knowledge.
However, even within STEM, you can find disciplines that are very far apart in different ways, such as molecular biology and astrophysics.

Have your say:

Throughout the course, you will have the opportunity to discuss your experiences of working across different disciplines.
Think about the questions below, then share and discuss your thoughts with other learners in the Comments.
  • What is your discipline? Is it different to the subject you study, or the area you work in?
  • Is your discipline something you feel as an ‘identity’ or something you’re just getting familiar with?
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Interdisciplinary Learning: Working Across Disciplines

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