Media, Technology, and Education
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What is an “academic discpline”?

Integrated Capstone (INCAP) classes at Plymouth State University are supposed to engage students in the development of an interdisciplinary signature project. To understand what “interdisciplinary” means, we first have to understand what we mean by an academic discipline. In my new INCAP class this Spring (Games for Impact), I will be asking students to think about what they have learned in their major and how that learning affects the way that they engage with the world. We all know that students in different majors learn different content. A student in a Biology major might learn about amino acids and how their interactions create proteins with different forms and functions while a student in an English major might learn about the structure of villanelles. The content of a major is the body of knowledge that helps to form the academic discipline that the major is part of. But what other things might students in one academic discipline encounter that students in another discipline wouldn’t? (Note that I am conflating the idea of a major with the idea of an academic discipline for the sake of this exploration. They are not the same thing but the difference is not of concern to the exercise that I want students to engage in.) What else do we need to make an academic discipline?

One answer:

In fact, there is a whole list of criteria and characteristics, which indicate whether
a subject is indeed a distinct discipline. A general list of characteristics would
include: 1) disciplines have a particular object of research (e.g. law, society,
politics), though the object of research maybe shared with another discipline; 2)
disciplines have a body of accumulated specialist knowledge referring to their
object of research, which is specific to them and not generally shared with
another discipline; 3) disciplines have theories and concepts that can organise
the accumulated specialist knowledge effectively; 4) disciplines use specific
terminologies or a specific technical language adjusted to their research object;
5) disciplines have developed specific research methods according to their
specific research requirements; and maybe most crucially 6), disciplines must
have some institutional manifestation in the form of subjects taught at universities
or colleges, respective academic departments and professional associations
connected to it.

–from What are Academic Disciplines? by Armin Krishnan

That is, an academic discipline has:

  1. An object of research, a particular “thing” that is studied, that may or may not also be studied by other disciplines;
  2. A body of knowledge (content) related to the object of study which is generally not shared by other disciplines;
  3. Theories and concepts that organize the content about the object of study;
  4. Special terminology to talk about the content, theories and concepts in the discipline;
  5. Accepted methods for how to engage in research; and,
  6. A set of institutions (colleges, universities, professional societies, etc.) that teach and discuss subjects related to the object of study.

In another, related perspective, Allen Repko, in his book Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies, writes, “The purpose of a discipline … is to interpret reality according to certain prescribed guidelines and provide provide its members with organizational support.” (p. 88) In other words, an academic discipline “is an identifiable but evolving domain of knowledge that its members study using certain tools that serve as a way of knowing that is powerful but constraining.” (p. 89) Because each discipline uses its own set of guidelines and tools for understanding the world, viewing a particular situation, event, problem, etc. from different disciplinary perspectives is likely to illuminate different parts of the situation, event, problem, etc.

Repko provides some examples of the ways in which various disciplines view reality. Chemistry, for example, “focuses on the distinctive properties of the elements, individually and in compounds, and their interactions. Chemistry sees larger-scale objects … in terms of their constituent elements and compounds.” (p. 98) On the other hand, “[c]ultural anthropology sees individual cultures as organic integrated wholes with their own internal logic and culture as the set of symbols, rituals, and beliefs through which a society gives meaning to daily life” (p. 99) One can imagine that a chemist and a cultural anthropologist might approach the same situation quite differently. The chemist is trained to break large-scale objects into smaller pieces and examine their interactions as the way to understand reality. The cultural anthropologist, on the other hand, is trained that the way to understand reality is by understanding the internal logic of the whole system. These two ways of knowing may arrive at a similar understanding of reality (or they may not). Neither is “correct” or better than the other. They are simply two different ways of approaching the world.

We instructors are not always explicit in explaining to students the ways in which our particular disciplines engage with the world, what counts as knowledge in our disciplines, and which methodologies and tools are “valid” in our disciplines. When these disciplinary epistemologies, methods, and tools are often implicit, they are invisible to us and taken as “truth.” In class, we will engage in a series of exercises so that students can begin to articulate the ways in which they have been taught, through their major, to view and engage with the world.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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