Monday’s resource focused on a strand of educational research literature that explores the ontological and epistemological bases of academic disciplines and the implications these have for the way we educate our students. Academics on LSE’s Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education course are asked to draw on this literature to reflect on the fundamental nature of their discipline(s) and to consider how this affects the way they approach teaching and the instilling of disciplinary ways of thinking, seeing and practising in their students. Here we republish excerpts from some of their writings.
Andrea Ascani from the Department of Geography and Environment reflects on economic geography
Economic Geography is a complex and multidisciplinary field of study at the crossroads between different disciplines, mainly Economics and Geography, but not only (Crang, 1994). For this reason, being a social scientist in such a field requires an eclectic attitude towards research practice and teaching, which should be aimed at encompassing and integrating different perspectives on the object of study, attempting to prize the complementary aspects of diverse approaches while bearing in mind the weaknesses and puzzles of each of them. In this respect, the field of Economic Geography is highly specific in terms of the knowledge bases that the researcher, the teacher and the student need to reconcile when carrying out their work. Such complexity should be interpreted as a strength of the discipline. It provides the opportunity to adopt different angles of study and to exploit the synergies between alternative, and sometimes competing, approaches, methodologies and implications. At a more general level, the multidisciplinary nature of Economic Geography represents its own value added, offering a unique pair of lenses through which the researcher and the student are able to interpret economic dynamics with strong spatial implications, such as international trade patterns, and to develop sound critical conceptual tools to read and assess real world phenomena.
Given the complexity of the discipline, the Economic Geographer has to wield very diverse conceptual and methodological tools, some of which are very specific to the field or to the particular area of study on which one is focussing. In terms of knowledge bases, the economic should incorporate the technical, abstract and orthodox knowledge associated with the Economics discipline with the wider, concrete and more heterodox knowledge base associated with a discipline such as Geography. This requires not only a deep understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of these approaches, but most of all an acknowledgement that the integration of the two offers a unique mix for the analysis and the study of complex social and economic processes, which allows one to overcome the puzzles related to each individual approach.
Sarah Cefai from the Department of the Media and Communications reflects on the field of media and communications
Media and communications is a contested social and political terrain and as such different theoretical approaches constitute different social and political agendas. Given the nature of the discipline, as one that engages its subjects (here, students and teachers) in the field of power it analyses, students are themselves implicated in critique. The key disciplinary attitude that is fostered by media and communications is self-reflexivity. Modern subjectivity is characteristically self-reflexive—we live in a period known as reflexive modernity (Giddens, 1991). Self-reflexivity requires the ability to think through the relationship between one’s own thinking and feeling and one’s ideas about the wider world. It also requires the ability to reflect on behaviour and to imagine how one’s behaviour or way of thinking can be interpreted from outside of one’s own position. Self-reflexivity is an important aspect of the disciplinary attitude as it is an ethical response to the fact that knowledge is perspectival, embodied and constitutive of relations of power. Much of the curriculum in media and communications propagates a normative sociological view that is ideally accompanied by a self-reflexive understanding of the types of power relations that such a view mobilises. The implications of this for teaching are that students are encouraged to reflect on the historical, cultural and geographical influences on their own styles of reasoning, the development of their intellectual interests, and the type of research they might want to pursue (in their assessments).
Jonathan Birch from the Department of Philosophy writes about threshold concepts in his discipline
In many debates, an understanding of the opposing positions in the existing literature—and of the points of disagreement between them—requires a prior understanding of crucial specialist concepts. Philosophers often construct novel concepts in order to draw attention to subtle distinctions, and these concepts are completely alien to newcomers.
Meyer and Land’s (2003) notion of a ‘threshold concept’ is relevant in this context. They characterize a threshold concept as ‘akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something’ . They propose that grasping the threshold concepts of a discipline produces a change in the student’s perspective on the subject that is transformative, irreversible, integrative, bounded and troublesome (see Meyer and Land 2003 for further discussion of each of these features).
Philosophy is a rich source of plausible instances of this phenomenon. One example, suggested by Booth (2006), is the concept of representation in the philosophy of mind. Many debates in this area take it for granted that the mind represents the world. The word ‘representation’ arises in various ordinary contexts (we might say, for example, that a painting or photograph represents its subject) but in philosophy the term is meant in a more abstract, more abstruse sense, and it is not intended to imply that the mind literally contains pictures of external phenomena. Sometimes philosophers use a jargon term—intentionality—to describe the mysterious sort of representation characteristic of mental states.
Students typically come to these debates as competent users of the ordinary concept of representation, but the concept as it is used in the philosophy of mind will be foreign to them. For this reason, courses and textbooks in philosophy of mind often begin with a discussion of mental representation, introducing the concept by way of analogy with pictorial representation (eg Crane, 2003). Once they grasp this key concept, students can comprehend a wide range of further debates about the nature and architecture of mental representation. In this sense, the concept is integrative and transformative. To the extent that it also makes room for a gap between appearance and reality, opening the door to radical scepticism, it is also ‘troublesome’, and a source of counterintuitive ‘troublesome knowledge’ (or, more accurately, troublesome scepticism).
Concepts with similar features are commonplace in philosophy teaching. Other plausible examples include computation and innateness in the philosophy of cognitive science, reference in the philosophy of language, and grounding and supervenience in metaphysics. In all these cases (with the possible exception of supervenience), students are likely to bring ordinary, pre-theoretical understandings of the concepts to the course, and part of the role of the teacher is to transform these understandings into the more technical and abstract conceptions they need in order to make sense of contemporary philosophical debates. This will often involve trying to uproot the preconceptions students have (eg that a computer must be silicon-based), but these preconceptions can sometimes facilitate useful analogies, as in the case of representation.
Federico Picinali from the Department of Law considers the interdisciplinary nature of evidence law
In the 1980s William Twining – an eminent scholar of evidence law – published an essay that was soon to become a classic in the field. The essay was titled Taking facts seriously and argued – among other theses – that the study and the teaching of evidence law had to be firmly rooted in the knowledge of other disciplines and phenomenona, namely, logic, epistemology and folk psychology (Twining, 2006). This multifaceted knowledge, Twining convincingly argued, is necessary to recognise the role that evidence, proof and fact-finding play in legal practice. Without it, scholars and students can only attain a superficial understanding of the law of evidence, as they are unable fully to appreciate the problems that this branch of law aims to solve.
Nowadays it is rare to encounter an evidence law scholar who is not familiar with the ‘Gettier problem’ or the ‘raven paradox’; who has never heard of the ‘reference class problem’ or has never seen the formula of ‘Bayes’ theorem’. Needless to say, these are not among the traditional topics of the evidence law scholarship: they have been imported or inherited from other fields (ie epistemology and probability theory). Similarly, it is now rare to encounter an evidence law scholar who is not familiar with empirical studies on the triggers of confessions and on the reliability of eyewitness evidence. Again, these works have first burgeoned outside the evidence law scholarship, in the fields of psychology and cognitive science. And so on … To be sure, the interdisciplinary nature of the evidence law scholarship and teaching is a complex phenomenon.
My first encounters with evidence law, as well as my research and teaching in the field ever since, have been characterized by a marked interdisciplinary approach. This approach is best expressed through the thesis that the most important ‘threshold concepts’ in evidence law are not legal concepts (Meyer and Land, 2003). ‘Relevance’, ‘probative value’ and, possibly, ‘fairness’ lie at the basis of evidence law. They are the key to understanding its framework and dynamics: without mastering them ‘the learner cannot progress’ (Meyer and Land, 2003) in any significant way. And yet, they are epistemological or moral concepts, prior to being legal ones. This reductive thesis has informed my scholarship and my teaching, to the extent that some of my works and lectures may strike the reader and the student as having no discernible legal implication. My greatest challenge is to convince them of the opposite.
Booth, J. (2006), ‘On the mastery of philosophical concepts: Socratic discourse and the unexpected “affect”‘, in Meyer J. and Land R. (eds), Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, London: Routledge, pp. 173-181.
Crane, T. (2003), The Mechanical Mind (2nd edn), London: Routledge.
Crang P. (1994), ‘Teaching Economic Geography – Some thought on curriculum content’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, vol. 18, pp. 106-113.
Meyer, J. and Land, R. (2003), ‘Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines’, ETL project, Occasional Report 4, May 2003.
Twining, W. (2006), ‘Taking facts seriously’, reprinted in Twining, W., Rethinking evidence: exploratory essays, Cambridge: CUP.
With many thanks to Dr Claire Gordon, convenor of LSE’s Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education course for academic staff, for contributing this post, and to the course participants whose writings appear here.