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Public humanities and interdisciplinarity in the classroom – the student experience

by Niamh NicGhabhann

In August 2020, I contributed a post to the SHAPE-ID blog series on developing public humanities programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. This was motivated by the need to integrate cultures of interdisciplinary thinking across the university, including undergraduate education. This is, in my opinion and experience, an important step in developing sustainable and balanced interdisciplinary research cultures rather than a system in which AHSS disciplines are in a ‘service’ role to STEM-defined research questions and projects. In developing a public humanities curriculum, humanities undergraduate researchers have the opportunity to develop a reflexive understanding of their own skills and disciplinary knowledge, as well as opportunities to consider how and where their expertise can address broader, shared questions. Having had the experience of working with nearly 400 undergraduate students on a 12 ECTS[1] Introduction to Public Humanities module at the University of Limerick, I wanted to take the opportunity to write a short addendum to that first blog post in order to reflect on the experience and to share the insights from the students themselves.

The module design combined material on the history of the humanities as a set of disciplines and approaches (using Helen Small’s 2013 book The Value of the Humanities as a core text) with information on ‘wicked problems’ and on interdisciplinary research approaches, using key examples to aid student understanding.[2] External perspectives on the humanities were also introduced to students, such as the 2018 Deloitte report with Macquarie University on the value of the humanities.[3] Core concepts in the public humanities such as audience engagement and research communication were introduced, as well as shared global research questions and challenges, such as the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Throughout, I integrated excellent examples of effective research communication, including podcast material like Maeve Higgins’ and Mary Robinson’s ‘Mothers of Invention’ podcast on climate change, the UK-based ‘Being Human’ festival and the Nursing Clio blog series.[4] Students were introduced to the medical humanities, the environmental humanities, and the digital humanities through conversations with colleagues working in these areas. The assessment, among other things, invited students to reflect on and articulate their own skills, their own sense of their disciplinary identity as AHSS students and researchers, and to consider what they wished others could know about their subject area. They were asked to suggest changes to the teaching of humanities subjects at third level, and to design a project poster which connected their own skills and disciplinary expertise to some of the ‘wicked problems’, mission areas, or SDGs.

The student response to the public humanities module, throughout the semester itself and in the assignments, provided much food for thought. Firstly, there was a generally positive attitude to this kind of module reflecting on purpose, connections across disciplines and pathways for humanities graduates in the world. Students noted that they would be happier to have such a module earlier in their programme (it was delivered in the third year of a four-year programme), and welcomed the opportunity to consider and express a clearer sense of their own disciplinary identity. They expressed a desire for opportunities to practice public humanities skills across all modules – especially in digital media, podcasting, making and editing video footage, as well as further engagement with more practical hands-on work. They responded very strongly to the ‘Being Human’ festival of the humanities, and the opportunity to work together to create tangible outputs. Students identified the need for dedicated spaces for arts and humanities work, in order to support connections across disciplines and to strengthen their own identity as humanities students. Overall, the students on the module are very passionate about and committed to their own subjects, and see great value in what they are doing, but don’t feel that this is shared across society and across higher education more broadly. They found the approach of looking at skills and connections to key shared global concerns novel, and this applied, connected approach was something most had not experienced in their undergraduate career to date (with the exception of students in the areas of politics and public administration).

As I outlined in my first blog post, this module would not usually be included in the undergraduate curriculum – it was designed as part of an alternative programme to their Erasmus experience which had been curtailed due to the pandemic. However, the reaction and response from the students through their reflections and assignments perhaps suggest a need to rethink some of the traditional methods of designing humanities pathways in order to lay the groundwork for later interdisciplinary research cultures to emerge. The passion and enthusiasm that the students have for their disciplines was evident throughout, but they also expressed a certain amount of frustration as to the lack of opportunities to put these skills into practice, and to connect and to work collaboratively with other disciplines throughout their undergraduate experience. Interestingly, they felt that these opportunities would shift the conversation around AHSS disciplines considerably – as well as expanding their own horizons and experiences, they felt that it would allow other disciplines the opportunity to engage with the specific methods of inquiry, nuances and questions typical of humanities departments. While broadening modules provide students with valuable opportunities to experience other disciplinary areas, the integration of modules specifically focused on reflection and articulation in advance of broadening modules can prepare the ground for more sustainable collaboration and interdisciplinary engagement.

[1] European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System

[2] Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

[3] The 2018 Deloitte, Macquarie University report on the value of the humanities is available here: (accessed 7 April 2021)

[4] Mothers of Invention podcast:

The Being Human Festival is led by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London in collaboration with the AHRC and the British Academy:

Nursing Clio blog:

Niamh NicGhabhann is the Assistant Dean, Research, for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in the University of Limerick, and Course Director of the award-winning MA Festive Arts programme. She will be the Chair of the Irish Humanities Alliance from September 2020-August 2021. Her research focuses on ecclesiastical architecture, Irish art history, festivity and the dynamics of public space. ‘Medieval Ecclesiastical Buildings in Ireland, 1789-1915: Building on the Past’ was published by Four Courts Press in 2015, and ‘Ambition and Magnificence: Roman Catholic Architecture in Ireland, 1828-1936’ is forthcoming with Liverpool University Press as part of their Reappraisals in Irish History series.

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