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Public humanities and interdisciplinarity – laying the groundwork in the classroom

by Niamh NicGhabhann

As a researcher, I am passionate about interdisciplinary research. I have experienced the benefits of working in interdisciplinary teams, and the exciting forward movement when working in a collaborative, trusting environment with other experts. As a teacher and supervisor, however, I am still building ways to facilitate interdisciplinary skills and experiences for students. This, I feel, is a key challenge for interdisciplinary research. In order to harness the benefits of interdisciplinarity, we need to think about interdisciplinary education, and the ways that we can build a culture of interdisciplinary thinking and practicing across our university infrastructure.

As many people have experienced, the COVID-19 pandemic is making things happen in ways that I hadn’t thought possible before. This autumn, I’ll be leading a module in public humanities for over 400 undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Limerick who would, in happier circumstances, have been on their Erasmus exchange placements. At the same time, I’ll be working towards launching a new structured PhD in public humanities. Why? Interdisciplinary research requires disciplinary expertise, trust, networks and funding, but it also requires a culture of self-awareness and articulation. In my experience, education and research at undergraduate and postgraduate levels within humanities disciplines focus on disciplinary excellence and skilled capacity, but rarely offer opportunities to model and experience the integration of that excellence and skilled capacity within interdisciplinary contexts. While we often cite the invaluable transferable skills that humanities graduates develop and bring to their careers, we are less likely to provide clear and concrete examples of how they operate in different contexts. The potential for interdisciplinary engagement, therefore, is often left implicit rather than explicit, requiring students to make the leap from their individual disciplinary space into a potential collaborative environment with few models in place.

The public or ‘applied’ humanities provides a valuable space for discussing the different ways that humanities perspectives can inform different arenas. As Susan Smulyan writes, ‘public humanities happens in collaboration’, at a juncture between praxis and scholarship.[1] It is about ‘doing’, about taking what Frans W. A. Brom calls the ‘interpretive disciplinary traditions of the humanities’ and putting them in conversation with complex emerging problems.[2] We already see this in action around us today – the importance, for example, of providing culturally appropriate public health advice in different languages, but we don’t necessarily link this to the insight and skill of applied linguists working in collaboration with science communicators. This new module will give me the opportunity to work with these 400 students on their own exploration and articulation of the expertise and capacity that their education to date has given them, and to examine and explore the potential ways in which their disciplinary knowledge can be mobilised and engaged across a whole range of contexts and areas. It will look at both the identification of skills, and the exploration of the different ways that this skill base can be mobilised, including place-making projects, public policy and public health development, social justice and social entrepreneurships initiatives, media literacy and impactful storytelling, the creative arts and creative industries, and ethics within technology.

I believe that this dual work of self-reflection and articulation, and modelling forward will enable new perspectives on the essential role of humanities disciplines across multiple fields, within and beyond research. I’m also a big believer in models, and in learning from examples of practice that can inspire fresh thinking, so I will be gleaning teaching material from resources such as the SHAPE-ID website as I work on developing the curriculum. The importance of creating space for this work – institutional, curricular and disciplinary space – is also highlighted by Brom, who states that the humanities require ‘specific institutions in which subject-specific research is combined with knowledge-intensive policy service’. Without such spaces, he argues, the humanities will continue to lack the necessary ‘institutional power’ to engage with policy.[3]

The development of the structured PhD in public humanities at UL springs from the same impulse as the undergraduate teaching initiative – to find a structured way of recognising the skilled work of humanities expertise as it is mobilised across multiple arenas and domains. Again, the first step here is about self-reflection and the articulation of the skilled work of engaging humanities expertise in interdisciplinary, complex environments, looking at flexibility, communication, and the integration of complex thinking and knowledge within different environments. The work of recognising and articulating this expert capacity as a practice draws on the research methods developed by creative practice researchers, and this model is very apt in the context of the fluid, flexible work involved in public humanities. The development of these programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels will, I hope, enable interdisciplinarity within university systems by providing students and researchers with a structured environment in which to think about their disciplinary expertise in interdisciplinary contexts.

We are increasingly aware that interdisciplinary teams will facilitate the research base required to address some of the most complex problems and challenges facing the contemporary world. In order to build a robust culture of interdisciplinarity, we need to value and invest in the development of research skills across the disciplines, but we also need to embed interdisciplinary capacity within teaching and learning initiatives across our university systems. At a time of great change and uncertainty, I am looking forward to engaging in this shared work of reflection and creativity with students in the coming academic year, and to exploring the new horizons that it uncovers.

[1] Susan Smulyan, ‘Introduction’, Doing Public Humanities (Abingdon: Routledge, 2021), xii.

[2] Frans W. W. Brom, ‘Institutionalizing applied humanities: enabling a stronger role for the humanities in interdisciplinary research for public policy.’ Palgrave Commun 5, 72 (2019), p. 2. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-019-0281-2

[3] Brom, ‘Institutionalizing applied humanities’, p. 2.

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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