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The Evolution of Discipline Communities 

22 Nov 2018 | Dr Kay Hack (Principal Adviser for Learning and Teaching with Advance HE), reflects on the evolution of discipline communities. "Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’.”  

Self-knowledge and the Cognitive Revolution

Insights from historian and philosopher, Yuval Noah Harari, go some way to explaining why academics, like other sapiens, cluster together in their discipline communities. This innate tribal nature of humanity helped us survive when we were situated firmly in the middle of the food chain competing with other apes. We like to communicate with ‘people like us’; people who are passionate about the same things and have the same values. We are willing to work altruistically with others, in the belief that our actions will benefit our tribe. For academics, their discipline community reflects their professional identity. Members of a discipline community have a shared culture, manifest through a shared understanding of the teaching challenges. Pooled resources, insights and approaches provide the glue to bind the community.

The Agricultural Revolution

Subject Centres supported the development of ‘settled’ discipline communities. Academics no longer had to forage for subject-specific resources to support their teaching. Subject Centres provided the environment that allowed the development of what Harare calls the ‘myths and fiction’  that allowed Sapiens to co-operate successfully. ‘Myths and fiction‘ condition us "to think in certain ways and behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things and to observe certain rules”.  They establish the culture of the community. For a discipline community, the “myths and fiction” would include agreeing the core knowledge and ways of thinking that constitute a subject and how it is taught. 

“It takes a tribe to raise a human”.

The Subject Centres led the way in identifying discipline-specific pedagogies, nourishing Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) and establishing it as a distinct area of academic practice, and providing credible, relevant, subject-specific resources. 

Many Subject Centres nurtured their young, providing discipline-specific New to Teaching courses and mentorship. They developed resources to support the propagation of the culture, and provided a collective voice to allow communication with other tribes including professional bodies, employers and the secondary sector. 

However, strong, self-sufficient communities can become isolated. Tribes that are unwilling or unable to learn from other tribes, those that are resistant to incomers with new ideas, or lack the agility to respond to changes in the landscape, risk extinction when the climate changes.

The Ice Age 

In response to funding cuts, the HEA reshaped its approach to supporting discipline communities. Discipline support was delivered via a more centralised model across four subject ‘clusters’; STEM, Arts and Humanities, Health and Social Care and the Social Sciences. In doing so, the HEA continued to provide flexible, cost-effective and efficient support for academic practice in the disciplines, whilst addressing cross-cutting themes such as employability, assessment and feedback, flexible learning and retention. But, it is fair to say, that some of the discipline communities felt a little lost in their new tribe, it was too big and too diverse, for them to feel a sense of belonging .

Harare argues that people will readily accept the removal of a culture; as long as it is replaced by a new culture. The discipline clusters possibly did not have a strong enough culture to sustain and endear them to the membership.

Survival of the Fittest?

Some discipline communities survived and thrived despite the cuts. Learned Societies such as the Royal Society of Economics, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Society of Biology continue to play an important role in supporting the development and sharing of best practices for tertiary level education within their respective disciplines. The proliferation of digital communication tools has enabled the emergence of new discipline-based and thematic discipline communities. Platforms from a simple listserv, to Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter, WhatsApp etc. can be selected to meet the group needs: synchronicity, anonymity, public or private, general or specific. LTHEChat and the creativeHE community are two notable success stories that use different platforms and approaches to connect members. 

Digital communication tools provide opportunities to connect individuals across disciplines, institution, and nations, making it possible to simultaneously belong to many different groups. However the defining features of a community have not changed. The members of the community must have common interests and values. Anyone can set up a communal space for a community, but for a community to grow in that space, it needs to be valued and useful to the participants. The conveners of the community must have legitimacy and credibility to be trusted by the community- this is best achieved when the conveners are the community.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The Higher Education landscape has changed significantly since the last HEA funded Subject Centre closed in 2012. There is a breadth of high quality open educational resources, so the critical issues are no longer around developing course content, but the wider curriculum offer. The challenges for course teams lie primarily in developing curricula that deliver student success for a larger and more diverse student body, whilst addressing a plethora of other metrics including student satisfaction, retention, inclusivity and attainment gaps. 

The discipline offer is also changing. Future graduates will be tasked with addressing the growing societal challenges of climate change, sustainable energy and clean water, which are beyond the scope of any individual discipline. Industry 4.0 will result in the erosion of graduate jobs - presenting challenges for many vocational courses, driving the need for rapid upskilling and reskilling of the workforce, and shorter and more flexible degree programmes. 

Institutions are responding. There has been a steady rise in interdisciplinary offers through Liberal Arts, Joint degrees, or providing more student choice in how, what, when and where they learn. The opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary projects, as curricular, co-curricular or extra-curricular activity is valued by students and employers.  In this environment, questions about the core knowledge and ways of thinking that comprise individual subjects become more significant.

Harare argues that, as a result of states and markets:

" Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals.”

Pedagogic research and SOTL engender a collaborative culture in the UK. There is a fear that league tables and the perceived marketization of Higher Education may change this behaviour, leading to more ‘alienated individuals’. This can only have a negative impact on individuals, their institutions and their students. 

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