Interdisciplinarity in practice: Casual academics, regional universities and doctoral supervision

By Dr Elizabeth Ellison

At one stage in my academic career, I spent time teaching into a broad postgraduate degree in which my teaching team and I coordinated cohorts of students in study areas. Mostly, these were what we might consider to be traditional discipline areas, such as creative writing or interactive design. I, on the other hand, was the coordinator of the cohort of “Interdisciplinary” students. While I had some students who were genuinely interested in developing interdisciplinary creative projects, many were aligned with this area because of their lack of a specific disciplinary background.

Of course, most of my students did not really understand interdisciplinarity, or even care much about what it might mean. For them, it was a practical definition that placed them in a cohort with other students who did not quite fit anywhere else. For me, it was a catchall term that meant I had to become very good at understanding student intentions and shaping the conceptualisation of projects that were beyond my own specific expertise. These creative projects, while not part of a research degree, still required a project design that could be appropriately completed in the timeframe and engaged, somewhat, with the idea of innovation.

Interdisciplinarity is unavoidable in creative arts research because of the way it is intrinsically "subjective and personally situated". In more practical terms ... we see projects that fall into messy, hybridised spaces between and amongst disciplines.

As someone who now works in a regional university, I am often grateful to the inherently interdisciplinary nature of my own career pathway up until now. While initially steeped in literary and screen analysis, my work has taken me across many aspects of research and teaching that has ultimately led me to my current position – one that involves guiding a number of postgraduate students (both coursework and research) through varied creative projects. I currently supervise students across many disciplines within the creative arts, and while they are supported by other more discipline-specific colleagues, I feel like an important contributor to their projects thanks to this history advising on what I tend to call “project-ness”. As a casual academic for nearly eight years during and after completing my PhD, this diverse CV meant I appeared “unfocussed” (according to one job rejection letter); however, now I can benefit from this array of experiences and skills I acquired through necessity rather than desire.

Miles and Rainbird (2015) identity how contemporary tertiary education, especially in fine arts, often provides broad interdisciplinary learning opportunities with curricula that may include both practical and critical components, experimental work, and other more transferrable skills. This speaks to the creative industries model of education that suggests creative graduates require a wider array of non-discipline specific skills to match the changing employment environment more reliant on precarious, project-based, freelance modes of paid work (see, for example: Bridgstock and Cunningham 2016; Comunian et al 2010).

Students were confident in their discipline expertise; as such, many of their breakthroughs or challenges emerged in ways beyond the discipline: weaving together distinct, disparate theories and methods with their practice.

Barrett and Bolt (2014, 7) suggested that in many ways, interdisciplinarity is unavoidable in creative arts research because of the way it is intrinsically “subjective and personally situated”. In more practical terms, in an era of growing numbers of creative arts research students, we see projects that fall into messy, hybridised spaces between and amongst disciplines while searching for the ever important “original contribution to knowledge”. But, considering the current state of precariousness in both the creative industries and academia, is interdisciplinary practice helpful or hurtful? It is mostly accepted that students must embrace these generic capabilities – such as professional communication, project management and the ability to collaborate – to improve their job prospects. However, does interdisciplinary practice also develop improved outcomes?

I worked on a project about creative arts research degrees with my colleagues Prof Donna Brien, Prof Craig Batty and A/Prof Alison Owens, and we spoke with a number of current and recently completed students – primarily from regional universities – about their experience. It was telling for us that when asked about breakthroughs and challenges, many of the students were far more interested in what we have thought about as the “invisible” work of the doctoral journey (Batty et al 2019). Many of these students were confident in their discipline expertise; as such, many of their breakthroughs or challenges emerged in ways beyond the discipline: weaving together distinct, disparate theories and methods with their practice; keeping on top of the “project-ness” through time management and self-care; or embracing the transformative nature of owning their authority as an expert.

It is impossible to ignore the importance of interdisciplinarity within the creative arts for our students and also our supervisors. Those of us in regional areas and universities will inevitably find ourselves in a position where we are having to reach beyond our discipline skills, and in fact often find critical mass within other fields completely (for example, nursing or tourism) because of the limitations of smaller disciplines and campuses. While discipline expertise cannot and should not be ignored, embracing broad interdisciplinarity can perhaps be a beacon in precarious industries like arts and academia.

References

Barrett, B., & Bolt, B. (2014). Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. London: I.B. Tauris.

Batty, C., Ellison, E., Owens, A., and Brien, D. L. (2019). ‘Mapping the emotional journey of the doctoral “hero”: Challenges faced and breakthroughs made by creative arts and humanities candidates’. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474022219844986

Bridgstock, R., & Cunningham, S. (2016). ‘Creative labour and graduate outcomes: implications for higher education and cultural policy’. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 22(1):10-26. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10286632.2015.1101086

Comunian, R., Faggian, A. and Li, Q. C. 2010. ‘Unrewarded careers in the creative class: The strange case of bohemian graduates’. Papers in Regional Science, 89 (2): 389-410. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1435-5957.2010.00281.x


Dr Elizabeth Ellison is a Senior Lecturer at CQUniversity, and the Academic Coordinator of CQU’s Creative Arts Research Training Academy (CARTA). She is interested in creative arts postgraduate education, regional arts and evaluation, and has a special research interest in the Australian beach.