Thursday, May 10, 2012

On history and geography

For me history and geography are twins. I mean human geography, which is the kind I am concerned with. Those who look for an oxbow lake whenever they hear the word “geography” will be disappointed by this post.

In changemooc we've been working on a variety of issues about the openness of education.   E.g. the whole idea of connectivism, which breaks disciplinary boundaries by organising according to student experience. In H812 we've been working on disciplinary differences. There's a big movement in education to define and privilege the differences between disciplines with the implication that this must have profound impacts on teaching methods. To an extent I can see that this is true. If you're teaching things to which there is an exact answer, such as a mathematical problem or a chemical formula, then you must teach exactness of method, and intolerance for inaccuracy, except where defined as permissible. If you're teaching sociology then you must teach the primacy of viewpoint and relativity as a method, or the whole thing goes to pot.  But many things also remain the same. Students still have to learn how to learn, how to study, how to approach answers, how to become independent. Perhaps the implications are bigger for teaching than they are for learning, but I do wonder how big they are. Maths - exactness, sociology - relativity. The difference is so obvious that it can be taken as obvious. I'm not convinced of the need to build a superstructure around it of disciplinary method which is wholly and exclusively owned by that discipline, and must, really, really must, be differentiated from what other disciplines do. Some suggest (e.g. Healey, M (2000) Developing the Scholarship of Teaching and learning in higher Education: a discipline-based approach, Higher Education Research and Development, Vol 19, 3, pp 169 – 189) that this is to do with academic training, that people are brought up within a discipline and get thoroughly and forcefully socialised in that discipline's ways, and also taught some kind of exclusivity, that this is how we do it, and it's completely different from the way everybody else does it. It's the idea that difference has to be exclusive that bothers me. I don't have a problem with methodical rigour, I do have a problem with exclusivity that prevents people from working across boundaries.
I never got this kind of exclusive training. I didn't get trained beyond undergraduate status, and in any case my first degree was in classics, which is multidisciplinary. Thirty years later I got a degree in social sciences which has always been my first love. Social science is pretty multidisciplinary too. I've done research, and had it published, on the basis of my jack-of-all-trades skills, and it has been reasonably well received, so I don't feel lost without the kind of disciplinary loyalties that some of my colleagues display.

It wouldn't bother me much what other people do except for the preciousness which they sometimes display in defending their disciplinary turf against some outside interference, and the petty level to which this can descend. It has, however, begun to bother me lately, because I love teaching both geography (of the human variety) and history. But it's very difficult to cross those (in my view, artificially exaggerated) disciplinary boundaries. In my view you can't teach one without the other. You can't do time without space or space without time. Yet, not only are they different disciplines, in the OU as in many universities, they are in completely different faculties. History is in humanities and geography is in social science. History is deemed to have more to with music, philosophy and art appreciation than with geography. Geography is deemed to have more to do with psychology and social policy than with history. Go figure.

This is a big problem for openness in education, to return to my changemooc theme, because openness in learning requires moving across disciplinary boundaries in response to the demands of the real, complex world. And that means having to leap across trenches which some of my colleagues are assiduously deepening and widening as we try to make connections. There has to be a better way to preserve the necessary skills for each discipline without digging those trenches.. I don't know what it is, but there has to be.