This introductory blog post, by Chris Perkins and Jackie Barnhart, outlines the background behind a two-year project, which will explore ways to make joint degrees ‘the best they can possibly be’….
The wide range of joint degree programmes at the UoE is one of our greatest strengths. Students not only benefit from the four-year degree structure, which actively encourages a broad-based interdisciplinary education, but, through joint degrees, they are able to tailor their experiences to individual goals.
However, like many Schools across the university, in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures (LLC), we feel that joint degrees can offer an even better experience for our students. To that end, we have embarked upon a two-year project, supported by the LLC management committee and the College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, to work out how we can make joint degrees the best they can possibly be. For your reading pleasure, we will chronicle our endeavours on the Teaching Matters blog as the story unfolds. These blog posts will be published on the first Monday of every month over the next two years. We will be looking at issues that explicitly address the monthly themes for Teaching Matters, which include, among others, student engagement, interdisciplinary courses and programmes, internationalisation, widening participation, and research-led teaching.
Let’s start with a sense of what we are trying to achieve during this project. When we started talking about joint degrees we quickly realised that they offer enormous benefits to our academic communities. At their best, students from history, literature, politics, and (in my case) Japanese puzzling over problems together is an incredibly rich experience of interdisciplinary exchange and genuine discovery, and is exactly the sort of learning experience we should be fostering more broadly throughout the University.
But, for this process to work, students on joint degrees need a support system that fits the unique interdisciplinary experience. What does this system need to do? Here are some of our (very speculative) thoughts so far:
- Belonging and community: Joint degree students need to feel a sense of belonging and community. By definition, joint degree students move between departments within and beyond individual schools. As such, it may be difficult to feel the same sense of rootedness in an academic community as single honours students. An ideal joint degree would offer this community and belonging, and we need to think hard about physical and virtual solutions to this problem.
- Programme level learning outcomes: Joint degrees should have their own programme level learning outcomes. We need to recognise that the outcome of studying two subjects is more than just the sum of its parts.
- Bridging disciplines: Joint degree students need support to understand the relationship between their disciplines. Currently, joint degree students take a range of courses from both of their subject areas. But when do they get the chance reflect in a structured way on how those disciplines interact? Perhaps we can use our course credits strategically to provide a space for this reflection. For us in LLC, where most of our students do a compulsory year abroad, it feels that time in the host country could be put aside for a project that applies joint degree training to their experiences, perhaps in the form of a SLICC or other credit bearing course.
- Authentic and innovative assessment: The joint degree should culminate in a final output that is specific to that subject combination. Most of our students complete an extended piece of writing in honours, whether it be a dissertation, project or long essay. These projects for joint degree students could be the place where students demonstrate their ability to synthesise the two sides of their degree and produce something innovative and exciting.
- Clear communication pathways: It must be acknowledged that joint degrees and joint degree students can’t just look after themselves. Communications between subject areas staff-members and students must be simple, clear and consistent. This might necessitate new thinking about how we communicate. Is email the best method for keeping everyone in the loop? What can we learn about communication from outside the university sector? Do tools like Slack or Yammer offer useful alternatives for efficient and inclusive conversations about our degrees?
- Appropriate quality assurance: Finally, we need to make sure programme governance supports excellent joint degree experiences. What can we do to make sure quality is recognised and expanded upon, and that, when we fall short, we make sure we do better next time?
So, lots of questions! And here is another one: what will we do next? The first phase of our project will involve a thorough review of student feedback, programme structures, governance processes and external reports concerning joint degrees. We will also be talking to staff and students about what their ideal joint programme would look like so that we can make sure we are taking into account a broad range of perspectives. If you are interested in what we are up to, we encourage you to get in touch with us about your own thoughts and experiences of joint degrees!