Wading through the weeds: The necessity of mentorship in an interdisciplinary environment

Photograph of the Princes street Gardens showing the fountain and Edinburgh castle
Photo by Michael Porter, Pexels, CC0

In this post, Zhi Kang Chua, a postgraduate student at the Edinburgh Futures Institute↗️ highlights the value of mentorship and shares his reflections engaging with the contemporary city spaces through fieldwork. This post belongs to the July-August Learning & Teaching Enhancement theme: Learning and Teaching Conference 2023↗️.

When I was invited to participate in the Learning and Teaching Conference panel discussing our experiences teaching and learning about fieldwork in the contemporary city, I thought it was a great opportunity to share my reflections from my year at the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI)↗️. Throughout this year, I had the opportunity to experience different modes of teaching and learning. Few things have had as big an influence on my intellectual development as the use of fieldwork to study the contemporary city. In this piece, I’ll be reflecting on my learning experience, both in the course Cities as Creative Sites↗️ and in my dissertation, and linking these reflections to my experience of interdisciplinary education at the EFI.

Developing effective learning strategies with these open-ended field-based methodologies requires significant mentorship and guidance from academic staff. This poses a challenge in EFI’s interdisciplinary environment, which I hold can be overcome through progressive reforms that have already been clearly voiced.

Coming into EFI’s interdisciplinary environment with a background in English Literature, I was immediately challenged by the brief in ‘Cities as Creative Sites’. We were asked to create a site story centred around the Princes Street Gardens. Despite encouragement from the tutors to embrace the different ways our work could be interpreted by an audience, my group remained anxious about appearing unclear in the message, which critiqued the ableist space that characterised the gardens. On reflection, my part in this group anxiety was borne out of an academic background where I trained to avoid ambiguity in my response to critical issues – or, as a tutor put it, ‘argue, argue, argue’. This shared anxiety initially led my group towards a heavy-handed response in developing our creative piece, which we toned down after receiving formative feedback. While frustrating, this experience gave me substantial insight into what engaging with the city creatively through fieldwork meant. In developing the mental frameworks that enabled me to engage with fieldwork without pre-determining my conclusions or arguments, Cities as Creative Sites provided me with the foundational mental frameworks that empowered me to expand on this intellectual thread in my dissertation.

Unsurprisingly for someone who had only spent a fraction of the year engaging with the city through fieldwork, the same anxiety reared its head in my dissertation. I felt this particularly acutely when I was back home in Singapore on research leave, gathering field data about spatial practices. I was fortunate to have a dedicated supervisor who patiently guided me through the different intellectual and creative frameworks that I needed to succeed in this heretofore unfamiliar task. While the process of gathering field data has, at times, been sources of frustration and anxiety, I received valuable guidance and mentorship that enabled me to move towards more productive ways of working with the unpredictable and chaotic urban environment.

However, the level of mentorship that gave me the footing I needed to feel confident in approaching fieldwork in the city can also be difficult to implement in a larger classroom setting, given the individual attention needed to shift some pretty entrenched ways of thinking. EFI’s interdisciplinary context means that students will pick up entirely new content and mental frameworks throughout their studies, as we all enter our degrees from vastly different backgrounds.

The curriculum is currently structured by an equitable division of credits across six, 10-credit courses per semester. However, I’ve frequently found that credit allocation does not cohere with the actual amount of work required to pick up even a working knowledge of the discipline. As a result, my peers and I frequently found ourselves putting in more effort than course credits have accounted for. To be clear, this is not a criticism of the course content and pedagogical approaches, but a provocation to planners and administrators considering programme structures and credit weightings in an interdisciplinary environment.

A broad-based education is key to developing an interdisciplinary, future-oriented outlook. Hence, more attention needs to be given to the learning needs of each individual student. EFI offers us the incredible opportunity to structure our learning in a myriad of ways, and it has provided me the chance to stretch myself intellectually in ways I couldn’t have imagined a year ago. This value proposition can be better actualised through resourcing that prioritises academic staff members’ capacity to provide mentorship, rather than mere teaching.

I’m glad that the University has opened up more avenues for teaching staff members to advance in tandem with their research colleagues, but all staff members must be paid more. The labour that goes into providing this level of mentorship has not been adequately recognised and compensated by University management and the wider higher education sector, as evinced by the present sorry state of affairs.

In sum, taking on the challenge of adopting field-based methodologies in my coursework and research has been a challenging but rewarding experience. The pedagogical and learning commitment needed, however, could be better supported through fairer compensation and increased curriculum resourcing. Interdisciplinary learning is incredibly rewarding, but it needs progressive structural reforms to realise its full potential.

You can watch Zhi talk on the panel ‘Developing a field-based methodology for learning and teaching in the contemporary city: A conversation across disciplines‘ in the video below: 

photograph of the authorZhi Kang Chua

Zhi Kang Chua is a postgraduate student at the Edinburgh Futures Institute. His MSc dissertation sits at the intersection of urban governance and narratives in his home country of Singapore.

One comment

  1. Thanks so much, Zhi – what a great blog! It’s so good to see how inspiring (if challenging) you found this new way of thinking and approaching your studies. I fully agree on the benefits of good mentorship in an interdisciplinary context (or maybe everywhere?). In fact, I agree with pretty much everything you say. Although your final conclusion – that staff need to be paid more – is not the only one that can be drawn. There may be other ways of designing an exciting and coherent programme of learning and teaching rather than by chopping it up into small (10 credit) chunks all of which are assessed separately – leading to huge workloads for both students and staff. I, for one, would rather spend more time mentoring students who work independently towards their own goals instead of reading dozens of very similar essays on questions I have come up with.

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