Wherefore art thou…undergraduate education?

Sarah Ivory feature photo
Global Challenges for Business Poster Presentation Award Night in the Playfair Library, Dr Sarah Ivory with winning students. Photo credit: Eoin Carey.

In this post, Dr Sarah Ivory, a lecturer in the Business School, reflects on why an interdisciplinary course is so important to prepare undergraduate business students for professional employment in an uncertain world…

If you ask academics ‘what is the purpose of undergraduate education?’, you’d get as many answers as academics you approach. Yet it was this question that informed my thinking in relation to the overhaul of our first-year compulsory undergraduate course.  Now, each September, I stand in front of 350 new university students who are full of enthusiasm and anticipation, and I hope that my answer is right, and that my course Global Challenges for Business provides them with what they need.

Because, for me, the many complexities and intricacies of my answer to that question coalesce around two approaches to achieve three outcomes:

The approaches

  1. To teach students how to think, not what to think.
  2. To enable students to explore their chosen discipline (in my case, business), within the context of other disciplines with which it is fundamentally intertwined.

The outcomes

  1. To support their transition to university scholarship.
  2. To lay the foundation for professional employment.
  3. To help them to embrace an interconnected, diverse world as global citizens.

If you consider these approaches and outcomes you will see that they are transdisciplinary: they could usefully be applied to any discipline across the university.  Moreover, the second approach and third outcome in particular are interdisciplinary; they are borne from grappling with multiple disciplines simultaneously.

A politics student must also be a scholar – at least to some degree – of philosophy, history, or geography. These are (just some) of the disciplines on which politics draws, and to which politics contributes.

Equally, a business student must also be a scholar – at least to some degree – of politics, psychology or environmental sciences, among others.

Studying business out with the context of such other disciplines would be like studying how a human develops in an isolated, sterile cell – (potentially) academically interesting but in no way reminiscent of reality.

My course introduces students to (a selection of) interdisciplinary topics which are relevant to business.  I teach these in two weekly lectures, and my team of experienced teaching assistants lead a 2-hour small group topic seminar discussion (no slides!).  Topics include societal and human disruption at a large scale (mass migration) and a small scale (identity), environmental disruption (climate change), globalisation and implications for inequality and international development. Do we examine such interdisciplinary topics in detail? No. But do we explore the ways in which other disciplines impact on, and are impacted by, business?  Absolutely:

[The most valuable part of the course was] the ability to see the whole picture of the business world and discover about the challenges facing it and how to solve them.

– Anonymous student post-course feedback (2017-18)

However, crucially, my course also teaches students three specific skills informed by a critical thinking lens, which are transdisciplinary. These are Quality of Argument, Strength of Evidence, and Clarity of Presentation. Rather than these being ‘add-ons’, or buried in the expected learning objectives, they are explicitly taught through a weekly lecture and small group skills workshop. The students learn about the skill and are then given the space and guidance (again, by my team of outstanding teaching assistants) to apply and practice it. Ultimately, this teaches students how to think by structuring, supporting and communicating arguments:

The focus on critical thinking was what I found most valuable. I didn’t truly see the value of the course until I had to use what I had learned in the various assignments.

– Anonymous student post-course feedback (2017-18)

Embracing such interdisciplinary topics and transdisciplinary skills means my students will be better university scholars, cope better with professional employment and, crucially in this uncertain world, be better able to embrace and even improve the interconnected, diverse world in which we all live. Ultimately, they won’t just be ‘Business’ graduates, they will be rounded ‘University’ graduates:

…I was thrown by the seemingly low quantity of ‘content’ (fact based) and the holistic/potentially ambiguous approach/nature of the course …  It is quite a luxury to have a course designated to this (if it was optional I would have been very unlikely to take it) … However, having gone through the first week, I am pleased that this course is a requirement. I am certain I will greatly develop a broad skill set that will be invaluable throughout my university career … I am looking forward to continuing with it.

– Anonymous student feedback from current year (2018-19) student at the end of Week

Sarah Ivory

Dr Sarah Birrell Ivory is a Lecturer in the Business School. After almost ten years working in the business world she transitioned to an academic career. She has been working at the University of Edinburgh for almost a decade, teaching MBA, Masters and Undergraduate students. Her research explores sustainability, social enterprise, and more recently, the pedagogy of critical thinking. She has a B.Com (Hons) from the University of Melbourne, an MBA from Melbourne Business School, and a MSc (By Research) and PhD from the University of Edinburgh.

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