Mind the Gap: Interdisciplinarity in the Secondary and University Classroom

Do disciplinary boundaries still matter? Who is responsible for shaping and defining them? How can we foster better collaboration between disciplines? These are some of the key questions which underpin our project. They are also the focus of a number of collaborative projects which we are running with secondary schools which aim to bridge the gap between schools and universities. In 2017, we have partnered up with two schools (in Surrey and Yorkshire) and have brought together historians, art historians, designers, and students of Italian to rethink the way we approach and teach Italian Futurism. The project culminated in a workshop at Tate Modern, in the beautiful and inspiring setting of Tate Exchange: ‘a space for everyone to collaborate, test ideas and discover new perspectives on life, through art’.

The Sixth Form College in Farnborough (Surrey) has one of the largest cohorts of History students in the UK. Their Modern History Department is committed to widening the students’ understanding of history as a site of cross-disciplinary encounters. Equally inspired and innovative is the approach of the Art History Department at Queen Margaret’s, York. A shared passion for widening the boundaries of disciplinary teaching was the platform for the collaborative project. An unexpected fourth party joined us half way through the project and was responsible for some of the stunning visuals of the workshop. Farnborough’s brilliant Design Department came on board and worked with students before and on the day to produce Futurist-inspired visuals and a pop-up exhibition.

The premises were simple. Both A-level History and Art History students studied Italian Futurism as an example of Italian early 20th-century nationalism and the birth of the European Avant-Garde respectively. The historians were interested in the politics of Futurism and its links with the rise of the Italian Fascist movement. The Art Historians focused on the stylistic features of the movement and read the founding manifesto of Futurism as a means to engage with the thematic choices of artists such as Giacomo Balla and Umberto Boccioni. Design students looked at the graphic work of the Futurists and found inspiration in the typographic innovations of the Italian avant-garde movement. Students at Royal Holloway University of London encounter Futurism at different levels of study and pay special attention to the manifestos as a literary form.

What would happen if we brought them all together and asked them to share their disciplinary perspectives? Would their understanding of the movement change? Would the effect be illuminating or confusing? Would the disciplinary gap be as alarming as that faced by tube passengers in London when they are reminded to ‘mind the gap’? Our experience points in an entirely positive direction. Students were given a small selection of art works, timelines, and brief extracts from the manifestos. They were asked to look at them from their own disciplinary perspective. This would preserve disciplinary expertise.  Tate Exchange acted as a theatre of exchange. Students presented their research, shared their disciplinary expertise, and had a chance to reflect on how differing disciplinary perspectives further knowledge and challenge disciplinary norms and orthodoxies. The point is not to lose or dilute disciplinary expertise but to add a layer of understanding and complexity. This is not a call for the creation of know-it-all generalists. Our idea is that schools and universities can work together to nurture disciplinary experts who are able to ask the right questions that open up their own discipline to other perspectives. The aim is to foster collaboration, knowledge exchange and the co-production of knowledge.

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