Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences: The Way Forward? (Diana Spencer and the LANS team)

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The Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences (LANS) message is simple: come to Birmingham, where our research breadth becomes your learning depth. But one of the hardest things to characterise and quantify is where the points of intersection between academic and undergraduate research lie. Research is exciting and challenging because it requires the identification of original, significant, messy questions, and may deliver no immediate or recognisable solutions. Sometimes, process rather than outcome is all that we can evaluate, and that can be a difficult model to illuminate for students beginning their university careers. Yet as academics, we know that research is inherently risky, and its most powerful outcomes are, as we argue in LANS, the product of learning to understand what constitutes acceptable or creative risk in different contexts (and how to make failure a way to accelerate learning).

Mentoring students so that they grow in confidence as risk-evaluators and risk-takers is crucial to create a collaborative and supportive environment. The ethos this creates promotes student development as individuals switched on to spotting opportunities and relishing the learning journey as much as the clear destination; it is also a project that cuts across traditional disciplines, and thrives in the greyest areas between them. In a suite of four compulsory core modules (levels C and I) and four optional interdisciplinary modules (level H) LANS has been collaboratively experimenting with four cohorts of undergraduates better to understand how to co-create a slender but progressive interdisciplinary curriculum aimed at generating maximum student ownership of agenda, and also maximising the space for creativity in defining and accelerating novel approaches to messy problems.

Student feedback, alongside an appetite for doing something different with undergraduate study, has been crucial in shaping years 1 and 2 of the LANS curriculum. We now place particular emphasis on students learning through off-campus collaborations with local charitable and social justice organisations to offer legacy value for developing local community agenda. To get to this level of autonomy, students in years 1 and 2 sample and reflect on selected case-studies, often presented as individual masterclasses with Birmingham experts. One highlight of year 1 is a series of sessions taking students from existentialism, through the theory of evolution, to the ripples of evolutionary rhetoric in popular culture. Learning to think laterally across three ‘disciplines’ in this example encourages students to think about how knowledge ‘advances’ are themselves acculturated products of particular human contexts. Year 2 this year took its academic shape from the idea and implications of applying a ‘crisis’ frame of reference in different disciplinary contexts.

Over two years, this curriculum emphasises the significance of students gradually finding their own distinctive voice within a remarkably disciplinary diverse cohort (every LANS student is doing a different degree programme!), learning how to amplify their voice in appropriate ways, and understanding how best to leverage and benefit from the power of collective activity. The final year 2 outcome, campaign videos, produced by student teams and showcasing the power of the non-expert to identify the unexpected, to recognise and reflect on the import of ill-structured problems, and to make disciplinary divides work creatively, becomes more compelling as we see our second student group refine the project (first tested in spring 2016). In collaboration with students, the LANS academic team is therefore also learning and reflecting on what happens when students step up, designing their own multidisciplinary panels of experts from within and without the University to address self-selected ‘problems’, and in leveraging their team’s range of specialisms to spot opportunities.

Research underpins the products and developments achieved across years 1 and 2 for these students, but where next? LANS sees the year 1 and 2 compulsory core as the bed-rock of becoming an autonomous learner in a world ever-more complexly in love/hate with expertise. Finalists from LANS and across the University will now have the chance, from September 2017, to translate their research skills into a different kind of product, a version of themselves alert to the relationship between being able to think transformatively and to create an audience of stakeholders through compelling communication of their ‘product’, in the broadest sense: two pilot modules in Entrepreneurial behaviour.

This means that students will not only be researching, designing, and planning their ‘product’, they will be engaging reflexively and empathetically with potential audiences and at the same time exploring and testing the viability of their ‘product’ within unpredictable contexts. To us, the ability to design and test a research project and its outcomes within the academy is exciting, and remains important for framing disciplinary expertise, but it is far from the end of the story. LANS aspires to get students working creatively and confidently with uncertainty, but also with the variabilities of economic, local, interpersonal, resource and socio-political context, so that their ability to recognise opportunities, to identify how to put together an expert team that is fit-for-putpose, and to produce unexpected outcomes with immediate as well as medium term impact, is maximised.

Professor Diana Spencer
Dean of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences

Department of Classics, Ancient History, and Archaeology
University of Birmingham
Birmingham B15 2TT, UK

t: @DianaJSpencer

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