Module 3: Reflective Assignment

Disciplinarity in Higher Education

[Note: This reflection results from a critical issue of disciplinarity I discussed with Dr Ian Willis during the Skype tutorial that formed a part of the DDP associated with module 3.]

During module 3, I felt a growing discomfort regarding the depth to which any topic was studied. A 10-week module can never provide the width nor the depth of coverage that, say, a dedicated 4-year undergraduate course does. Module 2, for example, covered learning theories, supposedly at the doctoral level, yet a brief survey of undergraduate education major reading lists shows that the Ed.D. requires far less. The focus of module 3 is organisational structure and management, and yet again, any undergraduate business course far exceeds the Ed.D. scope. Presumably, this pattern continues for the nine modules. The cognitive architecture of doctoral candidates allows for a much more complex and uniquely insightful relationship with the study material than what is typical in an undergraduate course, and the fact that candidates are required to have at least three years of professional experience prior to starting this study adds a degree of depth lacking in younger student cohorts. Yet the typical new bachelor’s graduate will hold a body of academic field, or disciplinary, knowledge that clearly surpasses the curriculum in this section of the Ed.D. This begs the question: is this course really a prime exemplar of what has been called a “Ph.D.-lite” (Shulman, Golde, Bueschel, & Garabedian, 2006, p. 27)?

Dr Willis reassured me that from the thesis stage of the course, the opportunity to extend my learning to a suitably expert level is not only available but expected. He related his own experience of his Ph.D. study in which he developed a doctoral level of breadth and depth in his own field, and expected that I will do the same. However, that study is a full 18 months ahead, and the idea of waiting until then to begin my doctoral study reveals a contradiction in my approach to these 18 months. It is this contradiction that I shall explore in this reflection essay. The base question is: what have I misunderstood about the Ed.D. that has led me to my pejorative conception of the taught section of the course?

Issues in Disciplinarity

Parry (2007) sums up a dominant tenet regarding doctoral study that “a central focus in doctoral research must be upon the categorisation of subject matter in relation to disciplinary knowledge bases” (p. 17). This statement contains a number of elements that require unpacking. We may ask about the relationship of subject matter to knowledge base and both of these to what it means to study a discipline. The U.K.’s Higher Education Quality Assurance Agency states that; “All U.K. doctorates, however, continue to require the main focus of the candidate’s work to be their contribution to knowledge in their discipline or field” (QAA, 2011, p. 7). The notion of discipline (leaving the distinction between discipline and field for the moment) is emphasised, but this raises two related questions: what constitutes discipline for higher education studies; and what role do short modules have in enabling the candidate to contribute to that discipline?

As Wang notes “only when knowledge becomes a discipline, can it be called a science”, and the historic trend is to treat education as a science (Wang, 2007, p. 64). Yet education overlaps significantly, although not perfectly with psychology, and it shares a foundation with philosophy (Wang, 2007). What then is the positional status of psychology and philosophy to education; parent or feeder disciplines? If parent, should not the Ed.D. course be primarily centred on educational psychology and educational philosophy? If feeder, where are the demarcation lines, who decides them and what extent do they have in the Ed.D.? Although Wang’s argument is weak for many reasons, not least in the lack of consideration of many other potential parent or feeder subjects, such as sociology, scientific theory, or any of the topics educationalist actually have to teach, the underlying question is valid. Also Wang is discussing general education, not higher education. This further distinction adds more layers of complexity because the core of the discipline loses some of the child- (i.e. pedagogic) centred approaches to many psychological theories of learning and in doing so diffuses the focus away from learning. Perhaps this explains why much of higher education studies’ attention is on policy, structure, organisational environment instead of on as-yet unconfirmed notions of andragogy. I suspect not, however, because due to the autonomy preserved in the classroom by most higher education teachers in the notion of academic freedom which limits access to scientific modes of inquiry, the investigation of learning and teaching systems must necessarily be curtailed. What is left becomes, by default, the curriculum, begging the question; Does this legitimise the curriculum?

And this was the at the core of my discomfort: the feeling that elements were being thrown together, presented vaguely and studied haphazardly.

Towards an Understanding of Disciplinarity in Higher Education

This section of the reflection describes a powerful sense of growth I achieved following the tutorial session after Dr Willis urged me to reflect on my continuing unease. I chart the development from having a vague discomfort that the Ed.D. content was rather ad hoc to realising that my own conceptions of the notion of discipline were immature.

In this journey, Sugimoto and Weingart’s (2015) study was instrumental in providing the cognitive framework to reframe my understanding of discipline. I was negatively affected by subconscious ideas of conservatism that prioritised tradition and authority over critical reasoning. They argue that “The maturation of a discipline is perhaps best represented by its institutionalisation” (p. 780), highlighting a crucial irony in doctoral study, one that I need to assimilate better. The doctoral journey is a unique road for all, yet ultimately the degree is awarded by the University who assesses a similarity in all successful candidates. Parry sums up this irony succinctly; “These qualities, though often difficult to define and articulate, are nonetheless instantly recognisable by examiners of considerable standing in their fields” (Parry, 2007, p. 3). I had internalised the notion that traditional and institutionalised (Sugimoto & Weingart, 2015, p. 780) knowledge were essentially superior. Rather than feel ill at ease with a preconception of ad hoc-ness, I needed to ask another question; does this apparent ad hoc-ness actually constitute a genuine need for a new discipline?

Bernstein (1996) defines disciplinarity writing “a discourse as a singular is a discourse which has appropriated a space to give itself a unique name” (in Martin, 2011, p. 36), examples of which are physics, chemistry and so on. Bernstein recognises the historicity and subsequent temporality of disciplinarity. Discourse requires time and place, and the establishment of a discourse text needs the approval of a body of authors. Sugimoto and Weingart draw upon Foucault to emphasise the “system of control in the production of discourse” (in Sugimoto & Weingart, 2015, p. 775). Note, too, the term singular and the singular noun forms used in Bernstein. Upon consideration, this turns out to be deceptive. Wilson (1999) presents his theory of consilience, that a single event can be understood from multiple perspectives and that a single theory can be constructed that allows a place inside it for those perspectives. The concept of height, for example, can be measured in metric, imperial or Japanese sun measurements. An object’s height can also be seen as a function of biological or material dimensions. Furthermore height can be felt emotionally. And so on. Even the traditional disciplines have significant overlaps in core subject matter. Does this make chemistry or physics or economics branches of mathematics?

Once such an understanding is reached, many more questions cascade to extinguish remnant superiority notions erstwhile held by tradition and authority. The salient ones here for me was: why should a historical convergence of subject matter into a single discipline, e.g. sociology, economics, psychology, etc., take precedence over later ones such as education and higher education? Why should the so-called parent or feeder disciplines have priority over newer disciplines? Who has the right to control such narratives, and how does that control relate to academia? Such a study of the sociology of knowledge as it relates to normative pressures in higher education would be revealing. Parry (2007) goes a long way towards this goal but is limited to doctoral study.

Space forbids an exposition of higher education subject matter. While recognising that my conception of disciplinarity in higher education has radically altered, my concluding remarks are limited to the positioning of higher education within a more productive narrative. One of Sugimoto and Weingart’s elements is social need. In Japan, there are over 800 accredited institutes of higher education (Yamada, 2014) providing tuition to over 3 million students. This provides sufficient justification for its own study. And my own conservative psychological weaknesses about the value of tradition can be challenged by remembering Znanieck’s (1940) observation that researchers have realised that the days of grand, overarching theories are passed and that their work is only relevant to fragments of society (in Coser, 1968).


Coser, L. A. (1968). Sociology of knowledge. In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Vol. 7, pp. 428–434). Macmillan.

Martin, J. R. (2011). Bridging Troubled Waters: Interdisciplinarity and what makes it stick. In F. Christie & K. Maton (Eds.), Disciplinarity: Functional Linguistic and Sociological Perspectives (London, pp. 35–61). Continuum.

Parry, S. (2007). Disciplines and doctorates. Dordrecht: Springer.

QAA. (2011). Doctoral degree characteristics.

Shulman, L. S., Golde, C. M., Bueschel, a. C., & Garabedian, K. J. (2006). Reclaiming Education’s Doctorates: A Critique and a Proposal. Educational Researcher, 35(3), 25–32.

Sugimoto, C. R., & Weingart, S. (2015). The kaleidoscope of disciplinarity. Journal of Documentation, 71(4), 775–794.

Wang, H. (2007). Education: a discipline or a field? Frontiers of Education in China, 2(1), 63–73.

Wilson, E. O. (1999). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. New York: Vintage Books.

Yamada, R. (2014). Measuring quality of undergraduate education in Japan: Comparative perspective in a knowledge based society. (R. Yamada, Ed.). Singapore: Springer.



About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a private university.
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