Next Thursday is A-Level results day and for the first time in many years I’m anxious, because my goddaughter Saskia is one of those waiting to hear. Across the county new students will begin preparations for moving to university and university departments everywhere will be making final adjustments to their degree programme handbooks.
More and more time is taken by the preparation and revision of welcome packs and other paraphernalia designed to support students through their studies. If much of it is unnoticed by students at the time, I hope they will reflect in future years (as I have) just how much care has gone into creating a supportive environment in which they can flourish. But I bet one really important bit of advice won’t appear in any department’s handbook, though. It’s a really crucial piece of advice, and it’s this:
Remember that you’ve come to university to study a discipline, not a subject.
Let me describe the difference by paraphrasing my colleague Jason Davies, who spends his time thinking about these things.
A discipline is a subject that takes itself as its central problem. Art historians, for example, may study paintings or sculptures, artists or art theory, but at heart they’re most interested in is other art historians. They may eagerly uncover new material on (say) workshop practice in 15th century Florence, but what most excites them is how this material will lead people to revise their views on the subject, and on the methods, aims and scope of art history more broadly.
Am I being too uptight here? Does it really matter? Well, yes, because many students are looking forward to coming to university to study a subject, whereas the university is looking forward to teach them a discipline. This leads to a misunderstanding which may not be apparent to either party but can be spotted in the following scenario.
Hard working and with a longstanding enjoyment of history, Alice is inspired by an A Level tutor to study History of Art and arrives at university with a recent but genuine and keenly interest in fifteenth century Italy. She works hard but can’t understand why her tutor isn’t really excited by the knowledge she diligently marshals in her essays. She is not sure what her tutors mean when they ask her to take more account of the ‘issues’ addressed in the course. She tries to compensate for this by dropping in some theory ‘because it’s university’ and is pleased to find that these efforts are often rewarded with a tick and positive comments in the margin. Still, she feels slightly less at home in renaissance Siena and Florence than she once did, and her marks hover in the low 60s.
Her final year arrives and with the core modules behind her Alice she looks forward to her dissertation. She really enjoys visiting the V&A but she feels embarrassed to talk about anything so untheoretical (in her eyes) with her supervisor, who can’t understand why Alice’s motivation has seemed to drain away during her time in the department. Alice is bored by the ‘theory’ that she applies in the hope that her markers will approve. Her dissertation receives a 67 but she can’t wait to leave the whole thing behind and get a job.
The tragedy, of course, is that Alice’s enthusiasm and diligent research could really light up the field, if only she could see or was told how a discipline was different to a subject. A discipline isn’t about gathering knowledge, it’s about generating knowledge, and about the issues that are raised when we propose new facts. If Alice knew this then she might see the point of engaging in dialogue with other writers, and of using theory to facilitate those conversations. More importantly still, she might see that her every seminar comment and her every essay was helping shape the discipline, albeit in tiny increments. The discipline, you see, is nothing other than the conversations of its practitioners, and this includes her own voice, along with her supervisor’s work, the theorists who so petrified her, and everyone else, peers, tutors, and long-dead luminaries alike.
Alice came to university with a passion for the subject but didn’t flourish because she never realised, and was never told, that the university was teaching a discipline. Her time in the department was like an invitation card to join the community. She she never took it up and nor did anyone tell her the community was dying for her to become a member.
So that’s the advice departments need to pass on to their students. Welcome to the department, welcome to the conversation! Listen to what we’re saying about our subject - which is also yours, by the way - and tell us what you think. We want to hear!