Annemarie Horn on the importance of interdisciplinary education

Portretfoto van postdoc onderzoeker Annemarie Horn
If you do not offer interdisciplinarity, you are not adequately preparing students for a lot of careers
Annemarie Horn
Current role
Postdoctoral researcher

Annemarie Horn is a postdoctoral researcher in inter- and transdisciplinary research and education at Radboud University. She recently obtained her PhD at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. While there, she developed a master's course for students of all disciplines. At Radboud University, she is involved in the development of a master's course that helps introduce interdisciplinarity and a new interfaculty master's programme that focuses on sustainability topics. She talks about her experiences with interdisciplinary education.

Preparing students for their career

‘Many careers are not disciplinary by nature. If you provide people with disciplinary education, you mostly prepare them for a PhD or an academic career during which you might be able to do disciplinary work in relative isolation. If you do not pursue an academic career, you will almost certainly work with people from different disciplines. If interdisciplinarity is not part of the education you offer, then you are not adequately preparing students for a lot of careers. I think it is the university's responsibility that you can already learn what that will be like in a safe environment, during your studies.'

Overlap and differences between disciplines

‘During the courses I taught for my PhD research, we asked students to all bring an article from their own discipline. We read the articles together and that resulted in interesting conversations. A medical student would say about a sociological article: ‘I find this really bad. How can you draw conclusions based on a sample of only fifteen people?’. A sociology student would respond: ‘Okay, but your article talks about the wellbeing and health of people, but I only see percentages. How do these people really feel?’

‘It is interesting to see that there are differences in what we as the knowledge generation see as good science. I personally noticed that I often focus on finding similarities between the disciplines, but you can only fully utilise diversity when you realise that you think differently about something. It is a bit socially undesirable to disagree with someone, but that discomfort can push you to move from your comfort zone into the learning zone.’

No goal in itself

‘I find it really important that interdisciplinarity is a strategic theme at our university. That top-down support is necessary to offer legitimacy and invest time. But, and that is often the risk of strategic themes, it should not become a goal in itself. It has to remain a tool to work on social issues, motivate students or train certain competences, for example. Interdisciplinarity is not one size fits all. That is why, as a lecturer, it is important to think about your goal and a relevant approach beforehand.

The role of the lecturer

‘Something else that I learnt while teaching interdisciplinary education is that I had to scale back my ambitions. It can be disappointing to see how much you accomplish when trying to do things right. Do not try to immediately compete in the Champions League. Try to first focus on interdisciplinary awareness, for example, before you ask your students to jointly present an alternative answer to a social issue.’

‘Interdisciplinary education requires a different role from you as a lecturer. You are no longer the person students can look to for answers, but you delve deeper into an issue together. You have a few more tools to engage in that process, but no control over the outcome. That requires flexibility and makes you vulnerable. Because there is often a kind of expectation in education that you can look to the lecturer, and they can tell you if something is right or wrong or what you should do.'

‘But most of all: interdisciplinary education is so much fun to use! Personally, I have learnt a lot from it. The other side of that vulnerability and its challenges is that it is also a rich learning environment for yourself.'

Check out the tool Annemarie Horn developed together with colleagues at the VU to reflect on different disciplinary perspectives.