Interdisciplinary learning is frustrating

Thus, we shall persevere

Daniel PS Goh
6 min readAug 23, 2021


The experiment in teaching social science as an integrated disciplinary subject has had two lectures so far. The first was an introductory lecture and brought out a fair bit of interest in the example of Broken Windows theory and criticisms of it. The second was about the social construction of development, and I introduced Rostow’s stages of growth as an example of modernisation theory, then dependency theory, neoliberalism, and contemporary alternatives such as human development and sustainable development.

There was a fair bit of interest in aspects of development theory, but there was also frustration. I discovered them on a Reddit thread, apparently happening live during lecture! In any case, I appreciate all manner of feedback and freely expressed frustration can be extremely useful and helpful. Experiments require feedback loops. In contrast, echo chambers are dangerous. Here is what I have learned.

Interdisciplinary problem-solving is a better way to learn

Here’s a criticism that a better way to learn interdisciplinarity is to get people from a few disciplines together to tackle a common problem.

I also can’t agree more. That is why I have been going in the interdisciplinary direction in my research projects, a sociologist working with anthropologists, architectural historians, geographers and political scientists on questions of what makes for a great city in Asia. A bunch of us are applying for yet another grant to do the same, approaching the issue from another angle. It is in these types of project that I learn the most.

But there is also space for attempted integration in teaching the social sciences as an integrated subject, as social science. Interdisciplinary research is growing, and my hope (and also one of my missions as associate provost actually) is that undergraduates will get to participate more in such research to learn interdisciplinarity in practice. This will happen for seniors. For first-year students, there is a need to introduce the fundamental principles and explore interdisciplinary social science in broad brushstrokes.

Interdisciplinary teaching is lagging behind interdisciplinary research. We have been teaching in disciplinary silos. I only realised the possibilities for interdisciplinary teaching when I taught SC3206 Urban Sociology and I found the students from architecture, geography, global studies, anthropology and sociology learning from each other as they conducted their term paper research, say, into whether People’s Park Complex should be conserved?

So point taken, this is what we should be doing in the tutorials. I’ll be watching how we are conducting our tutorials and to see how we can use the interdisciplinary problem-solving approach there to strengthen interdisciplinary teaching.

Multidisciplinary learning versus interdisciplinary learning

Now this is a critical issue and we are not splitting hairs. If the lecture is “jumping from history to economics to sociology to politics”, then it would be indeed be “complete bullshit” for interdisciplinary learning. It would be multidisciplinary without the coherent integration of the disciplines in an actual interdisciplinary framework. But do we have such frameworks?

Not enough. Which is one reason why we settled on the theme of development for the first half of the semester. Development theory, which brings together most of the disciplines in the social sciences, is one of the most interdisciplinary social science frameworks there is. I’ll have to review my lecture to make sure that I did not regress to the multidisciplinary.

One problem that I neglected was this. Students are coming in fresh from the heavily streamed education system in Singapore and will be interpreting the lectures from this learning habitus. Thus, the following references:

The thing is that development theory seeks to explain the historical development of societies from agrarian economies into industrialised and advanced economies, with domestic and international politics playing a big role, not to mention geographies. But history is what students get reminded of when I begin from the Marshall Plan or Ridley’s got the rubber in Malaya. I may need to re-jig the framing of my lecture.

While this is great:

So, fundamentally, the framing is sound and the interdisciplinary can be brought across. I am also reminded that the selection of the right reading is crucial, to seal the deal on the lecture.

I am also glad that the lecture is not like the straightforward clean-cut lectures apparently taught at junior colleges for the ‘A’ levels. The little mess and gaps are there because our understanding of social complexity is not complete. As we highlighted in our introductory lecture, “we don’t know” is a common response in the social sciences and thus calls for more integration through interdisciplinary research and teaching.

No idea how this is supposed to be helping with my science major

This came from Ambitious_Ad4929 in the first screenshot. The short answer is that it is not supposed to. It won’t help in the most immediate and direct way in the 4-year undergraduate career of a would-be science major. But Sad-Republic5990 said it well:

Yes, definitely frustrating; I can commiserate. I came from the triple science stream (physics, chemistry, biology) to study sociology in NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in 1994 because I fell in love with social theory when I was doing my national service (too much free time in between military training and exercises).

Then I was forced to do three common modules I had absolutely no interest in. One was Human Resource Management and I resented it. I was a budding left-of-centre democratic socialist then and had no time or energy in top-down management techniques. Little did I expect that the HRM concepts became useful tools as I took on administrative leadership roles in NUS in recent years (and it can be people-centric and people-enabling too!).

That’s the thing, “we don’t know” also applies to how our lives will unfold, how your aspirations and search for purpose will shape your career once you commence on your journey from university. You will have 50 years of work life, especially as “retirement” changes in form and substance. That is a long time, it is history! Just think of what happened between 1920 and 1970, and then 1970 and 2020. Now quadruple the speed because you will be at the front-lines of the VUCA world of the fourth industrial revolution.

Why should you care about uneven development, stages of growth, human development, and sustainable development? I hope our NUS graduates will be scientists and social scientists producing the best products and services in the service of humankind. I also hope we will always punch above our weight, make our impact internationally, much like Minister Tharman or Prof Tommy Koh as mentioned in lecture, and you will be serving as regional, global representatives bringing the products across the world.

It is frustrating, therefore learn!

It is frustrating, but don’t give up or give in just yet. It is alright to whine, the feedback helps tremendously, so let us know of the drawbacks and your frustrations. But thank you, dhrdbcks, we will try our best, and your encouragement is deeply appreciated. The secret to perseverance in the face of frustration is openness.

When the College of Humanities and Sciences initiative was announced and President Tan Eng Chye went around on town-halls to discuss it with faculty members, I remember apprehension, skepticism and frustration on the part of professors too. Professors are stubbornly independent and anything coloured by compulsion is instinctively distasteful. We have our own learning habitus too, disciplined in our disciplinary worldviews. But all it took was a bit of openness from enough professors to move the climate and start the march.

Take an open active stance. If you don’t understand the lecture, my door is always open. Email me and we can chat and consult over coffee on campus or over Zoom depending on your pandemic preferences. Be open, hold on to our disciplines lightly, walk with us, with NUS on this interdisciplinary journey, which is not for four years, but for life.



Daniel PS Goh

Sociologist and associate provost at the National University of Singapore sharing stories of higher learning and education