Interdisciplinary Theory Teaching: Can One Size Really Fit All?



Design Education Strategy


  • learning approaches, design methologies


The Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg has diverse departments ranging from Architecture, Fine Arts and Multimedia to five different design disciplines. After years of being housed in geographically dispersed locations the faculty has recently moved into one building, and is in the process of consolidating and rationalizing the teaching programmes. One area of rationalization has been identified as the theory programme, and we have been assigned the task of identifying theoretical material and drawing up a single teaching programme that most departments could subscribe to.

This paper will begin by providing a breakdown of what has been taught thus far in the first year pilot programme of a single offering for the faculty and how it was received. Consideration will also be given to the problems we face in identifying curriculum content for subsequent years. The major concern thus far is that our material is not discipline specific enough to fulfill the requirements of the different departments. Previously most departments have concentrated on a policy of vocational teaching with specific practical outcomes reflecting the nature of both design and art practitioners. The theory has therefore been taught by individual departments with very specific content and outcomes.

Furthermore the course that is currently being piloted, although conceptualized as an art and design history course, employs a methodology that is shifting from a previously linear historical approach to an approach more comparable to that employed in the visual culture studies. This means that critical thinking and deconstructive methodologies of visual analysis are encouraged in students, rather than the acquisition of a cohesive historical knowledge. This does present another problem however, since some design departments are of the opinion that students need an encompassing knowledge of the major historical developments in design history as a basis for their studies. Many theorists such as W.J.T. Mitchell, Nicholas Mirzoeff and Stuart Hall have recently questioned the notion of history as a linear programme of progress. For the most part it is now commonly accepted that the idea of history excludes marginalized histories in its European-centric approach. The question then arises, where does history find itself in this new curriculum? Is it possible to provide students with a sound historical knowledge base, and not relapse into dangerous assumptions about the validity of linear approaches?

This paper will investigate whether indeed one can manufacture a “one size fits all” course. What strategies could be used to overcome diverse expectations of content and methodology while still providing a solid grounding in the theoretical tools and analytical/critical approaches required by all students of visual culture? Can theoretical content and specific historical content be adapted and incorporated to suit each discipline without maximizing teaching contact hours? These and other questions addressing both content and practicality will be unpacked and conclusions will be drawn about a possible interdisciplinary solution to be implemented as a pilot programme for second year students in 2010.

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