Interdisciplinary learning in the Liberal Arts

A Liberal Arts student meeting at the Shard

In this case study, Dr Doug Haynes, Reader in American Literature and Visual Culture, discusses the creation of the interdisciplinary Liberal Arts BA at Sussex. 

What we did 

In collaboration with an Advisory Board that assembled specialists from museums, activist organisations, think-tanks, NGOs, journalism, broadcasting, PR and communications, we developed a degree that combines theory and practice across the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Working with experts in different academic fields, Liberal Arts students at Sussex use interdisciplinary thinking to tackle complex problems and global challenges as well as develop skills in a range of media and methods with which to articulate their knowledge. Students also work with our external partners to transform research into practice as they design campaigns and policy initiatives, or work with museums, writers, and activists. All students also undertake a substantial final year project in the community. 

Why we did it 

We wanted to show the importance and relevance of the humanities and social sciences at a time when they are being increasingly devalued. And we wanted students to experience the practical applications of these subjects in order to understand their capacity to make active contributions to the world. 

Studying the humanities doesn’t have to be disconnected from real life. In fact, putting the discourses of the humanities and social sciences in conversation with one another, and with real-world issues, creates new kinds of knowledge and allows for degrees to be shaped in new ways. Approaching global problems from different perspectives cuts across disciplinary boundaries and encourages students to apply concepts creatively, addressing and reflecting on the most pressing issues that face us today. In this sense, the Liberal Arts degree recalls Sussex’s interdisciplinary roots to offer a disruptive and innovative contemporary learning experience. We developed this degree with Sussex’s employability initiatives specifically in mind: our pedagogical strategies were planned in direct dialogue with our Advisory Board members from a range of sectors. Interdisciplinary learning fosters critical thinking and innovation because it asks students to synthesise ideas and consider alternative ways of acquiring knowledge, but we also teach critical and life-skills that have direct application to a range of sectors. 

Impact and student feedback 

The Liberal Arts degree at Sussex asks students to think outside of the disciplinary confines that they are used to from studying A-levels. Thus, at first, they can feel a bit confused as they are challenged to think in more expansive and creative ways. Yet once students feel more comfortable with this new way of thinking, they find it empowering. Students are highly motivated because they can shape their degree based on their own interests. Furthermore, the Liberal Arts degree gives an authentic purpose for learning by connecting theory to the real world. 


My background in American Studies means that I naturally take an interdisciplinary approach, but in the initial stages of designing the degree, there was some inevitable push back because our approach challenges traditional disciplinary ways of thinking and traditional ways of assessing students’ work. With Curriculum Reimagined, we hope that the Liberal Arts will become a model for disruptive, innovative interdisciplinary learning at Sussex. 

Future plans 

The degree is very new so we want to continue to foster interest and increase enrollment. To stay innovative and up-to-date, we want to incorporate the use of portfolios as an assessment mode. Portfolios provide a more flexible approach as they will allow us to offer a wider range of assessment modes in the future and to ensure that frequent metacognitive reflection is central to our students’ learning experience.  

Top 3 Tips 

  1. Interdisciplinary learning is often a new experience for students so it is important to provide a narrative that can help students to connect disparate approaches and topics. 
  1. Faculty collaboration is important. It is necessary to know the topics students are covering in different modules so that you can draw on this in your own discussions.  
  1. Consider using portfolios to allow for greater flexibility and adaptability. 
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