By Machiel Keestra
How can we adequately prepare and train students to navigate transdisciplinary environments? How can we develop hybrid spaces in our universities that are suitable for transdisciplinary education?
These questions were considered by a plenary panel, which I organised and chaired at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017 at Leuphana University, Germany. Three major educational requirements were identified:
- long-term collaborations with businesses, as well as non-governmental, governmental and community organisations
- teaching particular dispositions and competencies
- preparing students for intercultural endeavours.
Panellists Marcel Bursztyn (University of Brasilia), Dena Fam (University of Technology Sydney), Christian Pohl (ETH Zürich), Esther Meyer (Leuphana University of Lüneburg) and Daniel Lang (Leuphana University of Lüneburg), together with a large international audience, offered valuable suggestions concerning these requirements.
Long-term collaborations with businesses, as well as non-governmental, governmental and community organisations
Long-term collaborations with businesses, non-governmental, governmental and community organizations are required, as such partners are usually not able and willing to just engage on a single-project basis. Moreover, it implies that we create our transdisciplinary education together with these extra-academic partners, who should consequently also have a say about our learning objectives, the structure of our programs and how we assess our students: these cannot remain untouched in such transdisciplinary environments.
Indeed, the implication of this requirement is that we give up some ownership of our education programs and the panellists agreed that many programs and faculty have difficulty with this. One often has to find or develop special niches, like professional masters programs, where experimenting with such innovative collaborations is allowed. Audience member Robin Reid (Colorado State University) told the astonished colleagues that she has successfully implemented a 50/50 rule: half of her educational, research and management team consists of practitioners and other colleagues from the field.
Teaching particular dispositions and competencies
Given such transdisciplinary, hybrid environments, students can start to learn the important dispositions and competencies necessary for navigating them. But these are difficult to practice within the confines of the academy. Although our academic education is still mainly focused upon dissemination of knowledge, the panelists agreed that engaging in transdisciplinary projects requires that we help students to develop themselves as agents and persons in a richer sense.
Together, we sketched what transdisciplinary researchers need to ‘embody’: persons who have the humility and curiosity to aim for a deep understanding of the needs and values of their project partners. In addition, they must wholeheartedly and patiently spend the extra time often needed to build trust and co-develop a process that allows all to contribute. Audience member Girma Kelboro (University of Bonn) shared his previous experience at an Ethiopian university, where students were willing to live for a while in local communities in order to share the lived experience necessary for discovering local needs. Obviously, even if our academic programs perhaps cannot require this from our students, both students and faculty may need to leave our academic comfort zones and expose ourselves to different expectations and practices.
Preparing students for intercultural endeavours
After discussing the need for transdisciplinary, hybrid environments and considering how students can mature as persons and agents in order to navigate those environments, our interactive panel discussion closed by reflecting upon the task of preparing our students for the intercultural endeavours implicated in this. As chair, I challenged the panel and audience to consider the implications of the fact that most research is produced by a small section of humanity, from ‘weird’ (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) societies. Should we expect those researchers to understand sufficiently the interests and needs of other societies and to interact and collaborate adequately with the latter to meet those interests and needs? A precondition for this, the discussants agreed, is to face the historical and geographical contingencies we embody and to critically reflect upon these.
Such reflections have to build upon a metacognitive reflection upon oneself as a knower, a learner, a collaborator: what are our assumptions, expectations, and weaknesses and how do these potentially interfere in the interpersonal and intercultural engagements involved in transdisciplinary projects? Even though it is a challenge to avoid our cultural biases when we are forming an initial ‘map of stakeholders and practices’, being open to shared discussion of such a map and its underlying prejudices may help to overcome them.
In sum, even though it appears paradoxical to prepare students for navigating transdisciplinary environments that are much more diverse and invested with dimensions that academic education seeks to avoid – values, interests, lived experience, and the like – all discussants agreed that we can do so if we open up our ‘ivory tower’ and develop hybrid environments and projects.
What are your experiences with this? Do you have similar confidence in our ability as academic educators to create transdisciplinary environments? Or do you believe that the suggestions above do not go far enough? Or perhaps, conversely, are you afraid that providing proper academic training is difficult in such less constrained environments?
Relevant articles by panel members:
Bursztyn, M. and Drummond, J. (2014). Sustainability science and the university: Pitfalls and bridges to interdisciplinarity. Environmental Education Research, 20, 3: 313-332.
Fam, D., Palmer, J. and Riedy, C. (Eds.). (2016). Transdisciplinary research and practice for sustainability outcomes. Taylor & Francis: New York, United States of America.
Fam, D., Smith, T. and Cordell, D. (2016). Being a transdisciplinary researcher: Skills and dispositions fostering competence in transdisciplinary research and practice. In, D. Fam, J. Palmer and C. Riedy (Eds.), Transdisciplinary research and practice for sustainability outcomes. Taylor & Francis: New York, United States of America. See also the blog post Transkillery! What skills are needed to be a boundary crosser? Online: https://i2insights.org/2017/03/14/transdisciplinary-skills/
Keestra, M. (2017a). Multi-Level Perspectives on Interdisciplinary Cognition and Team Collaboration: Challenges and Opportunities (Introduction to the special section: Interdisciplinary collaboration). Issues in Interdisciplinary Studies, 35: 113-120.
Keestra, M. (2017b). Meta-cognition and Reflection by Interdisciplinary Experts: Insights from Cognitive Science and Philosophy. Issues in Interdisciplinary Studies, 35: 121-169.
Lang, D., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., Swilling, M. and Thomas, C. (2012). Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: Practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science, 7, Supplement 1: 25-43.
Pearce, B., Adler, C., Senn, L., Krütli, P., Stauffacher, M. and Pohl, C. (in press). Making the link between transdisciplinary learning and transdisciplinary design principles. In, D. Fam, L. Neuhauser and P. Gibbs (Eds.), The Art of Collaborative Research and Collective Learning: Transdisciplinary research, practice and education. Springer: London, United Kingdom.
Biography: Machiel Keestra PhD is a tenured assistant professor of philosophy at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He teaches philosophy of science and interdisciplinary research in the Natural and Social Sciences bachelor and in the Brain and Cognitive Science master programs. He is a researcher at the Institute for Logic, Language and Computation, focusing on the philosophy of cognitive neuroscience. He is past-president of the international Association for Interdisciplinary Studies.
This blog post is based on a panel on teaching and learning in transdisciplinary environments entitled ‘Preparing the next generation for navigating between different environments’ at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017 at Leuphana University, Luneburg, Germany in September 2017. For a video of the panel session (Thursday 14 September, 9.15-11.00) visit: http://www.leuphana.de/zentren/methodenzentrum/konferenzen-veranstaltungen/itd-conference-2017/live-streams-chats.html.