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Training for Transdisciplinarity

This is an excerpt from the report “Looking at the Future of Transdisciplinary Research” (2023).

What Could Universities Do?

First, universities must look to their own management systems and stop misusing metrics and structures that discourage transdisciplinary research and other forms of cross-disciplinary activity. In Europe, it may be useful to recall the five core competencies of higher education, also called the Dublin descriptors of the Bologna process (Qualifications Framework of the European Higher Education Area 2005): knowledge and understanding, applying knowledge and understanding, making judgements, communication, learning skills (cf. Kehm 2010). As a set, these should signal some good entry points for transdisciplinary training.

Irrespective of whether a student intends on a disciplinary or broader long-term focus, undergraduate training should expose students to a broad range of epistemologies and corresponding methodologies: comparing, contrasting and critiquing these. For example, all science students require knowledge of ethics, philosophy of science and how science interrelates with society (systemically and historically). Likewise, all humanities students need to understand the processes of science, have basic science literacy, and understand some core concepts and assumptions (e.g. statistics, evolution, sustainability). One further possibility would be for students to have an opportunity to explore, in an elective course (across and within the university, possibly beyond), a problem that they regard as important and motivating, preferably in a team-based environment. The University of Bergen tries to accomplish this through the interfaculty elective undergraduate course ‘Danningsemner’ (comparable to the German term ‘Bildung’) on various themes, and via the interfaculty 2-year master programme on sustainability. Other universities such as the Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany, or the ETH in Zurich, Switzerland, offer similar cross-disciplinary training. The programme ‘Future Africa’ at the University of Pretoria aims to educate students in transdisciplinary competencies.

Resolving the balance between disciplinary and broader training is an ongoing debate in many institutions. Clearly many students will embark on careers relying on disciplinary depth, but the broader dimensions discussed above will remain of value. Some disciplinary depth is needed even by those who seek a broader-based career. The diversity of approaches emerging should itself be a point of research and evaluation.

Innovative universities taking a transdisciplinary approach would likely start taking a small cadre of high-quality students who have integrative thinking skills and training them, at the upper undergraduate level, in transdisciplinary thinking. This training would likely involve problem-based teaching and project work (Budwig and Alexander 2020).

At the graduate level, higher degrees based on transdisciplinarity should be supported. However, transdisciplinary graduate training requires university-wide centres/institutes (which are not faculty led, except perhaps for administrative organization) with transdisciplinary skills to define projects and supervisors across the university suitable to provide training. This cannot be done unless there are university-wide policies encouraging faculties to collaborate on such matters, and administrative systems including finances, designed to assist. This activity is quite distinct from that of regular postgraduate activity. Students undertaking such degrees require ongoing mentorship and coursework distinctive from that of standard PhD/Masters training. They need engagement with different types of seminars and discussion, exposure to policy-makers, exposure to post-normal-science thinking and a focus on transdisciplinary framing throughout their training. The faculty members involved must have a commitment to transdisciplinarity, as part of their own research activities. Again, this innovation requires a central unit of transdisciplinary expertise to assess quality and to work with faculty to achieve these goals. This type of committed and sustained mentorship is

important in an international academic environment that still hands out rewards based on discipline-bound merit.

Transdisciplinarity is as much (if not more) about training in apprenticeship mode as it is about research. Transdisciplinary teaching is distinctive in how it is conducted, as it needs to be largely problem based. Exploiting transdisciplinarity as a research tool will not limit its impact on or disadvantage any graduate students involved.

A strategy some universities have used (e.g. University of British Columbia) is to have an internal competition for a few faculty members each year to be seconded to such a centre to gain experience in transdisciplinarity thinking and application. These are seen as highly prestigious awards. At the more advanced level, centres such as the Santa Fe Institute demonstrate the prestige that can be gained. Further evaluation of different models developed worldwide would be useful. This should, in effect, stimulate closer international cooperation across universities, sharing experiences and new ideas to foster transdisciplinarity.

Importantly, because transdisciplinarity requires different groups of academics and stakeholders, who a priori have different knowledge bases, language, biases, world views and framings, to come together, there is an absolute need that there be a willingness to engage in complex, difficult and challenging conversations (Gethmann et al., 2015). Respect, civility and an avoidance of exclusion of valid voices is critical. Sadly, there are trends in academia that are making this much more challenging.

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