Transdisciplinarity at work: The Common Core@HKU –

In the simultaneously highly disconnected and highly connected context in which we now live on the planet and in Hong Kong, the stakes of higher education are becoming ever more trenchant. One way of accomplishing the primary goal of educating our undergraduates to become more adept, each in his or her own way, at contributing to the well-being of the world that we all share is to develop different platforms for the practice of transdisciplinary learning.

In a recent job advertisement, the Media Lab at MIT invited applications for a faculty colleague “not defined by discipline, rather by his or her unique and iconoclastic experience, style and points of view. You can be a designer, inventor, scientist, scholar or other – any combination – as long as you make things that matter. Impact is key. This means somebody with at least these three sets of characteristics: Being deeply versed in a minimum of two fields, preferably not ones normally juxtaposed; Being an orthogonal and counter-intuitive thinker, even a misfit within normal structures; Having an adventurous personality, boundless optimism, and desire to change the world. Any disciplines apply as long as their confluence shows promise of solving big, hard and long-term problems” ( Listen again to the language: “not defined by discipline”, “iconoclastic”, “not normally juxtaposed”, and an “orthogonal and counter-intuitive thinker.” (When is the last time someone asked you to be orthogonal?)

This is the language of the university in the mode of transformation and it cannot any longer be articulated only within a disciplinary context, even though disciplines — and the specialization of knowledge-tracks that they represent — will remain essential for all comprehensive universities. The transdisciplinary is not linear, but transversal, certainly with its own forms of precision but also cutting across the traditional divisions of knowledge in order to make unexpected connections for the sake of new discoveries, creations, and social formations.

The Common Core@HKU contributes to these emerging dynamics of undergraduate learning by organizing itself in a transdisciplinary manner that brings together in the student and teaching staff networks of questions, research methods, disciplines, faculties, capacities, and a variety of sites of learning, both physical and digital. In order to address the tasks of undergraduate learning, we have begun to make more frequent use of the term transdisciplinarity as a complement to the more typically used interdisciplinarity, which, most often implicitly, implies a set of pre-established disciplines which then meet one another in a stable contact zone. The trans- marks, instead, an emergent process.

At the programmatic level, the Core addresses a wide-range of issues of “profound significance” that impact all of our lives. Because knowledge is infinite and must be made quite finite in relevant ways, we divide the requirements into the Areas of Inquiry (AoIs) of Scientific and Technological Literacy, Global Issues, Humanities (which includes the Arts), and China. Knowledge can, of course, be divided in a multitude of ways, but these four divisions provide students with a wide-range of choices that are valuable for our context in Hong Kong. We explicitly thematize the inter- and the trans- in the design, implementation and experience of assignments, courses, and in recent programmatic initiatives such as the Common Core Transdisciplinary Minors; GLADE (Global Liberal Arts Design Experiments); and our Learning Partners in Hong Kong. I will focus on these three.

Common Core Transdisciplinary Minors: In order to provide a coherent and transcriptable pathway for those students interested, in the Fall of 2017 we launched two Transdisciplinary Minors: Sustaining Cities, Cultures, and the Earth and The Universe and the Question of Meaning. The first, linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, offers a way to connect courses that link different concepts and scales of “sustainability” from learning about ocean acidification, ecology, and the ways in which the climate is changing to ideas around cultural histories and translations to how cities work politically, economically, artistically, and as spaces of design. The second minor includes sets of courses that link science and philosophy, ask about “cosmology” in its different formations through time, and courses that inquire into the relationships between language, ethics, and social power. In both cases, students are making active choices about how to form their own learning pathway, but all of these choices will cross the traditional disciplinary boundaries, with the many implications that come along with such crossings.

GLADE (Global Liberal Arts Design Experiments): The goal of creating this international network of programmes analogous to the Common Core is to try-out “modest experiments” such as class-to-class virtual exchanges, small research threads on “Women + Innovation,” and to begin to explore geographically and digitally distributed workshops focused on what we are calling Urban MetaMorphics. The most fully developed experiment in this direction is the Transdisciplinary Research Student Exchange with the University of Utrecht’s Humanities Honours Programme. The exchange focuses on the experience of the city—Utrecht and Hong Kong are extremely different from one another—by inviting students, working in cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural teams, to create seminars, public events, websites, research methods and findings that will produce tangible and shareable outcomes for the common good in both cities. This kind of collaborative project is a powerful example of transdisciplinarity at work, and, although the students are at first generally quite confused, they have all created projects with deep impact including, last year, projects on “Disability and Sex,” “Mapping Urban Neighbourhoods,” “Work and Alienation,” “Student-Initiated University Movements,” and “The Sensorium of the City.”

Learning Partners in Hong Kong: Our newest effort, very much in its developmental infancy, is to organize a local network of corporations, NGOs, artists’ galleries and studios, and others in order to provide both spaces and expertise across the city to help our students understand the tangible, conceptual, and imaginative skills that will be required when they make the transition—at whatever point that is—between an entirely on-campus experience into the 21st century workforce, which, as we all know, is changing rapidly. To date, we have had initial meetings with several different organizations and are compiling lists of possible partners. This, like the Utrecht exchange, is transdisciplinarity as it takes to the streets, crossing the threshold of the formalities of learning-for-credit to the differently staged process of learning in the city, at work.


Why, then, does the Common Core@HKU value transdisciplinary experimentation? Because traditional academic disciplines, while still necessary, are no longer sufficient. The world—from climate change to politics, religion, and economics—is in a perilous state and whatever we do to educate ourselves and our students must have sufficient rigour, flexibility, and resources to enable us to invent new responses to that which addresses us. Repetition is death and the trans- indicates an active, sometimes turbulent, criss-crossing between ideas, research methods, and questions that are put into play with one another. Transdisciplinarity—both as a style of working and as an institutional structure—provides platforms for opening up thinking, teaching, and research that weave together the expected and the unexpected, that interface where learning most deeply occurs. It gives room for maneuver, discovery, and invention. And it gives students a chance to practice intellectual, social, and communication skills that, rather than being ancillary to learning, are always part of the inherent demonstration of learning, its enactment in the world.

Making an invitation to a collaborative and transformative project of knowledge formation, Bruno Latour has said, quite joyously: “The laboratory is now wide open for new discoveries”. We use this phrase, in fact, as a guiding thread for the activities of GLADE and that laboratory to which Latour refers is, in part, higher education in its many forms. The name, at least one name, for the work for all of us to do that is yet to come in this new space of learning is transdisciplinarity.


Gray Kochhar-Lindgren
Gray Kochhar-Lindgren

He is Professor & Director of the Common Core at HKU. He holds a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies (Philosophy, Literature, and Cultural Theory) from Emory University.

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