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Universities need to change, can change and are changing

a personal reflection by Gemma O’Sullivan

Like everyone else, I spend my fair share of time explaining what I do. At the school gates, dinner parties (remember those), bus stops, match sidelines. When people inevitably ask what I do, I try to generalise it up a few notches for reasons that will become obvious: education, I say.

I have found, however, that as everyone has experienced enough of the education system to have an opinion, this rarely suffices. I used to fear the next step: ‘What do you do in education?’

At this point, I would have to introduce the magic word. The type of word that I fear would quickly clear the seats around me at a dinner party and leave me standing on my lonesome for months on end at the school gate (not such a bad thing perhaps). The type of word that my 10-year-old daughter might utter repeatedly when she is trying to sound pointless and intellectual (they have already absorbed this caricature from mainstream media by the time they are at primary school. Of course, they are also exposed to it relentlessly at home).

The word is transdisciplinarity.

If, after that, you are still with me, let me explain my failsafe plan for coping with a quickly retreating audience. What I have learned to do with transdisciplinarity is, before anyone has a chance to take a breath, I launch into a very simple definition of transdisciplinary or challenge-driven education. ‘You know how children learn long division, history and definite articles in school but still don’t know why there is so much plastic in the ocean?’ I say. Solving that is transdisciplinary education. Then I quickly segue into: ‘You know how universities are made up of loads of disciplines but drawing them all together to solve a major societal challenge is a bit tricky?’ Solving that is transdisciplinarity. Everyone gets it and everyone buys into it: the artist, the private equity CFO, the radio CEO, the mother, the grandparent, all of them – even my children get excited. Well, maybe that’s a stretch.

Though we can trace its origins back to the late 1960s, transdisciplinarity is still a new word for many of our colleagues and communities. But what I have found over the past three years, in my research and in practice, is that everyone understands intuitively what transdisciplinarity means. Whether you emphasise a democratisation of knowledge, or an opening of universities to new actors, it clicks immediately with everyone that transdisciplinarity is universities working with broader society to create change.

I appreciate that if you are reading this blog post you are likely familiar with the concept. In fact you may have a huge body of expertise in the roots of inter- or transdisciplinarity. But as a journalist who arrived into academia in my mid-30s, I am more than a little obsessed with our difficulty in academia with working that bit harder to make ourselves understood. I think we may fear that if we simplify we may lose nuance or that if we simplify everyone might understand. Then what would we do?

It is the same type of fear and weddedness to tradition that surfaced when writing this type of casual chatty piece rather a thoroughly referenced and ‘rigorous’ analysis of my efforts as a Research Associate. I had to walk the walk, as it were, and practice transdisciplinarity myself, in an attempt to carry us lightly through the concept and hope somebody might read it.

This is the nub of transdisciplinarity. We, in universities, aren’t so special. We don’t have a monopoly on knowledge production. We don’t have a lived experience of many of the issues we consider. We don’t spend enough time talking to people for whom we have to translate our work into intelligible English or other languages.

But here’s another unofficial social experiment I was involved in recently. If you explain what transdisciplinarity is and ask 175 academics and researchers from five universities across Europe if they want to be transdisciplinary, they will resoundingly say yes. If you take the time to explain to academics and researchers that it simply means us within the academy mobilising to focus on solving some of the greatest problems facing humanity, everyone is on board. Pay scales, annual leave, publications, citations and the myriad of other concerns that can usually dominate work environments are dropped like hot bricks. Irrelevant.

Since December 2019, I have had the great privilege of working with dozens of colleagues from the five European universities that make up the CHARM European University alliance (University of Barcelona, Trinity College Dublin, Utrecht University, Eötvös Loránd University and University of Montpellier) to really model and pilot what a truly transdisciplinary university would look like and what this flexible, dynamic network of knowledge workers connected to extra-academic actors (social and traditional enterprise) and guided by students could be.

At CHARM-EU, we sought to take the multiple strengths of our universities and unite them in a way that increases critical mass. We needed to take away all the labels we use in universities and start again. We took inspiration from transdisciplinary innovation pioneered by institutions like Arizona State University, who use the phrase Knowledge Architecture to describe what these strengths are and what might knit them together.

Back to the social experiment. At a webinar on 15 June 2020, my colleagues and I at CHARM-EU asked staff from our CHARM-EU partner institutions – all Coimbra Group members – if they wanted to join transdisciplinary Knowledge Creating Teams (KCTs). That they were willing to attend a webinar with such a novel title was an achievement in itself. We came up with this term inspired by the work done by some of our transdisciplinary peers internationally. Our thinking was that if we seek to create change – whether in structures or systems or people – we often need to move away from the old language.

KCTs bring multiple disciplines together to face global challenges and are organised not by discipline, research or educational activity but by key themes that bridge all these activities. They are collaborative groups of academics and extra-academic actors formed around a common expertise/interest related to a sustainability theme. At CHARM-EU, KCTs will help to design and deliver innovative, transdisciplinary modules and programmes, form transdisciplinary research networks, potentially raise funding and lead commercialisation projects, and develop a shared thematic, inter-European research community.

At CHARM-EU, as we have immersed ourselves in challenge-driven curriculum design, we naturally found ourselves beginning with shaping the language to create change. We recognised that complex challenges need equally complex networks of individuals to tackle them. However, we need these networks to be flexible and responsive. If we want to bring disciplines to work together, we appreciated that we need a flat structure that connects our academics and researchers in a way that is elastic. We recognised that we need to use the monumental financial and intellectual capital already invested in our universities to collaborate and do even more. If we are to work with our university systems – not throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were – why not embrace the solidity of our foundations, leave them untouched but use them to connect a boundless web of expertise that floats on top of them. We can connect in a moment to the expertise needed to contribute to an issue. We can then return effortlessly to its roots to build disciplinary depth.

For CHARM-EU then, transdisciplinarity is the strength of our people, our ideas and our communities both at a shared European level and locally. The response to this first call to action was overwhelmingly positive and over 170 staff have now signed up to one or more of the three themes that are being designed for the CHARM-EU’s first pilot Masters programme in Global Challenges for Sustainability: Life & Health, Water, and Food. KCTs have two levels of membership: Core and Expanded Network. The KCT Core comprises 10 academics/researchers per theme who research, design, develop and teach challenge-based content in the pilot Masters programme. The KCT Expanded Network comprises an infinite number of colleagues and extra-academic partners who inform curriculum design and join and build trans-institutional research communities and communities of CHARM-EU stakeholders connected to thematic challenge areas. We currently have over 100 members and we have just begun to build this network.

The KCT Core teams are this month working very hard in content-creation workshops to develop the CHARM-EU pilot Masters, one of the key preliminary outputs of the alliance. In our Food theme, for example, which I facilitate along with my colleague from Utrecht University, Sanne van Vugt, an educational scientist, we brought together an economist; an expert in sustainability governance; a chemist; an expert in mythology, Greek literature and early Christianity; an environmental micro-biologist; a microbiologist; a geographer and a sociologist to define key ‘problem spaces’ within Food as it connects to sustainability and from there to create bespoke transdisciplinary content to give students the disciplinary insight to prepare them to undertake a challenge with extra-academic actors. The results are already inspiring: the readiness with which colleagues are willing to collaborate and integrate other disciplinary viewpoints; the passionate dedication to researching and informing the Masters with as broad a web of expertise as possible. What is most impressive is the shared understanding that education needs to change, to become more transdisciplinary so that we produce graduates who can and have already engaged with the broader community by the time they have graduated; who combine disciplinary depth with the skills needed to identify gaps in knowledge and fill those gaps; who can ethically source, manage and utilise the labyrinthine bodies of data society is producing at a rate of knots; but most importantly who are equipped to identify, manage and ultimately propose solutions to the most complex societal challenges of our time.

* CHARM-EU is one of 17 European universities that is funded by the European Union through the first call of the European Universities initiative. CHARM-EU represents a Challenge-driven, Accessible, Research-based and Mobile university that wants to bring together a new generation of creative Europeans to cooperate across languages, borders and disciplines to address societal challenges in Europe and contribute to sustainable development.

 Gemma O’Sullivan is a CHARM-EU Research Associate and Lead of Work Package 3 at CHARM-EU, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. A former journalist, editor and communications lecturer, she has been published widely in the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Independent (UK) and the Irish Examiner.


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