Dr Glenn Loughran

Dr. Glenn Loughran is an artist, lecturer, and researcher at the TU Dublin School of Creative Arts. His research interests include transdisciplinary education, artistic research, socially engaged art, critical pedagogy, Island studies, and environmental arts.

On the history of transdisciplinarity and transcending versus transgressing

SMcD: What is your approach to transdisciplinarity, and how does it relate to your teachings and research?

GL: From my reading, Transdisciplinarity is a historical discourse that begins in the 1970’s with educators such as Jean Piaget. Initially, it aimed to challenge the emergence of disciplinary silos and break down scientific positivism to allow other ways for knowledge to be acquired and exchanged. This motivation seemed to fade off in the 1980s, only to be reasserted in the late 1990’s as the complexity of climate change began to be understood. That’s where you got a new need for transdiciplinarity, as a response to complexity, and the belief that no single discipline was sufficient to address the type of ‘wicked problems’ emerging in the Anthropocene.

Within our schools and colleges, the practice of transdisciplinarity is currently a leading concept, albeit aspirational rather than practical, and sometimes I think that we’ve jumped over the theoretical or historical contexts for transdisciplinarity a bit too quickly. Because of this, I often find that in our discussions there is some confusion around the meaning of the prefix, trans, and whether it refers to transcending or transgressing?. Personally, I think we’re transgressing, but sometimes there’s this discussion about transcending disciplines, about moving towards some beautiful space where we’re not in any discipline, and I think it can sometimes feel naïve how this would play out in formal educational structures. In my understanding, transdisciplinarity is more of a complimentary or expanded disciplinarity in that it moves a discipline into greater complexity when it intersects with other disciplines. I think of it more in an ecological sense, where its about balancing a root knowledge (discipline) and fluid knowledge (other disciplines, contributory research), but I am not sure, in the course I set up MA Art and Environment, I’m always in the process of trying to define transdisciplinarity in different ways, and, within the context of our educational situations, in this case the ecology of Art-island studies and education. But this is also always defines against the historical discourse of transdisciplinarity itself and not just in practice. So in this sense I think that transdiciplinarity is an intellectual activity as well as a practice-based one.

On risk, the relationship between constructivism and transdisciplinarity and institutional risk-aversion

SMcD: To what extent is jumping over these engagements due to the institutional structures in which we work?

GL: I don’t know if its only institutional, I think we sometimes get introduced to key concepts via instrumental funding structures and that the goal oriented nature of these structures works against the intellectual work thats needed to understand the purposes and politics of transdisciplinarity. I don’t think there’s anything specific to transdisciplinarity that is riskier than other types of education. I think the relationship between care, risk and institution is inherent to education, and that education and research are both based on the premise of learning a certain amount of things to do with your discipline, and then moving beyond them. So the anxiety between the known and the unknown is always already there in the learning process, and to some extent normal. However, I often wonder if institutions, in general, are becoming less and less capable of coping with that type of process because they’re so risk-averse. This is becoming a central concern in educational discourses, where there have been strong critiques against the way institutions impose an ideology of efficiency upon education in order to manage it and make it more effective, often because it is too slow, too complex, and too risk-inherent. Those tensions are part of the learning process, and it identify for me the relationship between constructivism and transdisciplinarity.

On employability, ecological versus economical understanding of transdisciplinarity, sustainable lives and what’s at stake

SMcD: What does this mean for teaching and employability, for instance?

GL: I think that transdisciplinary practice if you think about it in relation to students and graduate skills and employability, exists at the intersections between an ecological and an economic understanding of the concept. The ecological motivation for transdisciplinarity is all about knowledge exchange, wicked problems and complexity. Inherent to this motivation is the need to adapt to other types of knowledge and other knowledge contexts. However, in education adaptability can also be viewed through an economic lens, and where the ideological promotion of transdisciplinarity supports a skillset that helps us adapt to neoliberal markets, where our key subjective characteristics are: flexibility, adaptability and resilience. I think this is something we should think further on, within the context of European policy debates that promote transdisicplinarity, that is, I think we should explore how we are shifting between an ecological and economic understanding of transdisciplinarity, and how related, compatible or contradictory these positions are. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and we all want to have sustainable lives, so again, we have to figure out a balance that doesn’t allow the the economic to overwhelmingly dominate the environmental and vice versa.

On assessment, the establishment of criteria, contradictions, recipes, and different sets of tensions

SMcD: But how are you going to assess this new combination of lenses?

GL: I don’t know, but that really is the main challenge in education, and some of the most interesting conversations that ive had in this research process have been around the tensions and strategies for assessment. For example, you can be guiding students through rich, interesting and motivating transdisciplinary practices, and then when it comes to assessment, you’ve got all kinds of formal criteria that you’ve got to box the process into. Within this, then, the student suddenly realises they will be judged by a specific set of criteria that may not always be apparent or consistent with the ethos of enquiry in transdisciplinary practice. You might start off with a transdisciplinary approach and say ‘we’re going to transcend these terrible disciplinary silos and go beyond the university’ and then at the end of the process you still have to grade the students on their research development!

So, in this context, I don’t think there’s going to be a universal definition or criteria for evaluating transdisciplinary practice, and the very idea that you would standardise it or give it some kind of universal criteria, in itself, may be problematic, or antithical. But I don’t think that’s an excuse to abandon the structure and rigour of assessment and feedback. I think that it might have to be that the criteria can only be found within the disciplinary intersections at play in the work, like making a stew: whatever elements go into making the whole pot, will determine a certain set of evaluative criteria that have to be constructed, tested, and either rejected or instrumentalised in the curriculum. For example, in the MA Art and Environment, we have been mixing environmental arts practice, Island studies and virtual environments, which have never really been brought together. And that mix, comes with a whole set of tensions, crossovers, possibilities and differences. My job is to develop evaluative criteria based on that particular mix which can connect with certain models and standards in the institution, and its often challenging. And yet, there’s no doubt in my mind that one of the benefits of transdisciplinary practices, is that you interrogate the assumptions in your own discipline and their standardised, evaluative criteria in composition with other disciplinary forms, to understand how other types of knowledge is constructed and evaluated. 

On failure, the limits of streamlining and reflection

SMcD: As you mentioned earlier, these kinds of interrogations are the kind of risky businesses the institutions are trying to avert. What does this mean for something like failure? Is there any room for that, and how does it fit in?

GL: Good question, a couple of years ago, after a difficult semester, I remember coming across this scientist in the 1960s who proposed ‘failure dinners’ for her students and her staff in the lab. At the end of the year, they would have a big dinner and talk about their failures. In that sense, failure is not something you sweep under the carpet but rather something that produces success if you manage it properly. So I think that a really mature relationship to failure is necessary. There needs to be a fundamental shift in how we think about it. Obviously, naming and addressing it is hard to do, but this is so because we don’t have the culture of it. This has a massive impact on how learning is organised. In our culture, learning is often organised in such an efficient stream to get the student from A to B without failure, to such an extent that sometimes it seems like there is no time or room for risk, for contemplation. So you just follow the learning outcomes, and put your energy into keeping students busy, but sometimes the real educational moment is unpredictable and only emerges in the slow-time of educational processes where interpretation can develop and where there is a risk of failure.

On learning outcomes, the limits of instructions, space for interpretation, and The Beautiful Risk of Education: 

SMcD: How does this tie in with assessment?

GL: Gert Biesta writes about this in his book, The Beautiful Risk of Education1 where he argues that the learning outcomes in some educational programs have become so prescriptive, and students are so used to following an assessment brief and doing exactly what you tell them to do, that they often struggle with the complexity and agency that interpretation requires. For Biesta, educational risk is built into the interpretive process, and if you get rid of that, you get rid of education. So, I guess we need to build the time for complexity and interpretation into our curricular and assessment procedures, alongside the demands for efficiency and effectiveness.

Footnotes and references
  1. Biesta, Gert. The Beautiful Risk of Education. London: Taylor & Francis, 2016.[]