Professor Irene Vogeli is Co-Head of Transdisciplinarity in the Department of Cultural Analysis and Education at Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland. She spoke to researcher Sinéad McDonald about their MA Transdisciplinary Studies and the key challenges and learnings involved when delivering a programme that brings together disciplines across the arts and design, the sciences, and everyday life
On Disciplinary Contexts:
SMcD: Your programme tackles the thorny question of definitions of transdisciplinarity itself, aligning it not as a discipline, but as a way of thinking that’s fluid in nature and needs to be renegotiated. Can you speak to that a little?
IV: Perhaps I’ll illustrate this with a question that comes up again and again in the program – from students, but also from faculty members: What does it mean to locate a work in the field of art? The question is linked to that of relevance, and it has to do with students’ concerns: How can I involve myself in urgent issues, how can I adequately deal with the big problems in the world? What changes when you see something as art – or not? We encourage students to position their work in different contexts, on a trial basis, and to experience how their perception changes. It is also about the question for whom one does something, who has access to a project, a work, which audience is to be addressed. Related to this are questions about inclusion and exclusion effects, or who is entitled to judge a work.
We also believe that reflecting on one’s own ways of thinking and acting is an important starting point for transdisciplinary project work. It is about having an idea of where one’s blind spots are and being aware of one’s own, not only professional, socialization.
SMcD: Can you talk through how that works on the ground?
IV: In the first semester, the students attend an introductory seminar where we teach them different concepts of transdisciplinarity. We also give them plenty of time to introduce themselves to each other – their former work alongside their future project ideas. Together we develop forms of feedback from different perspectives. So they learn how the same thing can be viewed from different disciplinary backgrounds. Sometimes this creates conflict, but it is a generative conflict.
Our student groups tend to be very diverse. They bring very different skills and apply to the program with a project idea or a topic area they want to work on during their studies. Everyone has very individual starting points and media formats they want to work with. It can be difficult to bring the different projects together in the courses. Therefore, a large part of our teaching consists of talking about a particular subject, often based on texts we work on together, that we think many of the students can relate to their own work.1 We support them in connecting these topics to their own field or interests.
75% of our students have a background in the arts – there are dancers, visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, etc. About 25% have another BA, often in an arts-related humanities such as theater, dance, or art studies, but we have had a medical doctor, social workers, economists, a mathematician, and two chefs for example. The latter are interested in integrating artistic or creative strategies into their own disciplines. We don’t promise that they will become artists. A sociologist, for example, may want to find ways to do research in the field of sociology with other media and to communicate the results outside of their own disciplinary ivory tower.
On figures, hybrids and in-between spaces
SMcD: One of the aspects of your work that intrigues me is the use of figures of the in-between and the idea of hybrids; that new knowledge emerges from hybrid, in-between spaces. These are nebulous concepts that can be difficult to express and canonize. How do you assess the values of those liminal, ‘other’ spaces?
IV: In feminist theory, such hybrid figures are often used as a heuristic device to think about conventional categories and where and how they are problematic. From Homi K. Bhabha, in whose work the hybrid is central, to Donna Haraway, whose cyborg is only the most famous among many “hybrid figures” that appear in her work, we discuss the potential of transgressing common orders. This can help students define themselves or their own work. They should also have the opportunity to decide how far they want to move away from established orders. What does it mean if you go beyond borders? And what does this mean for you, for your career, and for your CV?
Not having discipline, being nomadic also means giving up certain securities and orientations. For some students, it’s this nomadism that they seek and want to practice. It’s more about being undisciplined than transdisciplinary. Trans- in the sense of going beyond any discipline is part of what transdisciplinarity could be. This is a completely other concept than the one that comes from (German) philosophy of science. There, it is about bringing together experts from different academic disciplines to work together on a problem and to develop new methods for solving that problem. Some of our students come to us because they are already between different fields and don’t know how to deal with it and how to bring together the different things they are doing or have done. We try to support them in seeing this not as a problem but as a potential.
On dialogue: technical, verbal, and contextual hierarchies.
IV: One of the authors we work with is Ludwik Fleck with his concept of the ‘thought collective’. 2 In a collaborative project we did a few years ago with PhD students in biology, students from both groups worked together in small teams. Our students did not expect that the strangeness between them and the scientists would be a big problem; all of them have people in their circle of acquaintances who are studying natural sciences. But trying to develop something together is a very different process than talking in a bar in the evening. Seeing that biologists work in completely different frameworks and are involved in completely different hierarchies was a kind of culture shock. What remained rather abstract or even doubted when reading Ludwik Fleck’s texts, namely that different thought collectives have difficulties understanding each other, became evident through experience. And something happened that I think is paradigmatic for the meeting of artists and scientists: the scientists explained to our students what they were working on and conveyed their knowledge to them, while the artists listened and tried to respond. Our students did not have a topic from the beginning that could have been communicated to the scientists in a comparable way. They were open to engage with the new situation. Perhaps it can be concluded from this that artistic activity is generally transdisciplinary, because it is always – or at least often – a matter of engaging with “the other”, with “extra-artistic” topics and subjects. Often, processes are also developed on the basis of this external influence. In addition to the projects that have emerged from this collaboration, an important learning effect has been to experience disciplinary differences “in situ,” so to speak.
SMcD: We often speak of working with other disciplinary accents; how an engineering accent is very different from a scientific accent is very different from an artistic accent. But Fleck says it’s not just how the thought processes are expressed, it’s how they’re formed in the first place. I wanted to ask you then about discourses between various disciplines and how they can be brought into dialogue and technical, verbal and contextual knowledge. What are the mechanisms by which this is achieved?
IV: Fleck holds that one belongs not to one but to different thought collectives. Collectives form “mood comradeships” that can also come about because of other than disciplinary proximity, for example, because one worries about similar problems. Creating informal meeting spaces, in which (also) completely other than disciplinary imprints are important, is a good starting point for a fruitful exchange also on the level of joint projects.
SMcD: Does it put the artists at a disadvantage to be coming to a space where the biologists already have their story to tell?
IV: Not necessarily. First of all, learning about the difficulties of different disciplines coming together is a positive effect. Of course, it’s important to reflect on that as well and think about why that happens and how it could be the other way around. And I think the meeting was therefore also valuable for the biology students. They were working on a project called “Proximate and Ultimate Causes of Cooperation,” studying cooperative behavior in various creatures such as bacteria, fish, or meerkats. In a way, working with the art students allowed them to have their own experience with their research question and go beyond their own paradigms. Some of the groups continued to work together after the short project ended, and for one team, the collaboration led into a now-completed PhD project by one of our students.
SMcD: As a final question I’m wondering what sort of difficulties you’ve had with the Masters? Are there any conflicts or difficulties that have arisen in this transdisciplinary space? How have you worked to resolve them? Or are they resolvable?
IV: I think on the level of the program, it’s about finding the balance between theory, discourse, and practical work. For us lecturers, working on and with usually theoretical texts is a good starting point to develop a common knowledge base and a common repertoire of concepts. Some students find that this makes the course all too theoretical. Others, however, would like to have more of it. It is not easy to find a balance between working with texts and other practices.
SmcD: Do you think it needs to be student-led? And how then might that transfer to an undergraduate level?
IV: We try not only to incorporate student-inspired topics and practices into teaching, but also to engage them as co-teachers. Some of them bring proven expertise with them, often in subjects in which they know more than the faculty members do. We are continually testing new forms of collaboration with students in teaching.
SMcD: How though can we build a model that supports undergraduate students, or students at second or even a primary level, without them falling into disciplinary rabbit holes around language and around ways of thinking? How do we help them navigate those structural paradigms that exist that can make it difficult?
IV: On the one hand, my colleagues and I think that you already have to have a disciplinary background to be able to work transdisciplinarily. But on the other hand, the question arises as to why one should not start with transdisciplinary teaching formats much earlier, in elementary or high school. How about an art teacher not working with a physics or math teacher and relating the two fields to each other? Why aren’t projects developed in which students learn that these things can have relations? If we had started seeing things in certain configurations or combinations at a younger age – I would say my school career would have taken a very different course. If students learn to see and make connections, to transfer knowledge to another domain, it could help solve some of the problems we have today. In the introduction to Bruno Latour’s book We Have Never Been Modern 3, he talks about the sections in newspapers that are about culture, science, and politics, and how those sections don’t make sense. If you talk about something in a certain section – for example “Economy” – then you are usually also associated with the sections “International” or the “Feuilleton”. This segmentation may also be related to the mistakes we make in dealing with climate change, for example. That’s why it’s important that we start thinking about things in terms of their entanglements and not looking at them as disconnected from each other. And that is an excellent reason to try out transdisciplinary forms of learning.
- A PDF of the current reading list, with texts in both English and German, is available to download here
- A thought collective is a community of researchers who interact within a specific cultural framework, producing knowledge through social processes and practices. These practices and processes, according to Fleck, act to constrain and shape the new concepts that are created within the collective. Fleck identified the scientific production of knowledge as primarily a social process that hinges upon prior discoveries and practices in a way that constrains and preconditions new ideas and concepts.
- Latour, Bruno, and Catherine Porter. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.