Tamara de Groot is the coordinator of the Arts & Culture Programme at the Erasmus University College, Rotterdam, Netherlands. She is a member of the lectorate Transdisciplinary Education Innovation at Codarts University of the Arts, and she is involved in the development of transdisciplinary (teacher) education across three higher education institutions: Codarts, Willem De Kooning Academy and Erasmus University. She is currently writing her PhD dissertation on innovative educational practices that combine artistic, scientific and societal knowledges, and takes a new materialist approach to rethinking collaboration, transdisciplinarity and educational research. In her educational practice, she works with SF and alternative futurisms to encourage students to question how we construct the narratives of the future, past and present.
On resisting fixed definitions and learning through practice
JDR: What is transdisciplinarity and how does it appear in your work?
TdG: When we developed the RASL minor ‘Re-Imagining Tomorrow through Arts and Sciences (offered by the Rotterdam Arts and Science Lab) with a team of educators from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, that was indeed the question we started with. We had read a lot of literature on it, like works by bell hooks or Donna Haraway that do not mention transdisciplinarity explicitly, and works by Rosi Braidotti, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari that do mention it explicitly. Many discussions followed; we made maps and glossaries and produced keywords such as hybridity, equality of knowledge, crossing borders, etc. The list would go on and on and it never yielded a solid definition. After I was part of a literature review study led by Wander van Baalen on definitions of transdisciplinarity with the arts in the higher educational context, I learned no longer to ask what transdisciplinarity is, but what it does. Attempts to define are important but also ongoing and ever-shifting, depending on time and place, as transdisciplinarity somehow involves a kind of undisciplinary use of the discipline called transdisciplinarity. Encouraged by Josue Amador, we therefore started bringing it into practice rather than just talking about it, and this greatly helped in setting up our educational program.
On reclaiming marginalised knowledge, decolonial/feminist strategies and undisciplinary knowledge
JDR: This undisciplinarity is sometimes translated into a lack of academic rigor, which has led to a push against transdisciplinarity in education. Have you experienced that, and if so, how have you tackled that?
TdG: From the rise in transdisciplinary initiatives in Dutch universities, there seems to be a large interest in transdisciplinary knowledge production in The Netherlands. In RASL we aim to include artistic, embodied and other underrepresented ways of knowing in transdisciplinary approaches. Artistic, embodied, societal knowledge are often considered as inferior to scientific knowledge, but also as neutral and non-threatening. The difficulty with “opening up” universities to other ways of knowing (through, for example, decolonial or feminist strategies) means that the position of scientific knowledge seems no longer secure. While I believe having to critically consider your own position, practices and justifications in relation to others only strengthens that position, it is a not an easy process. In that sense I have sometimes thought of transdisciplinarity as a necessary evil, as a transitional moment to move towards recognising the validity of different ways of knowing and to more undisciplinary knowledge production that can help us deal with the complexities of our world.
On visible pedagogy and student agency
JDR: Your RASL-minor brings together many different students who all belong to different institutions. How have these different groups of students been able to mix with each other?
In the minor we value process as much as the outcome, and we continuously reflect with the students on how the program is structured and what we, as tutors, are doing. One of the core aspects is to make its pedagogy visible, and to include students in how this pedagogical approach is shaped. This means, for instance, that the students have agency to shape a part of their own education; we give them a budget and the time to create their own sessions. We ask them: how do you want to learn? What are your ideas, and what can we do to support this? This enables them to critically reflect on how they have been learning, but also to speculate about how they want to learn. So by making the process and the pedagogy visible, the students learn how to position themselves in relation to other knowledges and disciplines that they were not even aware of before. I have been surprised to see how this has enabled them to bond and relate the personal to the political, the cultural, the social, the academic, etc, as well as to each other.
On assessment literacy, tensions in assessment and collaboratively defining criteria
JDR: One of the challenging topics that arise when it comes to transdisciplinary education is assessment. What is your approach on that?
TdG: With RASL we have been able to set up a kind of alternative space that remains connected to the institutions we stem from, but that is simultaneously situated in an in-between space where we can discuss and explore tensions that become salient because of the coming together of different institutional approaches, regulations and ways of teaching and learning. This, for example, showed us the necessity for RASL minor students to develop the critical thinking and making skills necessary to engage in transdisciplinary collaborations across and beyond the arts and sciences. Another example is the necessity for students to develop assessment literacy: what is being assessed, why that is necessary, and what assessment does to the learning process and knowledge validation. This is also part of the ongoing reflections on the program with the students. We are not so much trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to assessment methods; there are already a lot of different and innovative approaches to assessment available. Instead, we focus on addressing and staying with the tensions inherent to assessment (such as the need for criteria to ensure the quality of learning, while at the other hand the difficulty of adhering to criteria when engaging in experimental, open-ended research). The students are involved in this as well. We leave one of the criteria in our rubrics open, for instance, and ask what the students want to be assessed on. Later on in the minor when their assessment literacy has further developed, we also invite students to write their own assessment proposals, with thorough justification and backed by existing research. Assessment then takes place in collaboration with the tutors, through shared understanding, and this way we collaboratively produce the meaning of the criteria we use to assess.
On creating space for failure and visible mending
JDR: As educators, we want our students to ‘get it right’, but this also involves ‘getting it wrong’ and failing. How does that fit into these types of assessment?
TdG: An important response to the question ‘how to create space for failure?’ is to focus more on process and less on outcome. This already speaks from inviting the students to be part of the assessment; the outcome is never a surprise because they already know where there are in the process and how they are doing.
We also work with the notion of visible mending (an ongoing research project by Dr. Sanne Koevoets), to allow for wrong turns, failures and mistakes to be valued for what they are: crucial and unavoidable in any research process. We ask students to complete a ten-week research project in one week, and after they naturally fail to meet all of their own expectations and external criteria, we can start talking about what went wrong, what they still need to find out, whose help they need, and so on. You obviously can’t penalise students for failing when you ask them to do the impossible, but there is a lot of room in innovative assessment approaches, I think, to create assignments and include criteria that value and work with failure rather than striving for unattainable perfection. But it then becomes important that the student shows how they worked with failure in order to learn, and how their relationship to their work changed throughout a learning process.