Inter-/Transdisciplinary Research and Education Mash-Up at UC Berkeley

Warning: This post is pretty berkeley[adj]. If that classification doesn’t make any sense to you, it will – in a few paragraphs.

Prelude

One thing you can get at Berkeley is smart people. While you find out that 70% of the people living in LA are “actually actors”, in Berkeley you find out that 70% of the people that cluster around the campus are – and that includes Bros, Hipsters, Hippies, Co-Op habitants and boarders, quiet Engineering students and loud political activists – are actually super smart, without quotation marks.

One thing I realized is that there’s a certain level of intellectual ability that comes with age, experience and level of education. Some of the most mindblowing conversations that I personally encountered in my first two semesters at UC Berkeley were with graduate students. They had been around long enough to be around my age (I’m 24 now), and spent some years diving extremely deep into a subject or discipline as part of their Master’s or PhD programs. Since my second semester I tried to smuggle myself into one of these graduate classes, but was rejected the first time around for being “an undergraduate who doesn’t belong here”. All I wanted on my Telebears for Christmas was to be enrolled in a class whose ID was three digits long and started with a “2” – 0 stands for lower division courses (i.e. Film 025B), 1 stands for upper division undergraduate courses (i.e. Film 144) and 2 stands for graduate level classes, such as Film 240.

In class in Wurster Hall, the architecture building and famous eye sore of the Berkeley campus. Every person on this photo is probably smarter than me, which is a great environment to surround and challenge myself with.

In class in Wurster Hall, the architecture building and famous eye sore of the Berkeley campus. Every person on this photo is probably smarter than me, which is a great environment to surround and challenge myself with.

I went and expressed my deep desire to be in the class, to participate in intellectually stimulating conversation, deep study of a subject, and bringing a filmmaking approach to some of the issues discussed. The two professors leading the class, Prof. Weihong Bao (Film & Chinese) and Prof. Michael Dear (City Planning) eventually granted me access to the course, together with 12 graduate and postgraduate students. The class itself is multi-disciplinary or interdisciplinary in its approach and its content. The title of the class?

“THE CITY AND ITS MOVING IMAGES: URBAN THEORY, MEDIA THEORY”.

This fascinated me from the get-go; the class had an in-built duality of content, discourse and methodology. So far, we watched a lot of films about cities, talked about urban planning as an aesthetic and a functional tool of system creation. Urban theory centers around the analysis of cities in their historical, social, economic, political, psychological, architectural and infrastructural roles for society. Media theory makes the actual medium (may that be film, paper, buildings, microchips, stone etc.) and its applications/expressions (filmmaking, writing, rhetoric, information transfer and storage, theater and performance, etc.) its subject of inquiry. These two have a lot of overlaps and corresponding literature written about topics that touch both disciplines, regardless how far-fetched that may seem initially. The city as a space is often either shown in films, or is a place where films can be shown, for example. Approaching film from an urban planning perspective is a quite fascinating experience, and opened up a lot of concepts to me – mostly how the urban society connects with the media that it consumes.

As part of the class, we were invited in participating in a “Mash-Up”, a sort of roundtable or mini-convention of two dozen Berkeley professors and researchers that were interested in having an interdisciplinary conversation.

The Mellon Mash-Up of “How to Succeed in Transdisciplinary Research by Trying Really Hard”

The Mash-Up had two sections; I had to cater to my many filmmaking duties during the first section, so I burst into the room when the second session was about to start. Both sessions were heavily influenced by the individuals who participated in editing the Geohumanities book; a transdisciplinary book on the role of Geography in the Humanties and vice versa – and how these two disciplines could create working and lasting symbioses.

At the Mellon Mash-Up in the UC Berkeley Women's Faculty Club building - at this roundtable, a variety of professors discussed their experience (positive and negative) with inter-/transdisciplinary research work.

At the Mellon Mash-Up in the UC Berkeley Women’s Faculty Club building – at this roundtable, a variety of Berkeley professors from different disciplines discussed their experience (positive and negative) with inter-/transdisciplinary research work. In the foreground, my fellow classmates.

I can’t possibly continue the article without talking about a central conflict that is already embedded into the title:
Are we talking about Transdisciplinary, or Interdisciplinary? What is the difference? A discipline in an academic setting is sometimes called a “field”. Math, English, Geography or Molecular Cell Biology are all disciplines.

Interdisciplinarity VS. Transdisciplinarity

Anush, a former Harvard student and current Rhetoric grad student at Berkeley, brought up this question during class, arguing that “transdisciplinary” might be too big of a claim. The meaning of these words is extremely important to use them in an informed and intelligent manner, so here’s what both terms imply by their use:

  1. Interdisciplinarity – “inter” means “between, among” – so interdisciplinary research is research between or among multiple disciplines.
  2. Transdisciplinarity – “trans” means “across, beyond” – so transdisciplinary work either goes across or even beyond disciplines themselves.

This leads to a quite interesting distinction between the two, although they are closely related – if you’re talking about interdisciplinary work, you’re interested in bringing two disciplines together and finding what is between them, or what they share in common. If you’re talking about transdisciplinary research, you might be referring to research that goes beyond what we think of as disciplines.

Why does it matter? It’s a question of values. Do you value the discipline more, or the subject of research? This question is rhetorical, as it will be answered differently by each individual that is part of academia. It’s like apples and oranges – there’s no right or wrong, just different viewpoints. As part of the class, we were asked to create a visual representation of what our impression of said Mash-Up was, so here’s what this ended up looking like:

My brainstormed memory-notes on the symposium. A central question is the Inter-Trans duality of collaborative research across fields, as well as the central dilemma of any collective work: Collaboration and Communication. You can also spot the handsome "T-Shaped individual", to which I'll get in a little bit.

My brainstormed memory-notes on the symposium. A central question is the Inter-Trans duality of collaborative research across fields, as well as the central dilemma of any collective work: Collaboration and Communication. You can also spot the handsome “T-Shaped individual”, to which I’ll get in a little bit.

The T-Shaped Individual

 

The T-Shaped approach. Not coincidentally the first letter of my name, er... to be serious: Horizontally is the breath of knowledge in many fields, vertically is the penetration or expertise in a specific area.

The T-Shaped approach. Not coincidentally the first letter of my name, er… to be serious: Horizontally is the breath of knowledge in many fields, vertically is the penetration or expertise in a specific area.

The T-shaped Person is a model of individual human knowledge. A person’s intellectual/epistemological mapping can be visualized as a 2-dimensional graph of penetration: Laterally and vertically. Width and Height. Breath and Depth.
The lateral shape or expansion depicts how “wide” the person is educated, as in how many disciplines or fields of knowledge they have a certain level of knowledge in.
The vertical part of the “T” shape is concerned with being deeply entrenched and knowledgeable in one specific discipline or subject, being an “expert” at it.
One of the professors at the symposium brought this model of an individual up because it lends itself greatly to interdisciplinary approaches; multiple T-shaped individuals would know enough about each others’ fields that they are able to spot overlaps, while being able to provide valuable expertise at their “home” discipline to the collaborators. The “T-Person” is a term stemming from human resources / recruiting world of tech start-ups, which oftentimes look for these kinds of “educated generalists”. I personally felt very validated with this proposed model, as it is something I’ve pursued all my life, often against the well-meant advice from my peers – getting a general education that spans as far across fields as possible, while being as knowledgeable as possible in my home discipline (which has been digital visual art since I was 14, and has since heavily focused on filmmaking from age 20 on).

Problem VS. Approach

One of the things I drew from the discussion in front of me was the question: What matters more, the subject/problem of research (say, the Human Mind), or the approach to it (Physics, Chemistry, Molecular Cell Biology, Psychology)? Where does one trump the other; where does a specific subject blossom under an interdisciplinary approach? Are there subjects that necessitate a transdisciplinary approach and can only be grasped if the borderlines of disciplines blur?
One important discussion arising out of similar questions was the notion that Transdisciplinary research transforms disciplines into mere tools; a researcher would look at a problem and then see which tool would suit them the best to further analyze the issues at hand – rather than being stuck inside of a discipline and trying to grapple with the problem from a pre-defined zone and set of tools. This would imply that Transdisciplinarity itself abandons (or at least heavily questions) the traditional approach and viewpoint that disciplines themselves are the end – rather, it transforms disciplines/approaches into means, into tools that can be used for an ultimate end – the subject of research. It’s a very important discussion to have within an academic setting; few classes apart from ours really focus on an interdisciplinary listing and approach, and are usually dominated by the discipline rather than the subject. My assessment is that an inter- or transdisciplinary approach will always yield greater insights into the “big picture” of a problem – but the strict separation between disciplines, at least for the individualization of available tools, is a necessity for structured research.

The separation between approaches ultimately leads to a diversification in attack points and eases the “division of labor” in research clusters; at the same time, it has to be conducted with an interdisciplinary agenda and oversight in order to draw larger conclusions that pertain to all fields that were touched.

Notes from my fellow - and most likely intellectually way more advanced - classmates. The discussion over our various notes and approaches / impressions was absolutely delightful. A takeaway: There's nothing better than a recap and reflection in order to give a topic true meaning and importance.

Notes from my fellow – and most likely intellectually way more advanced – classmates. The discussion over our various notes and approaches / impressions was absolutely delightful. A takeaway: There’s nothing better than a recap and reflection in order to give a topic true meaning and importance.

Conclusion

Hearing extremely educated people with decades of academic and research experience talk to one another, across disciplines and tables, was a real inspiration. It is imperative for academia to further pursue these discussions and expand them to the graduate and possibly even undergraduate level, as the exchanges were clearly fruitful for participants and observers alike. Just one more reason to reassure myself that largely withdrawing from the film industry in order to advance my intellectual pursuits at Berkeley was 110% the right decision. Now it’s time for a good old bubble bath.