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Experimenting with Transdisciplinarity: The Common Core at the University of Hong Kong___

---The Common Core@HKU ( is one of many examples of the ways in which the Liberal Arts are being redesigned in a global context. The entire curriculum, six courses of which are required for every undergraduate, is developed from the course level through the four Areas of Inquiry (Scientific and Technological Literacy, Humanities and Arts, Global Issues, and China) and up through international programmatic partnerships as an exemplar of engaged interdisciplinarity. As we have begun to think more systematically about the concepts that circulate through the inter-, however, we have also begun to use the trans- of transdisciplinarity in a more encompassing and rigorous manner.

Although there are many initiatives underway to help us learn how better to become inter- and trans-disciplinary practitioners in disposition and action, in this context I want to only focus on three: the Transdisciplinary Team Project; Transdisciplinary Nomads; and on the Contagious Cities Project in support of the Wellcome Trust’s global science-art initiative that runs through New York, Geneva, and Hong Kong (

The Transdisciplinary Team Project: The First Iteration

An Open Platform Course is a student- or staff-initiated learning structure for an advanced level Common Core course. An 8-12 student research- and project-based seminar, it is open, like all of our courses, to students across all the Faculties and can be initiated by either students or staff. Our first offering, taught by Julian Tanner and Mei Li Khong, both from Biomedical Sciences, is the Transdisciplinary Team Project ( Dr. Tanner has observed that “As a teacher, there had always been some professional disconnect between approaches taken to enable postgraduate research students to flourish compared to the approaches taken to strengthen undergraduate student learning. The Common Core Transdisciplinary Project is allowing the nexus of teaching and research to form, whilst at the same time providing context for student ideas across multiple disciplines to converge. It is encouraging to see students take ownership of their own ideas from multiple disciplines to drive forward creative initiatives as a team. In the first iteration the student team is looking at the societal challenge of hepatitis C virus infection from various angles. Some students are developing new point-of-care diagnostic approaches in the laboratory, using 3D printing approaches from engineering to integrate across the STEM disciplines into clinical biomedical science. Other students are looking at the intersection of public health and economics to compare public knowledge, attitudes and costs of hepatitis C virus infection in Hong Kong and Canada. These are rich and diverse learning experiences for both the students and the teacher.” This combination of strengthening the teaching-research nexus, which is crucial for our colleagues, and giving students these cutting-edge and teacher-supported options for transdisciplinary development are invaluable.

Transdisciplinary Nomads: Light-Touch Undergraduate Research Teams

Growing out of our annual Transdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Exchange with Utrecht University and drawing on student interest to expand their learning, the Common Core has created Transdisciplinary Nomads, working with current undergraduates as well as recent alumni. Students actively engage in selected events of their choice; do a variety of “light-touch” research tasks around observations, short ethnographies, videos, drawings, apps and such; help out, on occasion, with logistics; and, over time, compose their creations and discoveries into a public presentation, a digital object, an artwork, or a scholarly paper. To date, the students have participated with the Association of Pacific Rim Universities’ (APRU) Sustainable Cities and Landscapes conference; through video-making with the Rinato Eco-Floral Shop in Sham Shui Po as a site to explore disability and new forms of work, minorities, and the role of art in this district of Hong Kong; and as one of many groups intersecting with Contagious Cities (see below). The Nomads have shared their observations on the APRU website, several are in a co-publication project with the “Vulnerable Communities” working group, and four of them presented at the Chinese University of Hong Kong General Education Conference in December 2018. We are using this initiative to facilitate a kind of “advanced practice” of transdisciplinary skills as well as to support students in either moving into the workforce or applying for post-graduate degrees.

Wellcome Trust’s Contagious Cities Project (

As Wellcome’s website notes, “Cities bring people—and germs—together. Through the stories it tells, Contagious Cities explores the outcomes of this cohabitation, and the relationship between microbes, migration and the metropolis. Combining different perspectives and expertise, partners in the project are co-producing artist residencies, exhibitions, interactive experiences, events and broadcasts. Together, they are investigating the physical, social, economic and cultural effects of infectious disease. The project has been developed by Wellcome. It marks the centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic, during which a third of the world’s population was infected and 50 million people died.” We thought it would be a terrific opportunity for our students if they could participate in a number of different ways with this project, so we have designed four different pathways. The first is Common Core Student Projects. For example, Cecilia Chu’s students in CCHU9048 The City: Histories of Urbanism and the Built Environment will do creative research and presentations on property ownership during the plague years in the Taipingshan district. For our Ferris Wheel Seminars: Hub, Spokes, and Movement series, students and colleagues will facilitate transdisciplinary group discussions about terms such as “contagion,” “virus and going viral,” “epidemic,” “history and heritage,” “immunology and politics,” “art,” “history” and whatever else emerges. The students from the Transdisciplinary Team Project, mentioned above, will make an open presentation that focuses on the diagnosis of Hepatitis C from a cross-disciplinary perspective and Pauline Luk from Public Health Communications & Family Medicine on “Contagious Media” and “Contagious Smiles.” As a way to explore Evaluating Cultural Impact, students will work with James Doeser, the Cultural Impact Researcher with Wellcome Trust, in order to collect and evaluate outcome data about the project. Focusing on methods of evaluation around such questions as “What moved you? What did you learn? What disturbed you? What surprised you? What did we leave out?” the group will ask how different institutions—museums, universities, hospitals, and charities—evaluate and make good use of participant data. Following an orientation workshop, students will actively collect and interpret data from the Far Away, Too Close Exhibit at the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts. And, finally, our students have helped out as Beta-testers for the new Heritage Trail App developed by the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science (HKMMS). All of this occurs in the context of Wellcome’s Contagious Cities and their many partners in Hong Kong, including, in addition to the Museum, the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and the Arts, Oi! Street Visual Art Space, Art in Hospitals, and the Asia Art Archive.

All of us on the team, as well as scores of other students and colleagues across the campus, are co-creating flexible and multiscalar platforms for transdisciplinary practices that enhance research as well as engaged teaching and learning, generate the unexpected, and create new relationships between all of us and our social contexts.

While this is not the place to explicate all of the learning that is occurring for us as individuals, teams of colleagues and students, and as an institution, let me just outline a few basic highlights:

  • Transdisciplinary practice best occurs where and when there is a high level of curiosity, trust, project development skills, and experimentation as we navigate the cultural differences, languages, and histories in the classroom, in the exchanges, and in the global projects that we are in the midst of creating. Skill at cultural and disciplinary translation is essential.
  • There must be institutional flexibility, openness, and a desire to see what might happen in ambiguous spaces. Only some students and colleagues will want to ty things out in this way.
  • There is a great deal of work to be done exploring, assessing, and articulating transdisciplinary concepts and pragmatics, but this is already underway. Close at hand examples are Ken Arnold’s (The Creative Director at Wellcome Trust and of the Medical Museion Copenhagen) convening of a group of scientists, artists, educators, museums etc to raise a series of questions around transdisciplinary research; a book on transdisciplinary leadership and practice being created by Alison Beavis and Paul Gibbs, at the University of Technology Sydney and Middlesex University, respectively; and the double-issue of Theory, Culture and Society mentioned below.
  • Expertise must be both disciplinary and have the capacity to travel. It must also start with the first day students step on campus and be able to be practiced across time and in multiple situations.

Let me conclude with reference to David Cunningham’s reflections on transdisciplinarity related, in particular, to Jacques Derrida’s use of “writing” in Of Grammatology, and his use of the term “interscience” in another context. Cunningham, following Derrida’s argument, notes that transdisciplinarity emerges according to

precise historical and institutional limits, `any thematics, any field, any research activity…that the map of institutions, at a given moment, does not yet grant stable, accredited, habitable departments.’ The `interscientific’ is thus manifested as the construction of an open series of distinctive and hence specific `zones of instability’, which, in disturbing a `certain social representation of organized research’, are `sites of great traffic’ (or hybridity?), `privileged sites for the formation of new objects or rather of new thematic networks’ (Derr, 2004 [1990]: 206, emphasis added). (2015: 100)

We want to travel in the inter- of the arts and sciences, in the trans- of every possible disciplinarity. It is in these zones that take shape within, through, and beyond the university—ones that exist in provisional pockets, along the edges of institutional power, and as roundabouts full of weaving traffic—that most interest us, for they hold immense possibilities for encountering the unexpected, building partnerships in all sorts of ways, and illuminating overly familiar methods through the appearance of new and surprising questions.

Background References

Cunningham, David. (2015). “Logics of Generalization: Derrida, Grammatology and

Transdisciplinarity,” Theory, Culture & Society. Vol 32 (5-6): 79-107. This entire double-issue

is dedicated to explorating different aspects of transdisciplinarity. <>

GLADE: Global Liberal Arts Design Experiments ( GLADE is an informal affiliation between about 60 General Education Programmes in Research Intensive Universities that cross disciplines, faculties, research questions and methodologies.

Graff, Harvey J. (2015). Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century. Johns Hopkins University Press in 2015.

Kochhar-Lindgren, Gray. (2019). “Scintillant@the University of Angelic Invention,” Michel Serres and the Crises of the Contemporary. Ed. Rick Dolphijn. London: Bloomsbury.


---.“Wild Studios: Art, Philosophy, and the Transversal University” (with Kanta Kochhar- Lindgren). (2018). Transversal Studies in Globalisation and Education. Eds. David R. Cole and Joff P.N. Bradley. Springer Publications.

---.“Hong Kong’s Laboratory of Liberal Learning: Design-Thinking, Phronēsis, and the Common Core.” (2017). The Evolution of the Liberal Arts in a Global Age. Eds. Daniel Araya and Peter Marber. New York: Routledge.

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