PostNormal Times: Happy Accidents and Boundary Crossing
PostNormal Times is a podcast for our complex reality and unpredictable world—a world where the stakes are high and innovation is crucial. Andrew Vosko, PhD, associate provost and director of transdisciplinary studies at CGU, and his guests explore ideas that transcend traditional academic boundaries and address our most pressing needs. Get ready to challenge your assumptions.
In episode 1 of PostNormal Times, Andrew Vosko talks with Shamini Dias, director of transdisciplinary curriculum and special projects, about happy accidents, boundary crossing, and what inspired her to become a transdisciplinarian. Listen to the full episode below and subscribe via Spotify, iTunes, or RSS.
ANDREW: Welcome to PostNormal Times, a podcast for our complex reality and unpredictable world, where stakes are high and innovation is crucial. In this series, I get to sit down with some of my favorite minds to explore new ideas that transcend traditional academic boundaries and address our most pressing needs. I’m Andrew Vosko, associate provost and director of transdisciplinary studies at Claremont Graduate University. Welcome to the show.
I’m very happy to welcome our special guest, Professor Shamini Dias, who is the director of curriculum and special projects at the transdisciplinary studies program at Claremont Graduate University. Welcome Shamini.
SHAMINI: Thank you for having me. I’m very excited to be here.
ANDREW: So for the listening audience, you might not know this, but you’re about to know that Shamini and I have a rapport. We have been working across the metaphorical hall from each other for about six years.
SHAMINI: Yes, six years.
ANDREW: You’re one of the very first people I met at Claremont Graduate University and was one of those people who … we talk about finding community wherever you are, and I think that’s a big part of the work. I think that’s a big part of higher education when you’re working in an academic space and you can kind of … I don’t know if it’s a pheromonal thing if you can kind of just read someone’s mind, but like you know who your community is, and immediately I said when I saw Shamini like, OK, I need to get to know Shamini, and we’ve been working very closely together.
Shamini is in the transdisciplinary studies program office because she is a transdisciplinarian, and in today’s episode I want to talk about what makes a person a transdisciplinarian and how we get there. It’s kind of a celebration of our weirdness. It’s the celebration of our ability to build bridges and cross boundaries, but it’s also to have these really important moments in our life when we can either choose to compartmentalize or connect, and I think that that’s one of the different—and it’s OK to compartmentalize, that’s not a terrible thing. But some of our natures are not compartmentalized; some of our natures are actually connectors, and I want to talk about what that process is like how that got there, and what makes people like that. So, are you ready to go?
SHAMINI: I am ready to go.
ANDREW: Alright, thank you. So, the first thing I like to do is learn a little bit about the guest—the guest being you—and to learn about Shamini Dias. Can you give us a quick background of your educational journey and how you ended up as a transdisciplinarian?
SHAMINI: I think a big part of my educational journey is because I grew up in Malaysia. And I grew up in a particular kind of home that led me down multiple pathways. It’s like layers of an onion, right? So, the inside layer is the home, which was a weird mix of Catholic faith, and Buddhism, coming together, so that was my first introduction to different ways of thinking, that also at the same time, when yeah but they connect, you know. I owe a lot of this to my grandfather. He was a Catholic and became a Buddhist. He had problems with both the temple and the church as a formal practice but not with the philosophy. And then I grew up in Malaysia, so we read the Koran. It’s a Muslim country and we spoke multiple languages. So, my educational journey was very, very much a mixed-up kind of path. So, when I went to school, when I went to university—again accident of the time and place—the National University of Singapore had arts and social sciences in one faculty. So, I did linguistics, linguistic anthropology, semiotics, all of that in the linguistic realm. But then I was a literature major as well. So, I did early modern. And John Donne spoke to complexity theory really easily. It was very evident. And then Singapore was … how I became a transdisciplinarian is interesting: it was a crossroads for so many scholars. So, I met Ilya Prigogine, he was my entry into chaos theory. He was just passing through Singapore. They needed bodies to fill the room and they made all the students go. And it was brilliant.
ANDREW: I love it when you end up being a happy accident. It’s very Bob Ross.
SHAMINI: And that happy accident was because of him I picked up all the books.
ANDREW: OK, can I pause for a second? I know you have siblings and you grew up with a brother and a sister, right? So, I’m teaching you about Shamini’s life. Saying that you grew up where you did, did your siblings become transdisciplinarians?
SHAMINI: Yes, both of them.
ANDREW: A lot of it’s in an orientation that comes very early?
SHAMINI: I think so. OK, I also worked in early childhood and this I know from both research and teaching: Very, very young children are real connectors. The compartmentalizing that we were talking about earlier? I think that comes a little later in life when we’re schooled into it. But in pre-school, before they go to formal first grade: they are incredible connectors. They will look at bugs and see beauty. They will look at a rainbow and see chemistry. Arts integration with young children doing arts and STEM, the whole STEAM stuff is so much easier with preschoolers than it is with older children. So, there’s a natural tendency to boundary cross. And I think for me in my own practice, but what I’ve seen in people, I think transdisciplinarity is an expression of curiosity and of a sense of wonder and imagination.
ANDREW: So, if you were to create a model with me about the capacity to boundary cross—and just work with a little bit here, I’m not sure where this is going to go, but I love talking with you because the way your mind works, it’s so beautiful: If boundary crossing is a capacity that’s natural, that we artificially kind of close up so that we become compartmentalizers, maybe overzealously, is it possible to open that back up? Or is the goal to then hope that some people not that all cause compartmentalization? Again, I don’t mean to say it’s the worst thing—it’s great for some things—but is the goal then to create the capacity to either drive a wedge in there and keep it open or to open it and close it as one sees …
SHAMINI: I think it’s that opening and closing, because, I don’t think that compartmentalizing is evil.
ANDREW: It’s not wicked.
SHAMINI: But it can prevent you from solving wicked problems. It is sometimes overdone so that you know together with compartmentalizing maybe one of the things that are going on which might be part of a solution, the model that we want to build is as part of schooling not only are we schooled into our disciplines, and compartmentalized, but we’re also schooled into a fear of wondering, trying, failure. We don’t want to be wrong. And that’s something that I have seen professionally rapidly change for young people as they go into formal schooling: being wrong is tragic. To be able to boundary cross and connect, you must be able to take a misstep. Because you don’t know what’s on the other side. You don’t know what happens when you reach out to a person, like, are they going to play back with you? But we’re schooled also into not wanting to take that kind of risk, to step out of our comfort zones.
ANDREW: So, OK, also listening audience, because I did a shoddy job of introducing her: Shamini is a pedagogy expert. I mean, you have a lot of expertise, but the person that we all go to for pedagogy questions, at least in my office and most offices, here, is Shamini. She’s got extensive training on it, and so we always get something out of these conversations about how children’s minds work, how that works when you’re older, how learning works, how these ideas work, or how they become integrated into the scaffolds of our psyches. And while we’re talking, it’s making me think of something that you used to say to me; so, one more thing about Shamini: She’s an artist and she integrates art into everything. And you told me that things that little kids do that you ask them when they’re younger, “Who, here is an artist?” Could you explain that?
SHAMINI: This is something that I read about in a book and then I said I’m gonna try this. When I was working in Singapore, a friend and I tried it: You go into a preschool—they’re 5 years old—and you say, “Who’s an artist?”, and every single body in the room is jumping out of their chairs, going, “Me, me, me, me!” And then you do the same question in first grade, it’s a very simple experiment: “Who’s an artist?”, and you get quite a few hands going up in first grade. By third grade, it really is a trickle of hands, and they’re a little tentative. By sixth grade, they’re embarrassed to say they’re artists, you know, and that drop-off is pretty sharp. And what it is, and then you explore further, and you talk to them, and when you do arts integration, you’re bringing art, all kinds of arts—theater, drama, painting, collage—you’re bringing it into say a science classroom. And the first encounter with all these people is they’re afraid to try anything in case it’s messed up, it’s wrong. But the more they try, the more they persist, the more we make a space for playfulness. And I think playfulness is a word that needs to come into transdisciplinarity. The more they become really powerful in finding a new idea, in asking better scientific questions, because we’re playing, now. The stakes are down, mistakes are open, and we talk about mistakes as windows: “Oh, you just opened a window to something we never thought about before. Because you hadn’t made that mistake.” That approach can actually change people to become much more willing to cross boundaries, to be in that central space of aporia: “I don’t know what this is.” There doesn’t seem to be a way forward, but to be comfortable enough to stay there for a while and kind of see what’s coming out of this darkness. When you can do that for people, you’re bringing them back to this inherent human capacity to be curious and to keep persisting, to play with the mystery a little bit. And I think that’s important for transdisciplinarity.
ANDREW: So, OK, just to bring everybody back on the same page: Shamini is a linguist who specializes in anthropological linguistics, semiotics, and then early modern literature. You’re a teaching artist. You did that for many years. And you’re a pedagogy expert is what we say, but it feels like “expert” is such a canned term.
SHAMINI: I guess I’m just very … I’m a teacher-scholar if you want to say that: teacher-scholar. I have a deep practice, but then I study the practice.
ANDREW: OK, so you integrate a lot of these different things into your identity and you pay attention. Oh, and you grew up in a Catholic-Buddhist-Muslim community environment, so there was no shortage of things that you had to integrate in your life. Have you seen examples of people who grew up around so much stuff and that do compartmentalize, that don’t integrate?
ANDREW: Is it fear? Is it failure?
SHAMINI: Sometimes, in the environments I’ve worked in, it’s survival. And this is a problem of equity, you know: Is it a privilege? I don’t know the answer to this question. Is it a privilege to be so bold and playful, you know, because there are many, many people, students especially, in school who cannot afford to take a step wrong, and so they do compartmentalize. This is what I’m doing, this is what I need to do to get forward, and I’m not going to try anything different. And I think as an artist it really saddens me because I have seen very creative people just drop that in order to walk into a box that’s going to help them survive. And I don’t blame them. I would, too.
ANDREW: You know, what’s so interesting and this is something that might get us into a little bit of hot water, but, you know, that’s why we’re on a podcast it wouldn’t be fun, otherwise—is that transdisciplinarity evolved in a place of privilege. It came from kind of a northwest European, established model of education of people who were all very advanced in their careers and could wax poetic about the way things should be. And being at the transdisciplinary conferences is really interesting because they’re still dominated by a lot of those same folks that were there you know 30 years ago, who were really creating this. And I’m not going to say that being privileged means it’s wrong; it just means it comes from a place where there was that capacity. What’s interesting is the tenets are transdisciplinarity seem ideal for people who aren’t in a privileged space. The tenets of transdisciplinarity are celebrating situated knowledge, it’s bringing in the lived experience that you have, like you did, to be combined with the more formal domains of book knowledge or a theoretical space that’s more formal, along with the capacity to work with other people in a community kind of setting, which is oftentimes people who rely upon each other much more might not have the privilege of hyper-individualism. I mean, like, there’s a lot that should really, really meld well, but there’s a very interesting difference that I see about the way transdisciplinarity is exercised in the parts of the world where it stayed that way in those compartments of who had the privilege, versus, for lack of a better term, in the new world, where we’re coming up with our own version of it that relates more to questions of equity, it relates more to questions of justice, that relates more to questions of … we don’t know better than you when we’re working in a community and we’re not trying to push that on you. And so, we have something authentic that works with the philosophy very well here, but the origins of it—it’s really interesting from what I’ve seen—have kind of held their space pretty strongly.
SHAMINI: You know, when you were saying that, I was thinking, yes, transdisciplinarity is a concept that came from a very white, Western European space. It was theorized there. But the principles of it in action have superseded the time of the development, the invention of transdisciplinarity, right? You see it by another name: community-based work. My brother-in-law works with indigenous people in Malaysia. And, you know, one of the tenets of transdisciplinarity is that you break the walls down between academia and the world. So, it’s going beyond even interdisciplinary. OK, he’s been doing that. They don’t call it transdisciplinary, but they are working with the indigenous people, not on them, right? The indigenous people are co-researchers with them because they are the experts. And their ways of knowing are really part of the solution. So, people have been doing that in many developed countries, because that’s how you can really move people into spaces that they dream of.
ANDREW: Well, one of the things that I’m kind of circling around, here, is that as you pointed out, your environment kind of sets you up as a connector or as a compartmentalist. I wonder if in some ways compartmentalizing is also an artifact of a particular tradition of education. And so, if you come from a place that is highly integrative, you’ve mentioned before certain things could be more chaotic or complex, or if you’re in an old or new world, that you might have more of an inclination to think of, like, a co-researcher or a co-creator very naturally, rather than someone to be researched upon, which might come from a different tradition. And so, if you had not come from Malaysia, do you think that—let’s say you came from London, let’s say you came from Detroit, let’s say you came from some other places—do you think that you probably would have ended up as a transdisciplinarian in the same way?
SHAMINI: I like to think that because it’s very hard to unthink. I like to think that I would have because this is me, my soul, right? But I don’t know, I mean there are places, people from those places who are very transdisciplinary in their thinking, and I think it’s a combination of accidents, not just how you grew up but who you talk to. It’s a value set. Do you value connecting with people, right? Meaning, to survive, I’ve seen, can artificially move you out of that connective space into hunkering down and surviving. Although a lot of the research and resilience tells us that people who are good connectors are much more resilient. But, going back to what you say, here we’re trying to create that particular piece of transdisciplinarity that is much more connected to equity, and I think that’s kind of unique to what we’re doing here. I mean, transdisciplinarity is a whole, big theoretical space, and I think different transdisciplinarians focus on different things. And I think my focus has always come from a place of justice. That’s probably why I connected with you when we were first talking about transdisciplinarity. It’s not just a theory. This is how you can make work that is justice-focused. And I think some of the work we’re building here really speaks to that. In pedagogy, the student is your co-creator in the classroom; in research, the community is your co-researcher. And I think that’s a really important piece of being a transdisciplinarian. I think for me that does come from growing up in Malaysia because you see the inequities.
ANDREW: It’s interesting that the interdisciplinary is like another faction. I remember listening to these conversations about the magic of interdisciplinarity is integration, that’s really the push. And I remember people trying to write on integration, and it’s a pretty mysterious field if you’re not going about it in a really hardcore neuroscientific way, or psychological models of what integration is. And there are those, and they use them in the transdisciplinary world as well. But it kind of boils down to a very simple statement in the interdisciplinary world and that’s: integration is finding common ground. If you can find common ground with things and you build upon that common ground, that’s what integration is, and so if you have that as a value, if that’s something that you’ve learned to do over the course of your life—for whatever reason, and we all have different reasons why we might—but if you have the inclination to find common ground, then the rest of it kind of comes naturally in your ability, because now you can see alignments, you think that the point is to connect, you think that you know, whatever I’m dealing with right now is not to be set outside of my membrane … I’m finding a way in for that. And that, I think, is not the most eloquent way to say it, but it is something that I can remember. I can explain to students that if you think about finding common ground all the time—not all problems want you to … you’re not looking to find common ground necessarily in certain situations.
SHAMINI: And by common ground, you don’t mean groupthink, you mean common ground, ground that you both agree can be stood upon.
ANDREW: Well, you need tension. You need disagreement. You need these other things. That’s the other part of the academic space and we call it the dialectic, right? You’ve got these different positions that you create some new knowledge from but if you do dialectic without common ground, then then you just create mudslinging.
SHAMINI: Then you go binary. I think wherever people grow, wherever people are developing themselves, where there is this … binaries are all around us. The world is so structured by binary: right-wrong, left-right, but where people have had to go outside the binary, what Nicolescu calls the included middle, and find a third space, that common ground is usually found when there are very different factions or people or views. You have to live together. For me, in a Muslim nation that has a secular government, that is postcolonial, lots of different tensions … but you have to really align somewhere in order to just live, you know, to have a good conversation, to get on with life. And I think that forces a lot of people, especially my generation growing up, to ask questions that would find common ground. “I don’t agree with you, but we can at least both think about being in this space in slightly different ways.” So, how does somebody who’s a very orthodox Muslim get along and work with and live in a neighborhood where many people are Christian and Buddhist? And that is not all agreeing with everything. That sense that, “Oh, we need to agree,” is one of the greatest causes of conflict.
ANDREW: That’s a really interesting point. You don’t have to reach an agreement, but you do have to recognize common ground. And I think that that is a very different thing, because if our metaphor for some conversation is that there’s either consensus or loss, then you’ve binarized it again. That’s something that’s artificial. But if you recognize it as something that is a seed, you know …
SHAMINI: Or a dance.
ANDREW: Something that is emergent. Growth can come from it, it’s not done, it’s dynamic, and that’s a very different way to go about this. I remember once, I was teaching a class on transdisciplinary and sustainability, so you know these two things go together just as transdisciplinary and equity. I think it’s something that we really focus on here at CGU, and in our new master’s program, it is a really large focus that we’re going to bring into it so that students have ample opportunity for this very cool version of transdisciplinary education. But sustainability is the other very big piece, and a lot of the world does this. And we got into a conversation about whether or not it’s worth talking to somebody who denies climate change. And if you talk to people that might be a little cynical, or a long time in the sustainability world, or who focus on more of the specialized areas, that aren’t focused on the communication outside, I mean, I’ve heard people say straight up like it’s not worth talking to a climate change denier because you know—insert the reason—but they’re not listening, they’re not trying, and so why would I do that. And there was a point in which I had to jump in and like, no, your job is to talk to climate change deniers.
SHAMINI: And maybe we should listen.
ANDREW: By me listening, or by me talking, doesn’t assume you’re right, and that’s already where the difference of this conversation is going, and is there a common ground, because you might be as wrong as humanly possible. You might be so far gone in the direction of your understanding of what I understand in the world, but it doesn’t matter, because we still need to both kind of understand each other in order to move forward. And that’s the reality of it. You can’t compartmentalize human relationships that way. And I think that, again, some things you want to compartmentalize, like, you don’t always want to take in everything if things are really toxic, things are really dangerous if you’re protecting yourself, there are really good reasons to compartmentalize. And sometimes, I’m saying this actually believing it strongly, sometimes we have to compartmentalize to do a deep dive into something. Deep dives are so important, too. We’re just so used to doing deep dives, so we’re good at it. I think some of us have a little bit more, for lack of a better term, intellectual attention deficits, and we love it all. That’s been my experience: I love learning about X, and I love learning about Y. I’m not done and I want to learn about that … and those people also are part of my community, and I see you as one of these people, too, that’s kind of your personality, you know?
SHAMINI: When you were talking about the deep dive and compartmentalizing: I think you know we’ve said before that’s not wrong. So, the image that comes to my mind is, we’re happy to go in the box, but there’s a door and we have a key, and we can step out anytime and go in multiple directions and then come back. And I think that’s important because I think being able to do that helps us to do that thing about finding common ground because you can do a deep dive, and then you also have the comfort of walking out–of–the–box into a land you don’t know, so you’re stranger in a strange land. You meet someone, they have a mindset so different from yours, but what we can do is we know how to listen. It’s like radical listening, really listening to the other person. I think it makes a change because that gives that person space and time to tell their story, and the moment someone tells the story you can tell a story, and your common ground is that you both have stories.
ANDREW: So, you know this and I know this from different places, but the trans in transdisciplinary stands for three things: It stands for transcending a discipline and that’s usually the big one that you’ve kind of arisen from the discipline and you’re able to do a 360 degree around. It’s still your foundation, but you’re able to see the bird’s-eye view of how things connect. That you’ve transformed from working through the discipline, so you’ve changed through the process. And that you’ve transgressed something and usually you’ve transgressed some disciplinary structures, right, and that transgression is an interesting thing here because I think that’s the other component that is worth mentioning: You might be able to do a deep dive and then come out and then do something that kind of pushes against another disciplinary boundary, but there are consequences of that, socially there are consequences of it that we can feel. If you’re going up for tenure and you’ve published in journals outside of your field, for instance, which is a real problem. I mean, we talk about this kind of culture that universities promote, and yet these structures don’t really support it. And yet there are always people who end up becoming transdisciplinarians, no matter what. What do you think allows for the transgressive to be transgressive and not be quashed by the social and structural pressures that say only publish in your journals?
SHAMINI: I think it’s a yearning to say something and I think it’s whether it’s an actual artistic self or a seed of an artistic self. An artist always looks for an audience. Always. You have to communicate what you know, what you care about, what you feel. And so, if I have to publish in this venue because that’s where I have an audience or I see a potential audience, I see maybe conversations coming up but it’s not the highly ranked journal, I’m probably going to be driven to do that. And so, I think some people feel that more strongly and do that. They’re risking the system, they’re risking tenure, they’re delaying tenure, and I think at the end of it people might do a cost-benefit analysis. I chose to stay out of faculty life.
ANDREW: Except now you are faculty.
SHAMINI: But in a very different department. I wanted to be on the edges because I was on this mission to transform teaching and I couldn’t do that from the inside as quickly or as effectively. I’d have my wings clipped. So, for me I know was the artist in me, that I could not produce the art I wanted to produce with the audiences I wanted to play with, because academia won’t let me play. So that was my choice. I know other people who go into faculty life and then struggle with this. We hear our grad students talking about it all the time, but I’m really hopeful. There is more opportunity to broaden. You can be you, can have a public scholarship now, so we don’t have to choose one or the other now. I think you can do “yes and.”
ANDREW: Something I’ve noticed about the future of the academy is that we’re starting to allow for structures for people to be this kind of, we can call it boundary crosser, bridge builder, connector, the transdisciplinarians, however there aren’t that many programs that actually train you formally for this kind of thing, but we’re doing it. But you see a lot of people who happen upon it by accident, you know, the person who’s got a cross-affiliation across departments, or the person who’s got the clinical appointment because they also do something, they’re doing research and teaching, or the person who has had multiple careers and integrated that into one understanding and helping to merge new fields, and we’re seeing a lot more of that in these different kinds of positions that used to be pejoratively called things like alternative academic careers, but now they’re becoming normal. This is really becoming much more normal.
SHAMINI: Maybe it’s a new higher ed.
ANDREW: I think that this is, again, I think we’re part of a movement that is changing higher ed, and I think that’s fun. It’s really fun for me to be a part of this and seeing it happen but also realizing that, as you mentioned, we’re creating a program that’s providing tools and language and training for people to be a part of that so that you’re not afraid to connect. And you can create a career where you’re always adding to it, and, I think, how to articulate that you’re not doing any less work because you’re including breadth in addition to depth. And that’s no better or worse than deep work because they all kind of create an ecosystem of scholarship. You need just as many people doing these different things, and institutions are starting to recognize it and the reason why is because the world is made of problems and universities have been made of departments and they don’t match and we need to do something about that.
SHAMINI: It’s about time. You think of higher education in America at least. It’s over 100 years old, it was built on a model of scholarship that is 300 years old, and the world, especially since the middle of the 20th century, has been moving in these ways, emerging into things that we could never have predicted. Who could predict ChatGPT? But these things are happening faster and faster. It reminds me—I’m going to sidebar for a bit—but way back in 1896, John Dewey said, you know we can’t really tell the future 20 years hence, so we have to prepare people to be prepared to meet that future. In 2008, Ken Robinson said pretty much the same words, but the time frame has shrunk. We can’t really predict five years from now. That’s the scale at which the world has moved, and I think the program we’re building is naming that and I think naming something makes it real in people’s minds. We’re actually preparing people to be future-focused. And the future is not something we can point to and say, “Oh, this is how it’s going to be.” “We’re preparing people to be future-focused” is short form for preparing people for uncertainty, for emergence, for agility, for responsiveness. And you can’t do that by yourself. And I really feel like that’s the thing that we’re trying to do: change higher education to prepare people, truly, for their future.
ANDREW: We do include this component around especially temporal thinking, but how do you integrate what we’ve learned from the past with what you can observe empirically and subjectively now, and what you need to model, what you need to use to predict the future, to integrate something to give you a picture? And at the end of the day, what you’re doing is working with multiple potential futures at once. They’re all reality because they’re all potential futures, so knowing what potential futures are, your brain’s always dealing with this. Your brain’s always trying to make sense of what’s in front of it, is trying to calculate, and in a lot of ways, as you had mentioned as we get older, we don’t like to think of the different potential futures. We clamp down on what should be with our expectations. like, they didn’t hold the door open for me, or, you know, I got in the wrong supermarket line. And yet, we know when we don’t have a lot of these experiences beforehand, that anything can happen when you go into a supermarket line, or that somebody is just as likely to hold the door open for you as they aren’t, and so we’re able to calculate and our brain’s always calculating these things that they can happen. But at some point, we just start to shortcut it because we focus on different things because our priorities change. And part of what the world needs is to kind of go back to that—I don’t want to say beginner mindset—but early learner mindset, to say everything’s possible.
SHAMINI: I’ve always said that. College faculty need to spend some time in early childhood classrooms. And I’m seeing this now with the grad students, because many of them say, ‘I’ve never thought about that,’ ‘I’ve never done that since I was in grade school.’ So, we all know what it’s like to be young children and inventive and courageous and connective, but we forget, right? I’ve had to remind myself, wait, this person I’m working with who’s a young faculty has never been among young children since they were young. So, it’s not too wrong to say go back to the beginner, the early mindset, but I would say go back to our naturally, inherently creative selves. We are that. So, when I was consulting, I would be working with you know, 20s, 30s, 40s, people in various positions, CFOs, managers, and I could totally see them as 5-year-olds and I used to think, look, you were 5 years old, I can almost see you as a 5-year-old, and you were fearless, and now you’re so tight.
ANDREW: The opposite of imagining your audience naked, you imagine a bunch of 5-year-olds.
SHAMINI: And that potential got lost for many reasons: socialization, just naturally growing up. But I attribute a lot of that to the kind of schooling that we’ve had. In our K-12 system, we’re practicing a 300-year-old method. So, yes, how do we get people to go back to the playful, courageous, unafraid-of-not-knowing mindset as the base piece that fuels imagination and creativity? And then, when you factor in, now give you some tools for systems thinking, or change, or data visualization, imagine that combination? And then you add in the layer—this is what I think our program is going to do—you layer in the fact that you can do this with others who are very different from you, and it should be a lot of fun. When people can do that, and when you look at what employers are wanting, they’re hungry for people like this, you know, and I think that we can do that. And it’s in the context of why are we doing all this. Because we want a better future. That’s where the equity comes in. We want a better future that’s just. We want a better future that’s sustainable. We want a better future where, when crises happen, we know how to deal with them, because crises will always happen. And I think, going back to when you said the beginner mindset, I think that’s a very important mindset to keep alive and bring back.
ANDREW: We’re also seeing in addition to this institutional structural change, where some things are getting ready to have more people occupy these connector roles. We can see a generational difference, too. We can see students coming from generations even from older generations who are now of a different mindset of, “Oh, look, we don’t just have one goal in our job anymore.” In fact, I’m not defined by my job anymore. I’m defined by the good or the product I bring out in the world, and not that I’m a lawyer or that I’m a judge or physician or whatever in the world, you know, somebody ends up being. So, people are looking to do something bigger than themselves, to be something bigger than themselves. And the “there there” is very confusing because we speak about it in very opaque terms, like “dream big,” “make an impact on the world,” and, well, if nobody ever teaches you or nobody ever shows you what impact means, nobody ever explains to you what a big dream looks like in its execution, I mean, we have these very distorted ideas, and where along the line of your education did anybody ever explain to you of what having an impact is translated to? And I think that something that’s really nice about a transdisciplinary education is that it explains impact. What is the impact? What is good enough? What is more? What is a cause, you know in our Santa Claus kind of mindset about things, that “we work really hard, and because we work really hard, we deserve some kind of gift of our wish that comes out in terms of what impact would look like.” And the transdisciplinary mindset that tells you like you made a commitment to this, and so you have a relationship with your work, now, where you’re both going to grow from it, you’re going to keep producing good, and you’re going to keep growing. And that’s something that you do as long as you’re in the relationship.
SHAMINI: When you were saying that, you know, when people want to do more than just the work they do, I was trying to remember how many years back did we begin to see companies—you know, they’ve always had the vision, and mission statement, but now people are adding values. And that’s quite recent if I’m not wrong.
ANDREW: I don’t know when values started, myself. I learned them together, but, like ESG, certainly, when you’re working with different companies, you know, in the last 15 or so years that really became much more common.
SHAMINI: And companies want to see their values having an impact. And I think this part of the drive to find certain types of people to work for them, people who share the values and people who can drive those impacts. But you’re right, nowhere in school are you taught about what impact looks like, feels like, or what the process is for impact because you’re still learning the what. Learning how and the why, people learn on the job. And I think one of the things we might end up doing, which I’m excited about through this program, is to learn the how and why. You’re getting a head start so that you can then design what you want to do moving forward. And I think there’s a real need for it. If you’re going to do that, you’re going back to futurizing, because you have to be able to imagine what that looks like.
ANDREW: OK, so I have been avoiding this, but I think it’s time to bring it in a little bit more. You mentioned you were an artist, you’ve talked about play, you’ve talked about imagination now, and some of these things remind me of skills that an artist has to have, especially if you’re playing music, if you’re imagining a plot, if you’re, you know, doing things that are in your creative spaces. What got you into art and how does that arts training translate into a transdisciplinary approach?
SHAMINI: How did I get into art? It was always in my life, probably my grandfather. Again, he was an amazing artist and drawer, he was a silversmith and woodworker. So, I was always hanging around him and, you know, playing with bits in the woodshop kind of thing. But what really, probably, drew me into art is imagination. We used to play all sorts of things. I grew up very introverted, and so imagination was the space where I could do things. I would spend hours dreaming, talking to things, drawing random things, and so I was always inclined toward … maybe sometimes thinking like I didn’t have a voice as a person, as a young person, out in social spaces. It all came out in my art, in the drawing, in the writing. I used to write stories, and my grandfather was a storyteller. I actually practiced as a storyteller, which is really funny. He would have laughed. And then, accidentally, falling in with a group called Mime Unlimited in Singapore, there was a Marceau-trained mime. She happened to have married a Singaporean—so random—and there she was. So, I became a mime and through that practice into teaching artist. And that is the story of how it became an artist. And into that, I would bring collage and so on and I worked for a company that promoted drama in schools. So, a whole bunch of accidents but always centering around creative expression. And if you’re an artist, you are always working on the very edge of something. So, you might know your craft really well, so you really need that, that’s why compartmentalization is not a bad thing. You have a discipline but then you’re always working in a space where many things are emerging, and things you don’t know, especially in theater and improv, things are always emerging and you don’t know. You have to get comfortable with uncertainty, with not knowing, and with encountering the other. An artist is always encountering the other, or being otherized yourself. You’re an other, you’re not like other people, you’re not normal. So, once you get to live in that space, the notion of even if you don’t know transdisciplinary and these things about transdisciplinarity, as the world lives in the binary of its A or not A, but the included middle is on another scale, both are possible, like Schrodinger’s cat, an artist lives there all the time. They may have some binaries, but they’re always alert and awake to the possibilities, multiple possibilities, of where something could go. So that’s part of your mental schema. You are very comfortable as I said with uncertainty and so boundary crossing is never a problem and often you’re forced to boundary cross especially an artist who’s not made a big name for themselves. You are always working with something that is foreign to you. You’re asked to come into a corporate space and do training. You are asked to collaborate. Like, I’m a there are artists and I had to collaborate with a museum curator. You just always going into spaces and so you become comfortable with that, and then you learn to enjoy that, and then you learn to seek it because it’s so rich. As an artist, I’ve always been on the other side on many occasions where there’s a researcher, and I’m the other: the community person or the person working with the community that brings the community in. So, we do a lot of transdisciplinary things. Until I studied transdisciplinarity, I didn’t know I was a transdisciplinarian. It was like that character in the Proust novel, who read about prose—“I’ve been talking prose all my life!” Now it was named. When I first read the chapter in Nicolescu’s Manifesto—but wait this is like an artist. You know, when you read the descriptions, you think but artists do this. And I feel like we haven’t brought artists enough into this space, because I think they have ways of knowing and ways of working that are incredibly valuable. I draw on it all the time. But I feel like the transdisciplinary community can bring them in, and as part of this program, there is space to bring in the art and artists.
ANDREW: There is a knowledge of art and there’s a scholarship of art and it’s not just creative expression. It’s its own sense-making, its own worldview sharing, and I think that we do celebrate that very much. But it hasn’t been integrated yet on as wide a scale as potentially possible, and I’m excited that we get to talk about it. We’ve had a course running through the years called Arts and Sciences Integration that you’ve been a part of, I’ve been a part of, that we really talk about this from a neuroscientific angle; we talk about this from pedagogical angle; we talk about it from a kind of spiritual angle. We go all through because we’re really understanding that, you know, at the end of the day, we have a basic function and that is to be making sense of the world and to create something better about it. That’s what we’re doing. And so, art is a part of sense-making, just as much as science is, just as much as relationships are. We have artificially called them different things because they have different contexts for us because we compartmentalize. And this allowed us in some ways to go deeper and dive and cultivate skills that are gorgeous and beautiful, but the trick to all of this, the big U-matrix—that, if we were to find that “there is no spoon”—is that we also have the power to remove the compartments and put them up any time we want. And that’s the thing that I’ve noticed that the transdisciplinarian celebrates differently than the deep disciplinarian is that, yeah you’ve got a sandbox, but I can move those slats of wood and create an entirely new world by just rearranging them. And you dug deep and played beautifully in the sandbox you had, but we can always change it, it’s just a frame, and that’s the coolest thing about transdisciplinarity because then you can say there is no spoon if you want to really get there. You don’t have to bend the spoon, but that’s what a beginner’s mind allows for. That’s what the kind of artist, the person who’s raising their hand when they’re 4 years old is like, “Yes, I can do that, too, right? And I can fly one day!” But if you don’t have that kind of sense of being able to shift the frames around what it is that you’re doing, then you feel very confined. And I think going back to a comment you made around privilege, it takes a certain amount of luck and privilege to recognize that the frames are movable, because they’re not always movable for all of us at all points of our lives. There are times when we’re really stuck in certain frames, and we have to recognize that and we have to celebrate what those frames are doing for us. And they’re not just based on an economic situation or based on a power dynamic. Sometimes the world puts us into a frame and that’s where we are, but other times we’re not. And I think recognizing when these things can be changed is another thing that we want to bring about to students and to bring to our colleagues: that frame that you’ve been in for 40 years? You don’t have to do that.
SHAMINI: No. And then, you know, talking of frames, there are different scales of those frames, right? So, I use this in teaching a lot: You can’t change the big system, the legacy system that you think is inequitable and unfair, etc. That frame, maybe it’s going to take a little while, but in the meantime, this little frame—your classroom—you can do anything in there. And so, you can change the frame even when you are stuck. And where you see people doing that in the most creative ways, the more they actually display—in very oppressed situations—the creativity for life: How am I going to give my children a space to play, and somehow they find it? That doesn’t mean we don’t alleviate some of the problems. But I think this mindset, that I can make a change if I can reframe or find a different scale to do something, I think that’s really important because that’s also relevant to solving some of the big, complex problems that we have.
ANDREW: And when we’re working in those wicked spaces or when we think about the world as being too knotty, too wicked, too entangled, to do anything about—you used a word before that I want to go back to, and that was stuck—and when you go through a transdisciplinary education, if you get anything out of it, it’s that you learn how to get unstuck. We don’t tell you where to go. You’re part of a process of emergence and potential futures and you’re sailing the ship on an ocean. There are a lot of different things that can happen. But we can always help you learn how to get unstuck and how to help unstick other people. And that’s something that is such an undervalued issue right now, because, we don’t want to admit that we’re stuck. We have all these cognitive tools to pretend that “I’m not stuck, I just like to have the same exact routine every day watching the same TV shows, ordering the same things online, eating the same things, and doing my one lane through life” when you can’t leave your house for eight months. We all experienced that. We created a world in which that made sense, but what does getting unstuck look like, now we’re all trying to deal with what we’re calling “post-pandemic,” which it really isn’t.
SHAMINI: We mustn’t go back to normal. You’ve got to go forward to something else.
ANDREW: But we’re stuck in a lot of things. We’re not quite out of it. Getting unstuck involves reframing, and getting unstuck involves seeing systems. And so, being able to be an unsticker, and helping other people get unstuck with you is the way that you end up being able to ride every wave and that you can get through it, doesn’t mean that it’s pleasant, doesn’t mean that it’s easy, but at the end of the day, you’re still the person navigating, and that’s something that is very, very powerful.
SHAMINI: That’s agency. Yes, that’s truly believing in your own sense of self, to say me and a few other people are going to work on this, and we might fail, but we’re going to be working on this and find a way.
ANDREW: So, there’s this point that we’ve also been talking about a bit in the office and with the different groups around campus at CGU, and that’s traditionally the liberal arts. The very history of the liberal arts was to kind of serve that function of granting agency through critical thinking. I think critical thinking has been one of those highly discussed areas. It’s become almost the be-all of liberal arts is that liberal arts is critical thinking, there’s an equal sign, and it’s not. It’s a lot of different things. But I would strongly promote a general background in the liberal arts to be able to be engaged in the world. I think that’s absolutely necessary. I think part two of that conversation is that transdisciplinary education, which is not the same as liberal arts although it certainly has a lot of play with liberal arts, that provides agency. And agency allows you to be a lifelong learner. It allows you to work well across the aisle. It allows you to be a connector. It allows you to make whatever situation you have to turn into something that you have some impact on, and doing that because you can understand systems. You can understand science together with design. You can understand how to collaborate. You can understand what temporal thinking is. All of these things are really important for a complex world. Our previous version of the world, which was great coming out of a modernist idea, was that like if you reduce it enough you’ll get there. And so we can always simplify and our paradigm shift is saying …
SHAMINI: Just embrace the complexity.
ANDREW: It’s OK!
SHAMINI: It’s fine that it’s complex and messy, because that industrial model—it is very much an industrial model, 300 years old—is efficiency, neatness, that’s the simplicity of it, the elegance of simplicity. And messiness and complexity were seen as the negative of that. Again, you know, binary. I think of what you were saying about the liberal arts. I thought transdisciplinarity might be the new liberal arts for this current, future world because it promotes critical thinking. But the framing and the frameworks or the lenses for that critical thought are the newer developments of complexity theory, systems theory, complex sense-making, collaborative design, and design thinking that is human-centered, right? Always start with empathy and context, which totally prevents you from oversimplifying anything, right? You have to embrace the messiness in the prototyping that you do. That’s the kind of new liberal arts.
ANDREW: I think so, too.
SHAMINI: So, maybe that’s what transdisciplinarity is: the new liberal arts for the 21st century.
ANDREW: Well, we’re getting further from that statement. We’re going to be in the 22nd soon! But, Shamini, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you this afternoon. I want to thank you for joining us, and again, not business as usual but in a transdisciplinary world.
SHAMINI: I had a lot of fun. Thanks!
ANDREW: Thanks for listening to this episode of PostNormal Times. Thanks to our guests, and thanks to our support from Claremont Graduate University. If you enjoyed boundary crossing with us and want to hear more, make sure you follow us, spread the word, and tune in to our next episode.
This podcast transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.