PostNormal Times: On Witches and Wicked Problems
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 7 of PostNormal Times, Andrew Vosko and guest Guest Lori Anne Ferrell, dean of the School of Arts & Humanities at Claremont Graduate University, share their thoughts on the roles and overall value of historians and humanists across collaboration, business, and transdisciplinary thought.
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.
ANDREW: I want to welcome everybody back. I’m very excited today—you can hear it in my voice—because we have one of my favorite guests who was a longtime co-host of mine and who is the dean of the School of Arts & Humanities at Claremont Graduate University. And there’s a title here that I’m going to probably butcher so you’re going to have to correct me on the name: the Louis and Mildred Benezet Chair in the Humanities. And the director of the Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award—
LORI ANNE: You got it all!
ANDREW: It’s the largest (or almost largest) poetry prize in North America?
LORI ANNE: It’s almost the largest, now. Yale got all snotty and decided to do something better. But we still have a better rationale for it. These are the only big awards that go to people at mid-career. So, we’re in some sense investing in the future of poetry.
ANDREW: It is such a cool prize. It is such a cool program that we have here. And I have to say that Lori Anne Ferrell is one of my very, very, very favorite people at CGU. And one of the people whom I spent two seasons podcasting with in the past on a show called Sharing Air, on which we talked about the intersection of news, tech, science, the humanities, and the world we lived in, all while we couldn’t literally share air in real-time.
LORI ANNE: It was survival mode!
ANDREW: Ah, those days!
LORI ANNE: We thought they’d never end. But we’re glad they did.
ANDREW: Well, and now we’re back. Now, you know, the thing that we talk about when we’re starting the show is that it’s not news, it’s not a conversation we have about business as usual, because nothing is business as usual anymore. We’re refraining from using the phrase the “new normal,” because that’s an awful phrase.
LORI ANNE: I hate it.
ANDREW: It’s a terrible phrase. But the world’s kind of dynamic and changing, and there have been lots of periods when things were constantly changing. You’re one of those people who’s studied this. Am I right? You’re a scholar—
LORI ANNE: You mean like the English Civil War and the Protestant Reformation?
ANDREW: In terms of those milestones that appear on a timeline, you’re familiar with a couple of those where there was some kind of upheaval that happened.
LORI ANNE: Oh, yeah, I work on anyone who got their head cut off or got burnt at the stake.
ANDREW: Thanks. Hey, how far are we from that?
LORI ANNE: Hopefully, very far, although religious violence is still out there along with great cruelty and violence. … We’re constantly saying “At least we’re not the barbarians who still go and watch people get beheaded,” right? Who watched the guillotine or watched Charles I of England get his head cut off (which he deserved because he was a bad king)? But what audience craves that kind of violence? And then I think, “The ones who are sitting around playing video games right now and blowing up stuff.”
ANDREW: Or they show it on social media.
LORI ANNE: As you know, I don’t do social media. And part of the reason is I can’t believe that that would exist there. Anyway, I think we do have an appetite for violence, and in times of great stress and change, that little bit of the veil that keeps us civilized gets pulled back. Even for those of us who are … anti-violent, there’s that sense of being about to combust, of being just unable to look at the news anymore, or to deal with the next thing we hear—we run in circles and scream and shout, and the attitudes of the world right now are wearing on us. And we’re suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the last two years of the pandemic.
ANDREW: Oh, yes.
LORI ANNE: We’re scrambling to find out what these things mean. This is why it’s great to be thinking about it being in the past because you have all the time in the world to sort it out. Those folks are dead. They’ve been headless for years.
ANDREW: Just so you can situate everybody with your area, your perspectives, and where you’re coming from: I know that your background combines history, religious studies, and English. So, how do you describe yourself to somebody you’ve met for the first time, while you’re standing in line at a very busy airport in Chicago where all the flights have been canceled?
LORI ANNE: Usually what I say is, “I’m trained in history and English literature with an interest in religious subjects, and I use literary texts as my evidence.” I’m a literary historian of religious conflict.
ANDREW: So, you got a few different disciplines you’re playing around with, but you tend to study dead people, long dead people. One of the things I’ve appreciated in conversations with you—and with other people who have a historical take—is the passage of time and how that relates to the modern day.
ANDREW (Cont.): And what I mean by that is … history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Historians think that, in that way, they can understand that what we’re looking at now has existed in some cousin type of version before. They’ve seen this. Nothing’s new under the sun.
ANDREW (Cont.): One of the things that’s most important for transdisciplinary approaches is understanding the temporal foci of whatever you’re looking at. This is one of the great things that we could do here at this institution, at CGU, where we have many people who study some version of historical things—texts, religious texts—and they fit that into this larger frame of temporal thinking. That’s when you’re dealing with any problem in front of you, and you have three choices of how to look at it: You’ve got the past, the present, and the future.
ANDREW (Cont.): And so, most of us in the disciplinary spaces look at it in the present tense, and we’re like, “Well, let’s look at the data, let’s analyze it, and then decide.” That’s where consultants are hired and … that’s how the world works in a lot of these decisions. But most things that are complex don’t work like this because the present data are … defined by the windshield that you’re looking through. You miss a lot of things, you miss the other 270 degrees of the circle.
ANDREW (Cont.): But complex things from the past have had a lot of people analyzing them and the context is much better understood. Usually, when you don’t know what happens when all the variables are there, you can identify them in a past situation and you’re like, “I can’t predict what’ll happen in the present, but this is what happened in the past when the same things were there.” It’s a powerful tool that people don’t tend to use when they’re doing this kind of analysis. In between that past-tense understanding and the present-tense understanding, you’re like, “Okay, let’s start imagining what futures are going to look like from this.” And you understand that futures can happen with five outcomes, and you ask what would be required for those five different outcomes to happen.
ANDREW: One of the cool opportunities for transdisciplinary studies as a whole is really embracing historians teaching everybody temporal thinking. I think that’s something that’s missing from a lot of our own disciplinary spaces because we tend to only want to think in one timeline. We don’t think in other timelines about what made something work or what could make it work in the future.
LORI ANNE: That’s super smart. What struck me about what you were saying was that you’re talking about the value of perspective. When you’re working with data right now, I will remind you of something: Data doesn’t read itself, it doesn’t interpret itself. … It tells you what’s important, you have to have it, and if you work without it, you’re a liar—but you have to factor in the idea of interpretation.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): This is not me saying that it’s all loosey-goosey. What the past does is remind us … that these things happen. There are things that rhyme, there are common sorts of core problems of humanity. It’s not a question of us being so stupid that we can’t solve them. They get solved in different contexts in different centuries, and all of those solutions made sense. That’s what I love about historical thinking, which is that it may be about something that I profoundly disapprove of, like burning women because they’re witches. That’s stupid. …. However, I do understand why 16th-century people did it.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): So, the question there is to say, “Can we know what the driving forces were that made them interpret their data the way they did: ‘This woman, you know, walked by my cow, and it fell down and died, she must be a witch.’” I find it valuable that we realize that we now have much better ways of thinking about things like that. But we’re still tending toward other versions of magical thinking and superstition. …
LORI ANNE (Cont.): When I used to teach in the history of Christianity program, I didn’t like to hear people act like they were smarter than people were 2,000 years ago. We’re not—we’re just different. And by the way, what do you think people 2,000 years from now are going to think?
LORI ANNE (Cont.): And what you’re talking about when we work transdisciplinarily—you must come to it with openness and humility. Historical thinking at its best puts you in that place because you don’t have any effect on the past. Your only job is to understand it and recognize that it isn’t you, you can’t domesticate it, you can’t dress it up like a cat and put it in a baby buggy and push it all around. It’s the past. … I don’t think it’s a foreign land, but I do think it’s another culture.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): So, you learn cross-cultural thinking as well, not simply in the way we often talk about cross-cultural thinking now, but that the past is a culture that we don’t get to domesticate or colonize. So, our job then is to face it with the understanding that we have a job to do and that our job will be good now, but it may not look adequate 200 years from now.
ANDREW: Most of what you’re saying is really resonating with me and I’m thinking, “Why aren’t you writing the resume headings for all of the graduates on what a historian brings to the table?” What’s the difference between the way you’re approaching this and the way somebody might be reading this in an HR department when they’re looking at a historian? Those skills that you’re talking about of being able to contextualize data and interpret it from multiple viewpoints to apply critical thinking to complex scenarios … and historians being able to remove themselves from their own lenses when they take on different contexts—
LORI ANNE: Critical thinking requires humility.
ANDREW: Humility’s a big piece. How does that translate?
LORI ANNE: So how would you do that for HR? … You talk about what we do here at CGU, and I think it doesn’t happen in all places. It definitely didn’t happen when I was a grad student myself. I think we were trained to be anything but humble, and if you were too humble, you just kind of washed out.
ANDREW: But the humility was kind of like a double-edged sword. It was like, “We’re humble, but we’re better than everybody else.”
LORI ANNE: We’re humble-bragging.
ANDREW: We’re loci-flexing, in the new terminology.
LORI ANNE: What we’re starting to realize is that—and this is another way that we reach across boundaries—we’ve learned to think about the skills that make us who we are as acquirers of knowledge, and they go beyond just knowing a bunch of stuff. It’s a truism: You can know a bunch of stuff, but if you don’t do anything with it … it’s the things we do with it that we should be able to speak to and say, “Hi, I have an advanced degree in history, that means that I’m able to shape contexts, think through problems with perspective, and write clearly and explain to people the situation. … I can actually interpret data because I have a large lens through which to view it. I’m also a person who realizes I don’t have the full answer. I can’t change the things I have to work with. … I’m not going to be lecturing, I’ve learned not to lecture the past. So, I’m also great at working with other people, with other ideas.”
LORI ANNE (Cont.): We have tremendous interpretive power, but no other power—we can’t change the past. So, I think that might’ve sounded nice. I don’t know if the HR person will be like, “Thank you, next!”
ANDREW: You hope that they have some humanities background to appreciate it.
LORI ANNE: Actually, people with advanced history degrees get lots of cool jobs, because … most people see those skills and what they do. They work not only as professors, teachers, and instructors but also for museums and any place that has basically what I think of as the care and the feeding of the past in the present.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): I love what you said about thinking about the future. I think it’s probably something that we don’t do enough of sometimes. But that care and feeding of the past for a present audience is always looking toward the future because that audience might not come tomorrow. Maybe you’re going to get new stuff, or we’re going to find out that that stuff never belonged to you to begin with, or we’re going to find out that everything you said about it is like a wrong T-rex head.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): So … I was going to say the past makes fools of us, but that’s not what I want to say. What I want to say is that there are lots of great jokes that historians use that are things like pictures of ancient people sitting around, having a big party, and someone’s saying “Somebody’s going to say this is some religious gig when they when they look at this 2,000 years later.” … You know, we know that we’re wrong. But I don’t think that we’re relativists.
ANDREW: Okay, so there’s a distinction. When I heard you describe a lot of these other skills, one of them … or a couple of them fell into this family of design. Historians would be amazing with design, in part because they understand context and the ability to empathize, which are the first steps in any kind of design process: understanding your audience or what’s being looked for. How do you pick up the clues of what’s important to those people? Is it the same process that you use in design that it sounds like you use when you’re able to empathize with somebody who just burned a witch—
LORI ANNE: Or understood their—
ANDREW: Or accepted that somebody was burned as a witch. Not that that’s—again—a positive empathizing, but the fact that you can empathize is a very important skill for any kind of design process that’s used all over the business world today. And then the other thing that I thought was interesting is that when you learn content, and you learn about this war, and then that war, and then this other war, and then this terrible event, or this wonderful event, or whatever it was—it’s almost like how in design, you’re experiencing a prototyping phase. So, the prototyping is, “Okay, we don’t know how this is going to work, but we have a model of something and we’re going to throw it out to the audience, and we’ll see what happens to it.” Like, “Oh, no, okay, let’s do this a second time. The First World War wasn’t enough, what happens in the second one?”
LORI ANNE: I never thought of prior wars being prototypes.
ANDREW: But I feel like some very useful design skills come out of this kind of study that somebody could easily just apply to … business-to-consumer kinds of things that are lucrative … or to a social good. It could be in almost any field because those kinds of skills are extraordinarily transferable.
LORI ANNE: You know, it’s interesting, because whenever people say, “design thinking,” I start getting really kind of sweaty because I think I don’t understand it. My younger sister is doing this stuff now up in Silicon Valley. And when she talks to me, I get it. Because I figure it’s like every other kind of really difficult concept. Sometimes you can overthink it. And I think there must be something extraordinary about design, where it might just be a way of patterning and realizing outcomes. But you’re looking at me, I can tell by the look on your face that I just said that wrong.
ANDREW: No, no, no, no, that’s not at all what I’m doing.
LORI ANNE: But what I was thinking while you were talking about it was that the assumption of design has been sitting behind so many things that we’ve been doing at the School of Arts & Humanities for a really long time without us being the people who talk about design thinking. I’ve been saying for years that the School of Arts & Humanities—besides the fact that it’s the best and the most wonderful school—can work with any other school in this university because we have places in which we complement each other and we look for outcomes together.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): I absolutely believe in that with every fiber of my being. … It’s kind of exciting because we’re planning some great collaborations with the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management, not just sharing a building with them in a few years, the Cadigan building, but also making a rationale for that sharing. We’re going to build it and then do the work that comes from that.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): So, for example, in entrepreneurship—aren’t humanists, artists, pianists, and painters entrepreneurs? The person you’re describing who goes to the HR person … saying, “I’m here, I bring you all the skills I have, which most places prefer”—they’re walking in as an entrepreneur of their own life.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): So, that side of what we’re doing, there’s the design interface. And I hope I’m using these words right. But for example, something else is happening over at the Drucker School which is, you know—you’ll probably interview somebody from there who’ll tell you about all this—this kind of midlife education, the SOAR program … taps into another strength of arts and humanities, which is its extraordinary fulfillingness. … I don’t want to become so useful in design that we don’t remember that we also need this beauty. We need this—it’s not uselessness per se—but we need things that exist for their own sake. And that would be Shakespeare, or modernist poetry or painting, or a symphony, all those things, they exist as human documents for our delight, and for our growth. …
LORI ANNE (Cont.): These are people who lived by design. They had an idea, they had to form an outcome, and they prototyped that, too. You were talking about wars, but I think that’s also the case with concertos. You’re a musician. I’m not. But you know, there was a great book that came out a few years ago, the notebooks of Elizabeth Bishop. Poets write and rewrite because they absolutely have to have the right word. … That’s a very interesting form of design thinking for me, which is: There’s the idea, there’s the word, it’s the second-best word, and it’s no longer producing the outcome. The thing driving the writing of the poem isn’t being realized. So, that’s prototype one, or project two, whether you take it out and read it in front of people, and they tell you what they think about it, or you’re the one who’s prototyping it yourself.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): You know, to my mind, her most gorgeous poem, One Art, feels to me so precise and so heartbreaking. She rewrote that a million times. And if you look at how she started, you’re kind of like, “Meh, sorry, you lost your girlfriend.” … I think we need to learn more about design thinking so we can talk more in those terms, and if for no other reason than that everybody else is.
ANDREW: It’s quite a trend right now to talk about design thinking. I used to teach a course and still teach a course on this kind of art-science integration. The idea behind the course is that if we’re ever going to create some kind of Aristotelian life division between how we think about and attack the world, it’s through the science and art thing.
ANDREW (Cont.): In the sciences, it’s very much this kind of deductive model. You build on the knowledge that someone else has left for you to take on to the next step, so it’s standing on the shoulders of giants, it’s objective, it’s truth. … Then art is this creative expression, and it’s a derivative of something that you’re able to process in this holistic way that you can’t do through the deductive model. You’re catching a holism that someone else can’t, and through some divine transcendent activity you’ve created—
LORI ANNE: I love this group of clichés.
ANDREW: Right, like so this is where the two extremes lie … and the truth is, knowledge is traveling back and forth between all these things.
LORI ANNE: Everybody’s standing on the shoulders of giants, and nobody is.
ANDREW: And because all these truths exist at the same time, it’s like, “Yes, you’re your own person. Yes, you’re also reliant on your parents and your grandparents and your ancestors and the people who taught you in school—”
LORI ANNE: “And thank you for the data, and also thank you for the sonnet so that I could write my own write my own non-sonnet.”
ANDREW: But I think when we introduced design, it changed the perspective of the knowledge that we were trying to create because it was a little more blatant about it. So, if you went for self and other as your two categories, other is the generalizable idea of science, and self is the creative expression drive for art. Then the other piece, the in-between that forces you to think about perspective, is design. You can do either, but at the end of the day, for whom?
ANDREW (Cont.): Because when you say this is generalizable knowledge, is it that it’s generalizable only for the people who read the same language you do? Then it’s not generalizable. Or generalizable for children?
LORI ANNE: Children are far too precise.
ANDREW: Yeah, and they’re better at actually understanding the truth about how knowledge is not one or the other. They haven’t been tainted yet with these ideas, so they get it. This kind of history thing that you’re talking about made me think about it as a “For whom?” question. In what way is this knowledge generalizable? What are your parameters for making this generalizable?”
LORI ANNE: And how useful is that under those circumstances?
ANDREW: Exactly. To what end? For what purpose? And then, on the art side, it’s, you know, it can’t just be for one person’s expression because an audience must exist to interpret that. … That’s been a conversation for a long time, but design forced you to understand the dance of perspectives involved with whatever kind of knowledge was being presented.
LORI ANNE: Would you also use a word like intention? That seems to me when people are trying so hard, like, “Lori Anne, listen to me. This is what design thinking is.” Part of it seems to me to be grasping, in a way that’s much stronger than one might expect, … the idea of intention and in some sense, reinscribing that word with an idea of knowing what you’re doing. …
ANDREW: Half of design is figuring out what the actual problem is. If your problem is, “I’m standing on the shoulder of a giant and it’s whatever they’ve handed me,” or if your problem is, “I have this feeling inside and I need to create it today.” … You didn’t find a problem either way, you were just kind of reacting to something.
ANDREW (Cont.): So, design does bring that intention back and says, “Okay, but like, what is it you want to do? What is it you’re trying to do?” When you ask about intention, you also have to define the context very clearly. … If you’re the scientists who had copy-pasted their methods from everybody else in their field—laboratory rats, they were kept on this kind of feeding schedule, with a light/dark schedule in their rooms, this is the time that we started the experiments—are you actually processing how frickin’ generalizable all this is to human health at some point?
ANDREW (Cont.): And I get why you do it—standing on the shoulders of giants—I get it. But then on the other side of it, you need someone to remind you—you need a concept to remind you—what the point of doing this was.
LORI ANNE: Right. You can’t forget what you went in to solve to start with. I don’t know if you saw The New York Times today, but there was an article about this new treatment for strokes, where they can go in, now, basically, and take the clot out. You’re a medical guy, so this will be interesting to you. But when they realized they were able to do that—this was in Calgary—they also had to then step back and redesign everything else, like how EMTs respond. … To my mind, there’s another side of design thinking as I understand it, which starts with the solution and then has to move back.
ANDREW: That’s right.
LORI ANNE: It’s almost like a reverse plan. So now everything, from what you say to people if you think they’re looking a little woozy, to how fast… all of it depends on people knowing what to do in a very different way than they used to with completely other kinds of treatment, which are pretty good, but not as good. …
LORI ANNE (Cont.): To my mind that fits into what you’re talking about. If you just go, “This is the way that we solve this medical issue, and we never noticed that there might be … something else.” And then suddenly, we realized, “Why can’t we use this to do this? … Why don’t we get it out?” … That’s what the world needs. But I do think it’s a challenge. And it’s a really exciting challenge, at least in my mind, to say, “This is what the world needs out of history” or “This is what the world needs out of English literature” or “This is what the world needs out of poetry.” People are always like, “Well, that didn’t cure cancer, or whatever.” But it’s this kind of thinking that makes you realize that that’s not the whole goal in life.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): That’s important, and for people in some uncertain contexts, it’s the most important thing. But that’s not all there is. That’s just the outcome. And then you work backward to figure out how that intersects with other ways of thinking about the world.
ANDREW: Okay, so my rabbit hole that I went into this week wasn’t The New York Times, it was ChatGPT. And you know what? I haven’t tried it out. I know I’ll have to. I haven’t asked it to come up with algorithms for myself. I’m not that person at all. But in my YouTube feed, for whatever algorithm they have for me, they keep on adding Marvel Comics characters imagined as like, early modern literary characters or something. And then they show what they would look like. … To me, this is an integration problem. I’m like, “How did you find an artificial way to integrate?” That’s really hard. We don’t know how to define this very well when we integrate as humans. What is this?
ANDREW (Cont.): So of course, now I have to look up—which is not my specialty at all—the process of the noise that’s added to the artificial intelligence algorithm so that they can de-pixelate and re-pixelate iteratively until they come up with what makes sense given the parameters.
LORI ANNE: You’re such a design thinker: “re-pixelate.”
ANDREW: But it was cool and it’s very much this design process, where you make the program from whatever the prototype is that you want, go come up with a bunch of noise-filled iterations until it can somehow be de-convoluted to fit this other end—
LORI ANNE: Andy, we must stop design thinking immediately. We must end it! This is terrifying! This is why we need the humanities.
ANDREW: But this is also based on the humanities.
LORI ANNE: No!
ANDREW: I think humanists have a better capacity to understand what’s going on than people in almost any other field … to understand conceptually what’s happening. I don’t think it’s all that different than … coming up with an inter-perspective way of looking at the same thing with all its different iterations and then working backward to say this might be the end product of what that would look like.
LORI ANNE: Well, did you see that other article in The New York Times? There was one a few days ago because they were showing some responses, which got kind of edgy and weird. “Why does my chatbot lie and act weird?” And the subtitle was, “The answer is within yourself.”
LORI ANNE: No, the fact is human beings have designed it, and human beings lie, and they act weird. So, they’re going to, in some sense, have their own kind of force in this communicative exchange. I will say that if we can believe Maureen Dowd and the Shakespeare that she was speaking to, then they ain’t got there yet. But I think you’re right that humanists will be good at this, partly because we also can see through it. …
LORI ANNE (Cont.): There’s been a lot of conversation about this. There have been a lot of concerns. It’s been kind of like another design thinking, in that it’s been around a lot lately. And we read about a lot in the paper, as I can tell from our conversation. One of the things I think is interesting is that I don’t see anybody in my school who’s afraid that someone’s going to send in an AI-generated paper and that we wouldn’t notice it. Because of small classes, we know everybody’s style, we know their tone. We’ll know if it turns into something flat. Even a bad paper… still isn’t flat. It’s me being bad.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): Our students need to know about this partly to think about how they think, but also if they’re teaching, this is going to be an issue in huge classes of 200 where you just don’t have time to figure out whether that student’s just boring or they just kind of forgot the most important part.
ANDREW: I do see it being very important in some ways for humanists because of practical reasons when they’re teaching. But I also think it’s important because I think there needs to be a philosophical understanding—not just philosophical, but also a practical understanding of what’s happening with this. We kind of need the guidance of people who … you don’t have to be a humanist per se, like, you don’t have to wear the stamp, but who can help us understand, “What does this mean? What can it mean?”
LORI ANNE: … Part of the issue is you got to have people who kind of step back and go, “There was—This has happened before: all kinds of generated—
ANDREW: Temporal thinking.
LORI ANNE: This is what people thought about the printing press, for God’s sake—and literally, for God’s sake. And we all know that that’s silly because, in some ways, there’s a flourishing. This feels impossible to me right now, I must say. I’m getting to be very old and curmudgeonly. So, I look at it and go, “I do not know if I have time to take this on in my life and worries.” It’s snowing in Southern California, It’s the end times! So, we may not have time to do any of that.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): But I do think what you’re saying is what we always interrogate, century after century after century, as long as we have been sentient: “Why are we thinking what we think? What do we do with that?” If we don’t have to have Professor Easton in here to say, “Well, you know, what Descartes would say…” You’re thinking that means you are who you are. Every subsequent idea throws that idea into a weird kind of doubt. But is that thinking? Is it thinking because humans invented it in the first place? We’ve been worried about robots taking over the world for a while. But that’s not as silly as it sounds because it’s our own process of thought that we bring to both what you call the “standing on the shoulders of giants,” and the “I am a unique genius in the world of art doing something that no one’s ever done before.”
LORI ANNE (Cont.): Extraordinary—the whole time we’re also in some sense self-critical of those thoughts, trying to figure out what they mean to us and what it means for us to fulfill them. The pressure is awful in both regards. That’s why you need the bridge because standing on the shoulders of giants makes you hate the giants. The air is very thin up there. And you might feel like it’s weird to go beyond that, to think past that. They were giants, after all, they stomp you.
ANDREW: They must have been right.
LORI ANNE: They must have been right. And then as you know, as Harold Bloom would say, with the anxiety of influence, when you feel like you’ve got to be original, which is like the worst way to try to be original in the world because you’re thinking about originality instead of your outcome. You’re not thinking instead about getting to this place where you were, expressing in whatever way that you’re going to discover. … It’s all about the path that gets you there. …
ANDREW: I think, going back to temporal thinking, I’m going to add another dimension to this, given our conversation. So, there’s this kind of historical thinking or understanding of what the past is, and then there’s the present and the future. That’s a very linear time course when you think of things in that way. But I am a chronobiologist and I studied cyclicity and rhythmicity, and how things change every seven minutes in our brain states or how they can change over a 24-hour period, weeks, seasons, months, or years. And we have cyclicity in time, too.
ANDREW (Cont.): One of the things that you also get out of historical thinking is seeing the difference between linear and cyclical understanding of things. Not that time has to go in a cycle, although it certainly can go in a cycle. But things often happen so cyclically. What we might be going through now when we’re talking about ChatGPT … the human translation of this is “How are we making sense of our lives—again? How are we making sense of our lives differently than we did 600 years ago?” Oh, it’s the same freakin’ thing. What were their solutions to it? Is our anxiety around making sense of our individuality the same kind of anxiety that happened when the Reformation occurred because the movement toward that kind of individuality was a new paradigm that we had to adapt to? And is everything going to be just fine in 50 years? Or is it doom scrolling? Is it, “Yes, robots are taking over?”
LORI ANNE: … I have some issues with thinking cyclically because historians are also always challenging the eras that they produce. … People didn’t stand around in the Protestant Reformation going, “Guess what? This is the Protestant Reformation, for God’s sake!”
LORI ANNE (Cont.): That’s the fertile ground on which historians live, where you’re working with people who didn’t name what they were doing. But we’re certainly getting stuff done, you know, whether you like it or not. … Before we get to the cyclical part, as you know the biggest cliché that I hate more than anything else is, “A man who doesn’t know the past is condemned to repeat it.”
LORI ANNE (Cont.): It’s not true. But what I think people need to remember about the past is that humans have faced this challenge before and that it’s come in a different form that, to us, seems anodyne and possibly outdated, or not even understandable. How can people be a bit afraid of trains? I think when the first person was killed by a train in the 19th century in Britain, the train was going like 15 miles per hour.
ANDREW: Oh, that’s a sad way to go.
LORI ANNE: I know it is. It must have been slow. I remember learning that in one of my classes. What always stuck in my head was what the manager of the train system said to the widow, which was, “Life goes by in such a rush, ma’am.” I mean, that was fast but we’re not better because it’s now considered slow.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): We’re working on new challenges. … People have been just as daunted. That’s the part to me—this may be very old-fashioned thinking, but I feel great comfort in the continuity of human nature. Maybe it’s because I study religion. There are a lot of different ways of approaching the numinous. There are a lot of different ways of thinking that you’re doing the will of God and there are a lot of ways of trying to think about time if you’re religious.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): While I personally am not a person of particular faith, I believe in believers and the ways that they think about their worlds and the challenges out there and how they try to suss out time, which for them can be cyclical, depending on the kind of religious thinking. … But we always have to add this other dimension, which is what we might call Kairos time, or like a kind of overview time, that would be in some religions the purview of a supreme being or God. That means that there’s this whole other world that’s both timeless and that we’ve been tumbling around in, being the same humans over and over and over again, with, like, new toys.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): One of the things I think historians, especially current historians, are really quite worried about is over-patterning and over-designing.
ANDREW: There’s the humility, which is fine. It’s important.
LORI ANNE: … What would be the work of a historian while observing what looks like the same damn pattern? And how would transdisciplinary thinking help them intervene as opposed to going, “Well, here we go again! Oh, I told you there would be a revolution!” Is there a way that we interrupt that pendulum swing? Because we have other tools at hand besides just observation.
ANDREW: That’s exactly right. I think that the historian style of thinking is one of these necessary ingredients for a good transdisciplinary approach that says, “Okay, we know what happened in a complex system in this context, what’s going on now?” Let’s look at all the data and then let’s predict the different futures. What would be required for each of those? How do we design each future? How do we reverse each one?”
ANDREW (Cont.): So, all of those things have to work together in some ways for us not just to understand the situation, but also to create the version that we want to happen moving forward. Instead of throwing our hands up and saying, “Well, there goes the, you know…”
ANDREW (Cont.): And doomsaying is a defense mechanism. I get it. It’s comforting, sometimes. But I feel like there’s a role—
LORI ANNE: A version of control in it. But what you’re projecting is, “How do we design the future?” That to me is really interesting thinking in which I don’t usually indulge. I don’t think of myself as a person who could design a way out of whatever because what I’m interested in happened so long ago that they did get out of it. Time itself did that.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): I’ve spent quite a bit of time in places where religious violence is still a matter of fact, like Israel, and I never sit there thinking, “The things I know would help me make you stop doing this.”
ANDREW: Right, right, right, right.
LORI ANNE: So, one of the things I wonder about is how disruptive human nature is to design thinking. I think that the one thing about humans is that they never quite do what you think they’re going to do. No dictator is like another dictator. No revolutionary is like another revolutionary. No artist trying to depict it and no scientist trying to design or explain it is like another.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): So, there’s a slippage, which is actually kind of cool. … I’m trying to think about how accurate design can be. Because I don’t think in terms of human accuracy, I think in terms of human folly, and to me, this is precious and lovely, you know, the human capacity for self-deception, for grandiose thinking, for love, which blows everything up. … I’m not talking about human-ness or human humanities. What does a human do to design thinking? What is a human, due to transdisciplinary systems thinking?
ANDREW: So, I think that one of the respects that transdisciplinary thinking brings to this … is that we’re complex. We don’t oversimplify. And so just as you say the humanist can appreciate the folly, the transdisciplinarian is like, “Yeah, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Like, you just go in saying, like, “There’s so many weird things, something can fall out of the sky, suddenly, and just everything—there could be a virus that’s unleashed accidentally from a lab in China.” We keep learning more of these stories and we’re like, “That’s what happened?”
LORI ANNE: And then you and I have a podcast!
ANDREW: And we keep each other company for two years, without seeing each other.
ANDREW (Cont.): There’s a respect for complexity that I think is inherent in the transdisciplinary approach, that design also gets at. There’s a pretty classic paper about housing called “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” And in the paper, the authors first introduced the term, wicked problems.
LORI ANNE: Oh right, you love that expression.
ANDREW: I love that expression. It’s what transdisciplinarians use all the time. It’s about the things that we tend to work on that aren’t oversimplified, they’re all symptoms of each other, such as access to health care, poverty, education, and food security, like everything is related to each other. You can’t just look at one and say that it happens independently of another. That’s a construct we have of looking at these problems.
ANDREW (Cont.) So, when you start to get involved with these problems that are really complex and socially important, that involve human players, one thing that we do a disservice to as scientists and as people who think we can analyze this in that “standing on the shoulders” way, is that when we’re done with our research or researching on a topic, we wave our hands and say, “Okay, I left you the knowledge for someone else to pick up and take on the shoulders.”
ANDREW (Cont.): And their point in the paper was like, “No, you can’t do that, because sometimes there is an influence that you leave.” … So you’re not bound forever because you decided to study something interesting, but if you are going to get involved with a question on poverty, where the outcome is going to affect policy on poverty, then you have work to do.
LORI ANNE: Somebody’s got to take up the mantle.
ANDREW: That’s right, and you’re responsible for that now. And to carry on with this kind of ethical component, which brings in another sense of what is transdisciplinarity: You can’t take on the ethics of a discipline, you have to take on the ethics of the people affected by your discipline.
LORI ANNE: That’s interesting.
ANDREW: And that has a certain amount of resonance with what you’re saying about where design would come in. Similarly, it kind of makes you look at your work as a design in process. Like, yeah, “I did work on that first study that worked on policy—turns out I was wrong. Prototype one. Okay, let’s do that again, and see what happens in prototype two.”
ANDREW (Cont.): Whereas in some other versions of how we might approach something … I’m not gonna say that design is better or worse than scientific shoulders, or transcendent creative expression, as three different points on this. Everything’s integrated, everything requires everything else. They’re all cool ways of investigating and understanding the world and sharing that.
ANDREW (Cont.): But one of the things that design does, is it tells you it doesn’t have to be perfect because you’re going to do this again and again and again. To apply that to a transdisciplinarian’s mind: That’s what we do when we’re working with wicked problems or complex problems. Like we’re going to do it again and again and again, so don’t get married to just one time you do this.
LORI ANNE: Wicked is such a peculiarly human and chaotic term. … For the people I study, it’s the reason to design theology. Basically, “Why does this keep happening? It’s about wickedness.” If a 16th-century person would tell you, “I want to actually learn to read the Bible because I don’t like wickedness. The world’s problems are wickedness and that’s why we’ve been condemned by God and we’re fallen.” So now wicked is new, I’m bringing that word forward to think about problems that we now see are human problems. But that’s what humans were saying in the 16th century: “We’re not good enough. We’re bad. We’ve been tainted since birth, we’re getting the punishment we deserve, and the best we can do is keep placating and learn what we can learn and do better.”
ANDREW: Can we teach a course together called Wickedness and Wicked Problems?
LORI ANNE: I think that’d be really fun. I was going to ask you what kind of course we could do together. I’ve been dying to get back to the part of me that studies theology because that itself is a wicked problem. Unlike philosophy, it has an out, which is that you can eventually answer the question by saying, “Because God did that.”
LORI ANNE (Cont.): But what I really admire about all theologians throughout time is that they don’t want to get there too soon. They don’t want the trapdoor. So, watching them work with the humility to say, “I can’t solve this because, in the end, I’m human” is a great kind of universal human value.
ANDREW: You know, you’re making me think of … the humility component. So, another transdisciplinary thing that we try to communicate—I’ve honestly just limited it to an epistemological humility—is that like, “Okay, the way I define the truth, according to what I’ve learned, might not capture what’s going on in front of me. So, maybe I need to bring in a historian to help me with this.” … That epistemological humility primes you for collaboration so that your ego doesn’t get in the way.
ANDREW (Cont.) But there are also other kinds of humility that I think are important to think about, like an axiological humility of, “Maybe my values are not everybody’s values, or maybe my reality is not everybody’s reality.” Like, just to understand, “My reality is constructed in my own wonderfully chaotic brain, and that isn’t going to match that of the dean of Arts & Humanities.”
LORI ANNE: Nothing matches the dean of Arts & Humanities. But you know, I will say that what you’re speaking to is what we’ve been very simplistically worried about in terms of campus climate, in terms of being able to be in rooms with people we disagree with. What you’re putting your finger on is what kind of humility is required to hear somebody say something you don’t agree with, recognize them as a fellow human being, and recognize that they possibly haven’t been put on earth to just make you mad that day.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): How do we break down … boundaries and solve problems together? … We’ve learned a lot about how hard this is, and there are perspectives coming from people we don’t want to talk to that could nonetheless be very useful. How does one learn the techniques of boundary-crossing and systems thinking there, to be able to hear each other?
ANDREW: So, we call this the metaphysics of dilemma.
LORI ANNE: Ooh! You have the best words for everything.
ANDREW: I know, like, I hope that we all can create a word search after. …
ANDREW (Cont.): But this idea of the metaphysics of dilemma is, if you have something that looks like it’s stuck or intractable between at least two parties, then you’ve got to start figuring out “How do we share realities, how do we share values, how do we share truths?” … The comment that you made at the very beginning—you don’t agree with, but you do understand, why somebody was okay with someone being burned at the stake because they were a witch—I likewise don’t have to agree with you when you’re burning down a bunch of trees in your backyard.
LORI ANNE. Right. Why do I have such latitude and such perspective on something just because it was in the 16th century? But now, if somebody doesn’t want to recycle—
ANDREW: This is a movement that’s come out of transdisciplinary studies that involves a bunch of philosophers who are trying almost to instrumentalize philosophy. This has some real uses. We’ve been kind of getting too esoteric as of late, so what if we turn back to more applied philosophy? What does that look like? So, they bring a bunch of different disciplines together and are like, “How are we going to get all of you to work together?” And they had to bring these epistemological truths to align with each other … because it’s almost like the contract at the beginning of the rules that we’re going to live by, together. If this is going to work, this is how we’re going to have to do it. But you need that kind of facilitation and social compact that’s really hard., And for people, the longer that we’re in our own spaces, the easier it is to forget that. …
ANDREW (Cont.): I taught a class with a couple of other faculty here a couple of years ago, it was wonderful. It was half grad students from CGU, and half undergrads from the five undergraduate colleges at Claremont. It was a sustainability course. The graduate students were all from different countries, every single one was from another country that wasn’t the United States. Every undergraduate student was born and raised in the United States. One of the undergraduate students was talking about the need for education to help people who are essentially burning trees in their backyard. And one of the graduate students was from I believe, Cameroon, and worked for the United Nations. She held up a plastic bottle and said, “I used to have very well-meaning Americans, who were working in some kind of environmental organization, come to my house and tell me that I should not be using plastic bottles. But I did not tell them that my family had used this same plastic bottle for 10 years. We have a plastic bottle and we use it as a tool because we can use it to pour more water, we can use it for plants.” … Nobody had ever thought of it that way because they just said, like, “I must know that I’m right because I’m coming from the newest and the greatest, and you must be wrong,
LORI ANNE: And also, “I come from a place that has seen itself as powerful for a very long time, which means my perspective is the most powerful.”
ANDREW: It was such a nice moment where you’re like, “That’s why you don’t go into a place assuming that, without humility.” If you don’t come in with epistemological humility, you don’t come in with ontological humility that lets you be like, “Oh, that actually is something we could learn from.” …
LORI ANNE: I did two transdisciplinary courses prior to you being here. … I thought, well, let me think of two subjects for which you could bring people in from every school in the university and they can speak on it. So one of them was on the Bible, and I had people from IT, and I had people from every type of business. What it did was say, “There are people who have ways of thinking about this, who are powerful and interesting, and they were not trained.” … Graduate school is a really great place to do something like that because we think we come with these veiled blinders on. And then I did Shakespeare, people came in with extraordinary perspectives on say, Macbeth that I would not—that you don’t learn when you study English literature.
LORI ANNE (Cont.): So, I believe that that was kind of a necessary time to recognize that barriers had existed that we had often thought were right, that we thought were good, and that we thought the point of which was that we were the experts—and all that made us extremely siloed. … I think now what we’re doing is very sophisticated in transdisciplinary studies. I’m so excited about this master’s degree. It makes sense to me that now we can step forward that way and say, “This is what we do, and this is why we do it.”
LORI ANNE (Cont.): But it started with us just saying, “Oh, I don’t just live in my own little world.” I think it was especially important for the School of Arts & Humanities because no one ever asked us to solve a problem. They don’t say, “Here’s a pressing world problem, can you come help us?” And then now the obnoxious thing is that people who are trying to talk about the value of the humanities try to make it into something like “That’s how you make better people.” I don’t think so.
ANDREW: It’s a kind of tough argument to make.
LORI ANNE: It is. But that’s the one that people keep making. Or, “It’s going to make you a better citizen, or it’s going to do…” None of that is going to do those specific things. But people who can work together to solve problems are possibly better citizens, are possibly better people than they would be by themselves.
ANDREW: Or to help people understand like, the very first part of what collaboration is, which is to understand humility. If you can start at that place, then collaboration can happen. But if you can’t reach that place—
LORI ANNE: You know you’re right already—
ANDREW: You’re done.
LORI ANNE: It’s also bad in leadership. You learn when you’re trying to run any kind of, you know, programs, centers, or whatever, that if you think that you’ve got the right idea and that no one else has that and that your job is to slam it down and get it passed or get it agreed to—talk about a way to learn humility. Yeah, it’s excellent, just trying to run something.
ANDREW: Yeah, tell me about it.
LORI ANNE: But how much work in religion does the transdisciplinary program do?
ANDREW: You know, it’s interesting. So, the father of transdisciplinary studies is Basarab Nicolescu. He’s like the first person who added philosophy to it about 30 years ago now. In his original treatise, he talks about the importance of religion and other realms of knowing as being a part of the transdisciplinary experience. And so, I’ll tell you that through the history of where the field has gone, there’s a definite detour that was taken away from religion, it’s gotten lost in the popular version of transdisciplinarity, which is largely about sustainability-related learning outcomes, which isn’t a bad thing. But it’s time to bring it back. I think that the importance of it hasn’t been illustrated appropriately. There’s fertile ground to be used.
LORI ANNE: Well, to be at least discovered, to be explored.
ANDREW: Certainly to be explored. I intend to have more wonderful conversations with you!
LORI ANNE: That would be fun. Thank you for inviting me to talk with you today!
ANDREW: I want to thank you for coming, because it’s just like, you know, we don’t skip a beat. Oh, thanks so much. This is great!
LORI ANNE: Thank you, Andy.
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 into our next episode.
This podcast transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.