New academy to braid disciplines together to tackle complex problems
December 22, 2020
Social injustice. Environmental degradation. Cyberterrorism. These challenges are so complex they may at times seem insurmountable. Yet the very root of the word “complexity” suggests a possible path to solutions.
“‘Complex’ doesn’t just mean complicated,” said Carlos Evia, a communication professor at Virginia Tech. “The root of the word, plexus, means plait or braid. Disparate strands, when intertwined, gain in strength. So when we talk about complex problems, we must also consider complex solutions — the braiding together of insights from many disciplines.”
In response to some of the most daunting challenges facing humanity, the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences has established an Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies.
“By their very definition, transdisciplinary studies defy traditional curricular and programmatic boundaries,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “Our university already has a significant number of faculty, programs, and courses that are transdisciplinary in their focus and methodologies, but they’re dispersed across colleges and departments. The Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies is intended to be the catalyst that brings them together and takes advantage of their synergistic strength to address complex problems.”
Belmonte cited the example of climate change. Scientists and engineers may well be able to develop practices and technologies that can slow or reverse global warming, she said, but before those plans can be implemented, ethicists must consider fairness and economists must assess affordability and sustainability.
And their voices are not the only crucial ones. Sociologists and anthropologists must measure the impact of the plans across communities and cultures, political scientists and management specialists must determine how best to regulate and monitor the plans, and communication experts must effectively convey the benefits of the plans.
To help build momentum in bringing those strengths together, Belmonte has appointed Evia, an expert in cutting-edge technical communication, as the college’s first director of transdisciplinary initiatives.
“Dr. Evia has long worked across disciplinary boundaries,” said Belmonte. “His ability to delve into the intersections of liberal arts and technology combined with his work in curricula and student support activities that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion make him a terrific fit for overseeing the academy’s multifaceted programs and working to promote transdisciplinary inquiry across campus.”
Virginia Tech has long supported the pursuit of knowledge in ways that do not fit neatly into traditional academic disciplines. In 2015, President Tim Sands extended that trajectory with the launch of Beyond Boundaries, a visioning initiative in which he challenged the university community to imagine Virginia Tech a generation into the future.
The initiative led to the identification of Destination Areas, in which transdisciplinary communities work together to address complex problems that affect the human condition.
The academy will complement that work, not only encompassing existing interdisciplinary programs in Africana studies, American Indian studies, women’s and gender studies, and disability studies, but also seeking to support new college-based academic programs. These programs are expected to include such areas as diversity and inclusion, technology for humanity, LGBTQ studies, Latinx studies, Asian American studies, food studies, and animal studies.
“Faculty involved in the Destination Areas have been working to advance new curricular offerings that expose Virginia Tech students to hands-on, real-life complex problems, and the students have shown significant interest in these opportunities,” said Catherine Amelink, associate vice provost for learning systems innovation. “The academy will provide a unifying structure to advance current transdisciplinary learning offerings while also providing a way to explore new, emerging efforts.”
Although based in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the academy is expected to benefit the entire university. Faculty members in one college, for example, may be engaged in research about an issue from their own disciplinary perspective without realizing that colleagues in another college are exploring the same issue from a different perspective. Students in one program are often unaware of courses offered in another program that might complement their course of study and enhance their understanding of a particular issue.
“Virginia Tech’s ability to achieve its Beyond Boundaries vision relies in large part on supporting cross-cutting collaborations involving different disciplines,” said Cyril R. Clarke, executive vice president and provost of Virginia Tech. “Along with Destination Areas, the Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies will prepare our graduates to understand and address the complex opportunities and challenges they are likely to encounter as they serve their communities.”
The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences in particular has long worked at the intersections of disciplines. Its Department of Science, Technology, and Society, for example, has roots that stretch back to the early 1970s. More than a dozen years ago, the college launched the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT), an innovative doctoral program focused on the intertwining of the humanities and social sciences.
More recently, the college’s Center for Humanities played a key role in forming Tech for Humanity, a university-wide initiative that works to ensure that technologies are in service to humanity. And just this summer, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences joined the College of Science in launching the Kellogg Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.
“Virginia Tech is increasingly known for its innovative leadership in weaving disciplines together in a way that places humanity firmly at the core of technological and scientific advancements,” Belmonte said. “The Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies will be one more essential tool in helping faculty and students shape the future together with vision, confidence, and creativity.”