The Transdisciplinary Dilemma: Making SEAD in the Contemporary Research University

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Virginia Tech


Over the past two decades, many American universities have created transdisciplinary institutes devoted to science, engineering, art, and design (SEAD). These organizations promote research, teaching, and engagement across technoscientific and artistic disciplines, and seek to cultivate creativity and innovation. Their proponents argue that this particular type of transdisciplinary knowledge-making has the potential to transform research universities. However, making and maintaining SEAD institutions is difficult work for the researchers and administrators involved. Practitioners struggle to define the broader goals of their transdisciplinary research; to demonstrate its value; to receive appropriate credit from their peers; and to feel that they belong in their institutions. I argue that these issues result from a fundamental “transdisciplinary dilemma”: the challenge of institutionalizing an ideal of transdisciplinarity that is actually a complex and contradictory set of different actors and motivations.

In my dissertation I examine SEAD and transdisciplinarity through an ethnographic study of Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, a research institute that aspires to work “at the nexus of science, engineering, art, and design.” I identify three significant “matters of concern” for SEAD practitioners, each of which is a tension that reveals an aspect of the transdisciplinary dilemma and the challenges of institutionalizing art and technology research. Sponsored collaboration contrasts the idea of transdisciplinarity as an idealized stage of creative knowledge production with the notion of transdisciplinarity as an economic driver for higher education. Value and belonging highlights researchers’ simultaneous desire to exist outside of traditional disciplines and to enjoy the comforts of a disciplinary home. Measurable impact describes the balancing act between institutions’ need for resources and status, and the nature of researchers’ everyday work. Ultimately, I argue, these tensions are irresolvable aspects of SEAD as it exists within the contemporary research university. The persistence of the transdisciplinary dilemma leaves practitioners in a perpetual state of striving to belong, and SEAD institutions continually seeking to (re-)define themselves.



interdisciplinarity, STS, ethnography, art and technology, institutions