Transdisciplinarity on Paper: How do interdisciplinary faculty translate university initiatives into the classroom?

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Virginia Tech


University-level transdisciplinary initiatives have become prevalent as institutions reorient disciplines around complex problems that are relevant to society. Transdisciplinary research initiatives, like those of interdisciplinarity in the previous decade, are reinforced by federal funding agencies because of their potential to yield technological innovation, and in turn, economic growth. However, the sustained development of transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary curriculum design remains limited due to the multiple competing factors that govern the curriculum. This dissertation research focuses on the implementation of the transdisciplinary initiative as it pertains to interdisciplinary curriculum design. I use public institutional documents to trace the transdisciplinary institutional initiative as it is enacted at different university levels and interviews to understand the initiatives in practice, drawing from administrators, faculty, and staff experiences as they develop interdisciplinary courses. Many university-level initiatives that purport transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary education fall short in their implementation because of academic structures that directly or indirectly inhibit sustainable interdisciplinary curricula. Instead, administrative organizations like the Registrar's Office, Office of Integrated General Education, and Transdisciplinary Initiative Office develop networks and artifacts that connect faculty who have experience bypassing academic structures with faculty who seek out these forms of institutional support. These emergent practices are an adaptation to the university system rather than a proactive measure that facilitates the large-scale structural change claimed by university-level transdisciplinary initiatives. This study contributes to the understanding of potential long-term implications through the examination of interrelated university initiatives as they exist through metrics and incentives provided by the upper administration and experiences of faculty and staff in developing interdisciplinary courses.



interdisciplinarity, engineering education, curriculum design, organizational change, archival data