Embracing the Intellectual Discomfort of Transdisciplinarity

Embracing the Intellectual Discomfort of Transdisciplinarity

By: Tom Gorham

Nearly a thousand of us were sitting under an orientation tent when the Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education warned us about the imposter syndrome. It’s a surprisingly common feeling that starts to creep in when people compare themselves to their talented, successful, and hard-working peers. Like Eleanor Shellstrop in The Good Place, they get the feeling that there must’ve been some mistake and they don’t really belong here. The Dean reassured us that the feeling would pass.

Well, after a few weeks, I determined that the Dean was only partially right; I did find my stride in the Education school. But I also attended lectures and events around campus in other departments and at the neighboring Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was in these times that I regularly found myself out of my depth and struggling for comprehension. It was often a humbling and frustrating experience. And I loved every minute of it. 

That is not to say that it was easy to decide which path of professional development to pursue; there are so many different disciplines that you could specialize in and multitudes of external factors to consider. If you are like me, you may have concerns about the velocity and magnitude of disruption predicted by the start of the 4th Industrial Revolution (Fleming, 2020; Gwata, 2019; Schwab, 2016) and you wonder how it will change the practice of education. You are also likely considering the medical, economic, social, and pedagogical implications of disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic, including educational disruptions and countermeasures (UNESCO, 2020), technological inequity (Zhong, 2020), and simultaneous compounding crises (Lynch & Gramer, 2020; UNICEF, 2020).

In these challenging and uncertain times, what path of professional development can a language teacher take that will maximize personal job security and positive social impact? Your answer to this question might differ widely from other teachers’. You may feel a personal resonance with positive psychology, computer assisted language learning, applied linguistics, or other related fields. Regardless of your answer, I would recommend that you consider transdisciplinarity when planning your future professional development.

My inspiration came from being a student of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) science. As you may likely already know, MBE is often described as a transdisciplinary field (Samuels, 2009; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). This means that it bridges the disciplines of psychology, neuroscience, and education. It aims to develop a holistic synthesis that combines many of the theories, methodologies, and research findings into a sum greater than its parts, with the aim of solving complex real-world problems within teaching and learning. 

I started on my Mind, Brain, and Education journey with Dr. Sharon Tettegah’s developmental psychology class in grad school and with Dr. Daniel T. Willingham’s (2009) book, Why Don’t Students Like School?. From there, I got involved with the excellent FAB NeuroELT conferences and I interned at Dr. Robert Murphy’s NeuroELT Lab at the University of Kitakyushu. (Editor: See Robert’s article in this issue too.).

Next, I joined the fully-online Harvard Extension School course, Introduction to Mind, Brain, Health, and Education, taught by Dr. Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa. This demanding class was one of the best courses I’ve ever taken, regardless of modality. One of the constant refrains in the course was the importance of having a transdisciplinary mindset. Dr. Tokuhama-Espinosa pushed us to synthesize not only the traditional Mind, Brain, and Education trio of psychology, neuroscience, and education, but also to expand out to physiology, philosophy, sociology, and ethics. This transdisciplinary thinking forces practitioners out of academic myopia.

I believe that foreign language teachers can be particularly receptive and amenable to transdisciplinary thinking. A cornerstone of our work is bridging disparate cultures and helping our students to synthesize new expressions of their personalities and their understandings. We embrace approaches such as Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), Content Based Instruction (CBI), and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). Many language teachers may already engage in transdisciplinary thinking without even realizing it. 

"The concept of a transdisciplinary mindset certainly resonated with me."
Tom Gorham
TT Author

The concept of a transdisciplinary mindset certainly resonated with me. When I left Japan to earn a master’s degree in the Mind, Brain, and Education program at Harvard, I continued to seek other disciplines that could be connected back to my core area of study. There are almost too many to count, but I’ll share a few of the standout experiences. I had a weekly seminar class with Dr. Howard Gardner, of multiple intelligences fame,[1] in which we discussed politics, art, philosophy, and Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) incredibly influential work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I met Noam Chomsky and talked to him about artificial intelligence. I enrolled in a small course at Harvard Law School called Law and Neuroscience; it was taught by an amazing panel of professors, including Judge Nancy Gertner, Dr. Robert Kinscherff, Dr. Judith Edersheim, and Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett.[2] I attended a conference and participated in a hackathon at MIT that focused on augmented/virtual reality and virtual embodiment. I took a class that gave me hands-on experience working with machine learning and multimodal learning analytics. While I was often outside my intellectual comfort zone, each of these experiences evolved and expanded my concept of what MBE is and what it can be.

[1] Gardner was featured in our Multiple Intelligences Think Tank

[2] Barrett was featured in our Emotion Think Tank

Howard Gardner with Tom Gorham

I am currently a Ph.D. student at Kyoto University in the Department of Social Informatics. My research combines and extends many of my interests that developed during my time at Harvard, bridging Mind, Brain, and Education science, machine learning, and learning analytics. When I was researching this program, I was surprised to find so many reasonably-priced English language graduate programs at Japanese universities and also to discover that there are some generous scholarships available, particularly to younger scholars.

If you are thinking about some formal or informal professional development in the field of MBE science, I would encourage you to jump in and to embrace the intellectual discomfort of transdisciplinarity. Get out of the comfort zones of your silos and learn more about the theories and research in other disciplines. Start translating and making connections back to your own academic neighborhood. 

I would highly recommend anyone interested in getting a thorough introduction to the field to take Dr. Tokuhama-Espinosa’s online course (PSYC-E-1609). You can take it non-credit for less than USD$2,000 or for graduate credit for less than USD$3,000. Be prepared to work, though. It is definitely an active learning experience that raises the bar of how good online education can be. (Editor: See our introduction to the course in this issue.)

I was particularly fascinated by the transdisciplinary topic of law and neuroscience; two fields you might not normally think of as overlapping. If you are interested in learning more about the intersection of law and neuroscience, my professors from Harvard Law School help to run the Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior. Their website hosts videos of many of their events that are likely to be of interest to educators, including “The Next Frontiers of Neuroscience and Juvenile Justice” and “Detecting Dementia: Technology, Aging Brains, and the Law.”

Finally, there is the option of going to Harvard to get a master’s degree in their MBE program. There are certainly some challenges with pursuing this route. I found it hard to leave my family, home, and work behind in Japan. Also, the financial cost can be quite high; even with supportive scholarships, many students pay tens of thousands of U.S. dollars for tuition, room and board, and other expenses. Furthermore, it was a big social and cultural shift to get used to living in a dormitory in my 40s. 

But in the end, when I weigh the pros against the cons, I would absolutely recommend it. It is some of the best money that I have ever spent. The experiences made a dramatic change in who I am and how I think. If you are debating whether you should apply to the program or not, go for it! If I can do it, you can, too! Visit this link and request a virtual information session. And if you do decide to apply, please feel free to reach out to me through the editors of this journal and I’d be happy to give you some feedback on your application essay. 


Tom Gorham has 20 years of experience teaching secondary and university students, and he currently is an Assistant Professor at Rissho University in Tokyo, Japan. He has an Ed.M. with a concentration in e-Learning from the University of Illinois and recently earned a second Ed.M. from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Mind, Brain, and Education program, where he won the HGSE Impact Award.

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