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NEWS: ACUSAfrica Seminar - Sustainability, transdisciplinarity & the public epistemic role of HE

The next ACUSAfrica seminar will be presented by Dr Su-Ming Khoo, from NUI Galway, on the topic of "Sustainability, transdisciplinarity and the public epistemic role of higher education".

The seminar will be held online on the 7th of October 2021, from 15h00 to 16h30 SAST (GMT+2).

To register for the seminar, please click here.

Dr Khoo is a member of the ACUSAfrica network and her research focuses on human rights, human development, public goods, development alternatives, decoloniality, global activism, development education and higher education.


A fundamental problem focus for transdisciplinary science is sustainability and the fundamental question concerning sustainability is what should be sustained?. ‘Sustainable development’, like all concepts of development is an emergent and contested concept that cannot be abstracted from particularities of history and context - particularities that are weighted with power and contestation (Khoo 2015a; 2013). Sustainability science is concerned with societal challenges and how to respond to them. These involve significant differences and disagreements that are not reducible to functionalist conceptions of ‘consensus’. A great deal has been written about education and sustainability, while the role of education and specifically higher education is obviously significant. Yet, the role and importance of higher education are in many respects neglected in the transdisciplinary science state of the art.

This contribution specifically addresses the critical role of education and research in higher education, drawing on the radical roots of inter and trans-disciplinarity (Khoo et al 2019; Toomey et al 2015); noting higher education’s specific democratic role in fostering public reason (White 2017) and aspects of creativity, emergence and the transdisciplinary imagination (Lawrence 2010). It dwells in particular on the contributions of critical praxis and pedagogies within higher education pedagogies that are closely associated with transdisciplinarity’s radical roots (Parker and Samantrai 2010). It draws on these distinctions to discuss some important debates and controversies over the public nature of science, ideas about academic freedom and questions for determining the public good and deciding the conative direction of transformative science.

Part 1 reviews the way I have theorized transdisciplinarity to date, noting the different roots of inter and transdisciplinarity and recapping the main elements and four main horizons/directions of inter and transdisciplinarity (Khoo et al 2019).

Part 2 addresses each of these directions in turn:

  1. Reductionism, epistemic colonization and its connections to contemporary problems of epistemic nihilism

  2. Divergence, its connections to contested power and the radical, social justice roots of inter and transdisciplinary science. It considers current demands to restitute epistemic injustice and institute epistemic pluralism

  3. Convergence and methodological experiments in interdisciplinary co-research and education, focused on participatory, inclusive and democratic modes of co-inquiry and co-formation

  4. Emergence: ethics, creativity, natality and how these relate to the ‘obstinately’ educative (Biesta 2019) role of HE in fostering epistemic resources and capabilities to contribute epistemically in a critical, inclusive and imaginative way (Lawrence 2010). This is crucial for the sustenance of a healthy democratic public, given a strongly challenged and pluralistic world.

Part 3 addresses what is ‘higher’ in higher education: the production and circulation of epistemic resources and critical evaluation. It discusses the tension between the scientistic and humanistic destinations of convergence, to argue that both are needed. It explores how the distance between them can be bridged with creativity, courage and conviviality, drawing on new developments in responsive, creative and ethical methodologies (Khoo and Jørgensen, 2021; Walker and Boni 2020, Hogan et al 2017)

Part 4 does two things: it reclaims the ‘public’ ground eroded by epistemic predation, epistemic reductionism and epistemic nihilism, briefly introducing the triangulated model of New Public Goods theory of democratic participation, equitable enjoyment and public benefit (Khoo 2014). It connects the emergent interests in sustainability to ethics and the democratic-political and educative ethos of higher education as fostering strong reflexivity (Hamati-Ataya 2018) through a certain separation and distancing from the socially normative and political world, and development of critical professional judgement, as distinct from functionalist and reductively statist conceptions of education as instruction or ‘learnification’ (Biesta 2015).

The Conclusion reflects on the higher and educative epistemic functions of higher education: against epistemic arrogance and the need to foster disciplinary humility, pluralism and courageously critical, normative and ethical thinking to support and develop different epistemic contributions and commitments for the public good against epistemic nihilism (Satta 2020; Cuneo 2007).

Speaker Bio

Su-ming Khoo is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science and Sociology, and leads the Socio-Economic Impact (Ryan Institute) and Environment, Development and Sustainability (Whitaker Institute) Research Clusters at NUI Galway. She researches and teaches on human rights, human development, public goods, development alternatives, decoloniality, global activism, development education and higher education. She is Principal Investigator, BCAUSE: Building Collaborative Approaches to University Strategies against Exclusion in Ireland and Africa: pedagogies for quality Higher Education and inclusive global citizenship (IRC-COALESCE 2019-2022). She is coeditor with Helen Kara of Researching in the Age of COVID-19, Volumes I,II and III (Policy Press, 2020) and Qualitative and Digital Research in Times of Crisis (Bristol University Press, 2021)

ORCID: 0000-0001-8346-3913


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