Turning toward transdisciplinarity

The contemporary imaginaries and practices of the university can best be characterised by what Barnett (2000) has called supercomplexity. This movement entails a proliferation of frameworks of knowledge production and an extraordinary excess of possible relations characterised by an intense turbulence of metaphysics, epistemologies, identities, economics, politics, and the crises of planetary life. “Turning the university’s knowledge production system from an endorsing machine to one that seeks to produce radically new frames of understanding,” he reminds us, “would require considerable changes in how research is funded, evaluated and managed. Within universities, new reward structures that encourage creative effort, and the formation of multidisciplinary groupings would be required (out of which inventive problem nets, research programmes and ideas might emerge)” (p. 417).

Such institutional shifts concomitantly require pedagogies that “provide the capacities for coping with supercomplexity; which encourage the formation of human being that maintains a purposive equilibrium in the face of radical uncertainty and contestability” (p. 419). The contemporary university, then, increasingly foregrounds the institution as a networked series of intersections of research, learning, and shaping the characters of human beings—the traditional function of Bildung—and the newer function of addressing a range of profound societal challenges.

While transdisciplinarity has long been touted as a critical strategy for generating innovative solutions for each of these dimensions through partnerships among different domains of knowledge and between various social actors, much more work is required in developing the capacities of higher education to accommodate such a strategy. Transdisciplinary education (TDE) is an increasingly aspirational goal, but its place in the ecosystem of universities remains tenuous, still very much contested by the inertia of entrenched normalisation of academic silos and habitual forms of professional life. Transdisciplinarity challenges the conventional academic systems of accountability, evaluation, and reward as well as the established norms, values, and beliefs regarding what constitutes valid knowledge and how it should be articulated, verified, and authenticated (Moore, 2011). If it is to actually become transformative, the concept must be iteratively integrated into the institutional spaces, times, and procedures of a university, school/ faculty, degree, or curricular programme. This process of construction and analysis is the task that we have set ourselves.

Increasingly, academic institutions are embracing different scales of TDE frameworks for centres of research, courses, degrees, and entire schools. Prominent examples of such innovations include the University College London’s BASc and MASc degrees, the School for Transdisciplinary Study at the University of Zurich, the Olin College of Engineering, the Transdisciplinary School at the University of Technology Sydney, the School of Integrated Studies of Singapore Management University, and a host of global programmes clustered around the wholly insufficient title of “General Education”.

All of these initiatives are powerfully re-imagining the structure and purpose of the university toward a more nuanced future readiness for the churn of the world. These creations, implementations, and enhancements of TDE have received, quite predictably, diverse responses ranging from enthusiastic engagement to deep resistance (Kochhar-Lindgren, 2016). Sustaining an effective TDE platform requires intentional strategies that ensure continuity in organisational, advocacy, and policy capacities beyond individualistic models (Klein, 2010). Intentionality and goodwill, however necessary, are not sufficient. In response to the need to construct new networks of relations, the divergent tasks of the university, and the internal challenges to transdisciplinarity, our paper takes as the object of researching the institutionalisation of the Common Core (CC) in the research-intensive University of Hong Kong (HKU).

Research to date on TDE has tended to focus on pedagogical approaches, institutional support, and stakeholder roles (Ertas, 2018), the interplay between top-down policy and bottom-up practice using a neo-institutionalist lens (Vienni Baptista & Rojas-Castro, 2020), internal practice standardisation and reproduction based on formality and legitimacy (Colyvas & Powell, 2006), and examining how academic structures often pose barriers to transdisciplinary ideas, including rigid disciplinary structures, resource limitations, and resistance from faculty and administrators (Choi & Pak, 2006). Cooke and Kumar (2020) found that despite the potential of strategic plans to bolster interdisciplinary culture in universities, these often yielded insufficient tangible outcomes.

Our primary research question is, “How might transdisciplinary learning structures be successfully implemented and what conditions best facilitate its institutional sustainability?” We will undertake this inquiry with the help of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s philosophical lexicon clustered around the concepts of the assemblage as they are linked to the tasks of the university. There are many forms of institutions of higher education, but there is no research-intensive university without its highest priority being the production of new knowledge. Teaching, however, will almost always be mentioned as a co-priority in the same, or at least in the very next, breath. Any attempt at institutionalising an undergraduate transdisciplinary curriculum must, therefore, make use of the value of research as it forms its generative pedagogical assemblage of (non)human actors (Barad, 2007; Serres, 1995). And any such attempt will, through reciprocal determinations, change the ecosystem of the university from which it emerges.

Assemblage theory and transdisciplinarity

We are, of course, far from the first to have used Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts in the domain of educational research and drawing out their usefulness in conceptual mapping to university structures. Thompson et al. (2022) argued that the concept of assemblage could help navigate the complexities of policy as a “methodological and conceptual apparatus for dealing with the ‘gap’ between the idealism of intentions and the disappointment of enactment” (p. 686). For example, Bacevic (2019) framed universities as assemblages to contest the presuppositions of unbundling that posit institutional boundaries as fixed. To the pivotal term of assemblage, we will also add the dynamics of territorialisation and the creative repetition of the refrain. Each of these will also be connected to the multiple enunciatory functions of a university such as policy formation, outreach, teaching, and research. Even though these are always distinguishable activities, they always appear together to shape the assemblage.

An assemblage, Deleuze explains, is a “multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them…thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of a co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’” (Deleuze & Parnet, 2002, p. 69). Or less abstractly, it is where we compose “states of things, bodies, various combinations of bodies, hodgepodges; but you also find utterances, modes of expression, and whole regimes of signs” (Deleuze, 2007, p. 177). Dewsbury (2011) reminds us that assemblages are “ontological statements that parse out the world and frame it in particular ways” (p. 149), which include subjectivities, material structures, policy articulations, obscurities, and the circulation of always contested meaning and value.

Assemblages take shape through the external relation between their components, prioritising interactions over any presumed inherent identities, intentions, or inner volitions of individuals or collectives (Grosz, 2001). What Deleuze and Guattari (1987) call desire is this inherent affirmative vital force of assembling, producing, and creating relations. They assert, “There is no desire but assembling, assembled, desire. The rationality, the efficiency, of an assemblage does not exist without the desire that constitutes it as much as it constitutes them” (p. 399). Thus, the assemblage renders consistency to desires, continuously entangling other assemblages and consuming and multiplying other desires, and Tuck (2010) contends, can exist in the social imagination. This implies that while desire has an organising function, it always has the potential to open assemblages up to unintended outcomes, including breakdown and dissipation. Desire, in this sense, does not only emerge from individual human beings but is, instead, a dynamic aspect of the immanent vitality that shapes institutional and social life as well.

Following DeLanda’s (2016) analysis of assemblage theory, we need to underline the potentials-for-connectivity of the assemblage to more fully understand its function. Every element of the assemblage must have some form of a connective surface, or a landing-site for attachments, that can be attached to other surfaces in order for desire to flow and take on new contours in the university. Examples of such connections might include the spike protein of a virus, a series of hooks by which a burr can attach itself to our socks, the excitement of an idea passed from hand to hand, the weathering of rocks, biochemical signalling, or all of the myriad ways in which universities provide pathways for connectivity. Building a transdisciplinary curriculum requires expanding the number of connecting points across and beyond the boundaries of a university. DeLanda articulates this connective potential of the assemblage by what he calls “concepts with knobs that can be set to different values” (p. 3) through different settings of “parameters.” These parameters modulate the intensity and power of how the curriculum is composed and changes through the many shifting variables in the university, enabling different possibilities for transdisciplinarity to be created and sustained.

Creating a transdisciplinary assemblage requires establishing borders of an “inside” and an “outside,” but always with borders that are semi-porous, flexible, and dynamic to allow for “emergence”—openings for the appearance of the new. The assemblage of a curriculum or a university—for instance, curricula, classrooms, digital tools, grades, or degrees—are combinations of histories, (non)human bodies, modes of meaning-making, structures, and chance. These are the flows of institutional and individual desire that must be successfully sculpted for TDE to be articulated in a sustainable manner over time and in the face of varying agendas.

Assemblage theory, then, allows us to use an analytically creative toolbox to speak of transdisciplinary institutionalisation, which depends on establishing connective relations that exhibit permeable borders and properties of emergence. Desire, value, and meaning—those functions of enunciation—are always part and parcel of this process.

Territorialisations and refrains

Assemblages are territories where something happens and involve what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) have called territorialisation and deterritorialisation. Territorialisation, the process of generating terrains for activity, occurs in part through different types of “codings,” processes of solidifying the “content” of the policies, rules, norms, relationships, and identities, thereby setting boundaries, which are always provisional, for the assemblage. This, in general, is the function of leadership, strategic initiatives, and all the decision-making committees in a university.

This repetition with a difference of transdisciplinary formations is the process of what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) indicate by the action of a refrain, which is how territorialisation occurs and how assemblages achieve the consistency to pull together heterogeneous components. A refrain is defined as “any aggregate of matters of expression that draws a territory and develops into territorial motifs and landscapes” (p. 323). A refrain entails a kind of collective sculpting or creating a sieve that sifts through institutional possibilities. The refrain follows a rhythm that is mutually constituted with the affordances and events in its environment (Grosz, 2008, p. 18). A curriculum—with its etymology rooted in the Latin for “to move quickly”—must run for the institutional territory to emerge, express itself, and be renewed. Klein et al. (2022) rightly argue that institutionalisation should be treated as a verb, indicating a dynamic continuous change process, rather than as a noun representing fixed structures, policies, and protocols.

The relational nature of assemblages involves a dual movement in which territorialisation within assemblage(s) is counter-acted by deterritorialisations within or across other assemblages by the flows of desires that disrupt existing structures and therefore require reconfiguration. Deterritorialisations through the refrain can create openings in assemblages for improvisation and possible changes that join with the future (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 311). But there is always a risk of collapse or closure if the boundaries between the inside and outside are too porous or if the rhythm turns into a metered and stale cadence. Thus, a transdisciplinary curriculum risks dissipation by losing territory to deterritorialising forces (within and outside the university) or becoming irrelevant to the core institutional desires of the university’s mission.

The institutionalisation of a different curriculum, especially in the case of creating new programmes with its requisite offices and personnel hires, requires a deterritorialisation of existing institutional assemblages to create conditions around policy, funding, people, and spaces for new assemblages that produce effective outcomes such as student and faculty enthusiasm, social impacts, knowledge formation, and a renewal of an institution’s identity. The recursivity of the refrains of such an assemblage achieves both the durability and the innovative inflections of such an initiative. These refrains, with the entangled habitus of the institution’s desires, ensure longevity in the context of ongoing and sometimes unexpected institutional pressures and challenges.

Assemblage theory, with its correlates of the refrain and of territorialisation, provides a dynamic means of understanding the process of building a transdisciplinary curriculum within a research-intensive university ecosystem. Such an “application” is not an external and active power (a change-management process) that is imposed on an inert object (the old curricular structure) but a deployment of the energies of reciprocal determinations. Everything is always in motion: a vortex moving at variable speeds. In making these reciprocal determinations more visible, we have sought to illuminate productive forces of the curriculum assemblage of actors, events, circulations of desire, and both linear segments of behaviours and nonlinear loops of discovery.

As Bacevic (2019) observed, “universities are now operating in a substantially different spatial and political environment [posing] substantial questions concerning how we conceive of mechanisms that shape and determine their role and relationship with different societies” (p. 79). The ivory tower and the silo— with their anachronistic associations, vertical organisations, and hardened spaces of exclusion—are no longer adequate images to represent what goes on in a university that is permeated by the competing forces of its “home” campus, which is also a launching pad, a particle accelerator, and a forest of non-human entities. The university is now creating differentiated architectures of metamorphic assemblages of transdisciplinary curricula and in order to provide a greater specificity of analysis, we will now deploy these concepts to the Common Core, an institutionalisation of the transdisciplinary curriculum at The University of Hong Kong.

The Common Core as a transdisciplinary curriculum

We have chosen the Common Core as a site of study not only because of our own long-term engagements with this initiative but also because we believe its organisational underpinnings make it an internationally distinctive transdisciplinary curriculum. All 10 Faculties at The University of Hong Kong contribute newly created courses for the CC that benefit students, faculty members, departments, schools, and the university as a whole. From an outsider’s perspective, external reviewers have consistently affirmed that the curriculum is on par with, if not exceeding, the highest of world-class university standards. Since its full implementation in 2012, the CC has enrolled over 200,000 undergraduates, approved 290 courses, and engaged more than 520 teachers, 1300 tutors, and 260 demonstrators. This comprehensive engagement across the entire university underscores its deep integration into undergraduate teaching and learning. It extends, quite intentionally, far beyond formal course content to pedagogical experimentations, student research, and co-curricular learning projects with corporate, community, and international partners.

The process of institutionalisation, which aims for the persistence of legitimacy (Mugenyi et al., 2022), refers to integrating significant new structures or practices into existing systems and procedures (Scott, 2013) involving rules, regulations, policies, values, norms, beliefs, and behaviours. “Legitimacy,” DeLanda (2016) reminds us, “is a property of an organisation’s authority structure even if it depends for its existence on personal beliefs about its source: a legitimising tradition; a set of written regulations and an institutional mission; or even … the charisma of a leader” (p. 11). Thompson and Deer (1989) highlight seven key supporting processes as characteristics for establishing legitimacy, including vision and benefits, clarification and refinement of activities, external and internal support structures, attention to leadership and responsibility, a sense of collective ownership, and administrative structure modifications. All of these occurred both as the CC was initially imagined, framed, approved, and implemented and as it continues to attend very closely to these dimensions for the sake of new imaginings, framings, and extensions.

Methodology and data

Our study relies primarily on thinking-through learning structures from the positionality of assemblages, territories, and refrains. We complement this philosophical dimension, however, with an empirical qualitative analysis of documents, surveys, interviews, and ethnography that are interwoven with the initiation, implementation, and continuing development of the CC. This archival material indicates one stratum of the expressive enunciatory elements of the assemblage that each of us is also deeply entangled with. The analytical power of assemblages lies in understanding the relational purpose, functions, and behaviours when material and agents come together and how they sustain their working arrangements, “especially the tensions induced by attraction, repulsion, resonance, amplification” (Thompson et al., 2022, p. 690). We, therefore, focused on the relational components that informed key activities: critical policy decisions and changes, communications strategies, procedural and structural aspects, and evaluative feedback and review in understanding perceptions and effectiveness of the curriculum.

The selected documents (see Appendix) consist of planning documents, minutes of committee and consultation meetings, and external reviewer reports that provided a historical perspective, tracing the evolution of issues arising over time that assisted our understanding of how policies were formulated, the rationales for such policies, how they were implemented or resisted, and subsequent impacts on the students and staff. For example, records from yearly committee and consultation meetings indicate numerous challenges, primarily driven by professional programmes, to diminish the course requirement or to introduce a pass/fail grading system.

Evaluative feedback included formal institutional evaluation by students of course and teacher effectiveness from 2014 to 2022. The evaluations contained a mix of Likert questions and open-ended questions focused on course/teacher effectiveness on both course and selected institutional learning outcomes (such as creativity, critical thinking, metacognition, and intercultural learning) and aspects of teaching (content engagement, responsiveness to students’ needs, communication skills, and timely feedback). The longitudinal data identified trends and evaluations of the sustainability of curriculum learning effectiveness, with the student interviews mentioned previously offering more nuanced insights into their experiences.

The first author and research assistants also administered survey questionnaires in 2022, with responses from 56 teachers and in-depth interviews of 16 teachers with extensive teaching experience in the curriculum. Participants comprised teaching assistants and tutors, lecture-track academics, and tenured and non-tenured professorial staff. Interviews were also conducted on ten (10) undergraduate students in 2023 who recently experienced the curriculum, with transcripts coded to identify emerging themes. All staff and student participants were recruited via email and participated voluntarily. The participants were purposively selected to help better understand experiences around teaching and learning, course selection choices, motivations for teaching CC courses, funding and administrative issues, and support systems for students. All of these findings offered diverse insights into the experiences of stakeholders involved in the curriculum implementation, review, and institutionalisation process.

Lastly, we drew on the autoethnographic experiences of the three authors in varying capacities as administrators, committee members, project directors, course teachers, and as a former student. These experiences and interactions with stakeholders provided a valuable insider perspective and added contextual depth to our findings. During the research process, we maintained ongoing dialogues and reflected on the data to continually evaluate how our involvement and proximity to the curriculum may influence our interpretation of findings. Furthermore, although we are very much aware of many global examples, our conclusions on TDE curriculum institutionalisation are limited by the context of Hong Kong, the strong social consensus and government support towards higher education, and the university’s research-intensive orientation.

Enunciations of assembling

The CC’s initial territorialisation was born from the desire of Hong Kong’s governmental policymakers, in consultation with employers and universities, to establish a more comprehensive liberal arts education that would strengthen students’ capacities for critical thinking and problem-solving, an ownership of learning, and a curiosity shaped into different types of active learning and undergraduate research that would better prepare students for the contemporary workforce. It was accomplished by a decolonising realignment of Hong Kong’s undergraduate degrees from 3 to 4 years via the reduction of one year of secondary schooling and the addition of that year to the university curriculum.

Institutionalising a new programme requires a substantial effort of coding, which provides a direction of how territorialisation ought to happen and how it actually happens. Determining a curriculum’s structure and content matters but can prove challenging. Hence, beyond the initial statutory territorialisation, the university underwent an inclusive consultative process led by senior management that deeply engaged the input of heterogeneous institutional administrative and faculty elements towards assembling a diverse TDE curriculum for undergraduate education. This steering committee progressively translated these inputs into policy and strategic plans through the refrain of roundtables, seminars, workshops, retreats, and reviews.

There is an ethos of construction, description, evaluation, and future orientation at work, with the future understood as both a linear probability and as a series of unpredictable possibilities. Since the CC’s full launch in 2012, the core policy has mandated that all undergraduate students complete six CC courses for a full degree programme or four courses for a double degree and specific professional programmes. This requirement, making up approximately 15% of a typical undergraduate degree, strengthens the CC’s movements within institutional awareness, identity, practice, and global and local visibility.

Border disputes always make more visible the boundaries of the assemblage (Bacevic, 2019), evident from documents of how the curriculum committee consistently resisted attempts to re-appropriate curricular territory for reallocation along disciplinary lines. As a radical redistribution of credits and course of the more traditional structure of the university, there was also resistance from the disciplines to give up curricular space to the transdisciplinary—and, at that early point of development, unproven—initiative. Should that have happened, it would have been a good example of the dissipation of the boundaries of an assemblage, which, if the boundaries become too porous, absolutely deterritorialises and vanishes. The tying of specific and fixed timeslots within the academic timetable for teaching CC courses also leaves a mark. This territorial mark acquires a temporal constancy and spatial range and becomes expressive (Adkins, 2015) by shifting faculty practices away from scheduling disciplinary courses during these timeslots to avoid conflict within the students’ learning schedules.

These multiple articulations of the curriculum define the exteriority, its irreducibility to older models, and its relations of legitimacy, which move away from depending only on individual constituents and the potential risk associated with individual mobilities. Similarly, the mimicry of course proposals, review, evaluation, and approval processes—all movements of an innovative reterritorialisation—repeats and appropriates the rhythms and cycles of broader institutional norms as expressivities to draw new territory. Through these numerous and overlapping refrains and gradual repetitive acts of de/re-territorialisation, a “home” territory is extracted from the flows of institutional space–time that then serves as a semi-stable core for a transdisciplinary initiative that is connected to, but differentiated from, the specific faculties’ logics and practices.

Practices of reporting and accountability also come to demarcate boundaries of the TDE curriculum institutionally. The CC Director directly reports to the university’s senior management for teaching and learning and the correlative T&L committees, which confirms its function as a university-wide programme that stands alongside, but not inside or subordinate to, the traditional faculty practices and metrics. The instantiation of a small, focused, and agile administrative enunciatory team and designated office, meeting, and learning spaces—with the Director, Associate Director, and a core administrative staff of five—expresses itself as a node in the university’s network by its facilitative non-hierarchical operations, emphasising intersections of both the expertise and desires students and faculty members and encouraging multiple methodologies, experimentations, and locales for learning.

This expressive function of the core contributes to the territorialisation of the curriculum through its administrative and logistical support role, which includes coordinating enrolments, monitoring courses, conducting reviews, and providing recommendations. It acts as a refrain that vitalises other refrains, helping to territorialise new structures and norms within the curriculum that then loop back, in another version of the refrain, into the practices of the different faculties. The inclusion of distinguished professors from internationally renowned institutions as external reviewers appointed on 4-year terms is also performative refrains that reinforce curricular legitimisation in active gestures of quality assurance that inscribe new curricular territory.

The content and administrative practices of the CC via coding and refrain territorialises by constructing, coordinating, disseminating, and reinforcing the formal and informal messages that express the assemblage’s identity, shared language, goals, and values. These processes not only mediate the performance of relations with faculties but also defines the boundaries of curriculum assemblage. Consequently, the emergent properties of the assemblage are kept relatively stable. However, given the separation from the established hierarchy of the disciplinary faculties and the silos within research-intensive institutions, what parameters does the curriculum encode to draw in faculty’s sustained participation?

De- and re-territorialising faculties

Curriculum assemblages require sustained institutional attention to stay in motion. Creating a curriculum that seeks to maintain a “cutting-edge” and emergent expressivity demands a coding that permits a flexible structurality necessary for the many administrative procedures involved in this improvisation. These practices settle into place through the action of the refrains of faculty teaching, learning, research, relation-building, and horizon-scanning. Being outside of the faculty structure and with the limitations of a small enunciatory team requires (re)organising and (re)grouping faculty academics, administrators, and senior management to participate in the responsibilities of decision-making, quality assurance, support, and teaching. Hence, the necessary coding of the TDE assemblage must be generative, enabling faculty engagement as a deterritorialisation from the traditionally siloed faculty assemblage to manifest a greater non-competitive dynamic.

The curriculum’s coding parameters provide multiple touchpoints for faculty representation and bringing perspectives from their disciplinary homes. The multidisciplinary committees, thematic sub-groups and course proposal reviewers, and faculty course teachers all provide perspectives, methods, and plug-ins for change. These connections with faculty and their iterative expressions mark out the boundaries of the territory. From a governance perspective, committee representations allow participation to influence both the CC and the university’s transdisciplinary trajectory. These decisions include the strategic direction, review of curriculum course proposals, special teaching arrangements, and approval of grading practices. The committee representation’s 3-year renewable term provides stability to these commitments.

Participation from different faculties in vetting and reviewing course proposals allows transdisciplinarity to emerge from the input of multiple disciplinary specialisations that are reciprocally shaped by this exercise. According to records of review meetings, the voluntary peer review working groups—guided by the enunciatory core, not only of documents but also by a series of regularly scheduled get-togethers that emphasise collegial experimentation—are felt to be welcoming, hospitable, and creative as they build feedback, encouragement, and appreciation into the annual round.

The refrain of these participatory mechanisms facilitates “indirect interactions between elements devoid of a so-called natural affinity” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 385), such that faculty interactions across the campus cross-pollinate practices and enable new collaborative opportunities to emerge, such as cross-faculty teaching and research. The CC serves, then, as a collective experimental sandbox for the university and individual desires in teaching and learning: a meeting-space, a play-space, a learning-space, and a space to try out new pedagogies and projects. Territorialising the TDE assemblage through boundaries drawn by multi-faculty engagement strengthens the boundaries by legitimising and further institutionalising the curriculum.

For teaching, the course policy mandates large-class lectures combined with small classroom tutorials, ensuring intensive teaching commitments. The renewable 3-year teaching cycle is accompanied by matching funding cycles (to be discussed in the next section), which provides consistency to faculties and individual teachers. Mobilising teaching staff and physical resources to deliver to typical enrolments of around 120 students per course across 150 + courses per annum represents a significant expenditure of energy, attention, and funding from both academics and administrators. In addition, the institutional legitimacy of TDE curriculum engagement is signalled through active senior management participation, many of whom have also taught in the CC and served on the curriculum committee to help shape its ongoing contours.

To ensure institutional credibility and rigour within the curriculum, a core policy mandates that CC course coordinator must be a full-time professoriate-level staff member and take up at least 50% of the formal teaching of lectures unless specially approved. The deterritorialisation of professoriate staff’s time and labour and this performative reterritorialisation is structurally significant for the assemblage to connect to relations of legitimacy, given the associations of faculty research to institutional reputation and ranking. Committee representation is also mainly restricted to professoriate staff actively reviewing and approving new course applications and negotiating curricular changes and initiatives. Senior professoriate involvement can enable a more balanced power dynamic, especially in negotiating and securing a share of allocated funding associated with teaching a CC course compared to lectureship or junior teaching staff.

While professoriate staff engagement may occasionally be side-stepped, it is a critical component that supports institutionalisation through maintaining the quality, reputation, and durability of the curriculum and how it normalises faculties’ attention to TDE. Policy relaxations to permit lecturer-track and professional practitioners to undertake more than 50% teaching and serve as course coordinators in efforts to attract broader teacher participation are vetted on teaching experience, their own specialised training, and must carry faculty management endorsement. Any decreased coding to accommodate greater non-professorial or adjunct participation can potentially have longer-term destabilising impacts if the representational composition is not well-regulated. Indeed, without proper gatekeeping, the funding structure described in the following section would incentivise substituting professoriate teachers with less expensive and adjunct staff while providing faculties with a net financial gain. This quality assurance, however, is, as we have seen, regulated not only by CC staff but, much more importantly, by faculty colleagues engaged with the CC as teachers and committee members.

Hence, the mechanisms for sustained representation from multiple faculties and at varying gradations cultivate polyphonic dynamics, affirming the curriculum’s quality and legitimacy while reciprocally influencing and enriching faculty practices. The different expressions of the assemblage adjust subtly, even though the main emergent properties of enacting transdisciplinary education are kept stable through the coding provided by the curriculum policy and the enunciatory function that, while modified over time, remains a stable throughline of an institutional rationale and set of procedures for implementation. Through an arabesque of refrains, this participation deepens TDE’s institutional dynamism, experimentation, and stability.

Desire, funding, and reterritorialising disciplinary knowledge

Assemblages need ways to sustain consistency and intensity among heterogeneous institutional components. The amplification and circulation of desire help to animate both the institutionalisation and dynamism of the transdisciplinary curriculum. This is done by incentivising faculties and faculty colleagues through organising the flow of funding, regulating how disciplinary knowledge is translated into transdisciplinary learning by the teachers, and being adaptive to students’ desires in the expression of the curriculum.

University and curriculum assemblages are (re)oriented and animated through money, always a manifestation of the flow of desire and a salient regulator of other desires. Budgetary constraints and funding are a well-acknowledged and widespread challenge at most faculty and departmental levels within higher education. Consistent financial support, though, divests the flow of desires away from solely intra-faculty pursuits and strengthens the interactions of faculty components to prioritise teaching while connecting research in the pedagogical and broader institutional context. The CC has always had the support of the original design of a central budget commitment that funds each course in a renewable three-year cycle. The funding structure is configured to allocate funding from the central budget to the faculty level and nourishes the relations between teaching, administration, and logistics, drawing the traditional faculty assemblages towards the TDE curriculum assemblage in a movement of perpetual crossing. The fungibility of this funding and the entry point at the faculty level gives budgetary discretion and flexibility to senior faculty management, activating a top-down push for course development. In many cases, this funding has established an interdependence between CC course teaching and the operational viability and expansion of schools and departments.

This funding usually percolates to at least the departmental level and, in some instances, to the teachers and their teams. It partially funds the hiring of new tenure-line academic staff and supports salaries for non-tenured employment stability, including lecturers and teaching assistants. The 3-year funding term, large-enrolment class size of 120, and the small tutorial contact requirements of each course translate to relatively longer appointments and less transiency for the junior teaching staff than do traditional disciplinary appointments. In the more bottom-up movement, this funding cycle is quite often initiated by faculty members wishing to offer a CC course that can take different forms than their usual disciplinary offerings. Successful proposal of CC courses becomes a mechanism that enables academic staff to deliver revenue for faculties and secure employment for longer term faculty-members. However, on occasion, senior faculty management’s redirection of funding towards other activities can potentially generate disjunctive deterritorialising dynamics when resources are perceived as not supporting or rewarding the course teaching itself.

Junior tenure-line professoriate staff are often understandably hesitant about teaching CC courses, viewing the endeavour as diverting limited time and attention away from their disciplinary focus. Interdisciplinary engagements are traditionally unfavourable to individual academic profiles and career advancement (Lauto & Sengoku, 2015), which in a research-intensive university primarily depends on the amount and perceived quality of publications. The university’s central budget commitments then act as a counterweight to that resistant set of values and often (re)direct the desire of faculty and departmental management to encourage junior professoriate staff participation in teaching activities. The 3-year commitment aligns with 50% of the usual 6-year term of entry-level assistant professoriate staff. In some cases, professorial staff can also channel this funding towards supporting research activities.

The funding model, then, ensures engagement with TDE teaching and benefits disciplinary endeavours across the faculties while delivering a forward momentum for the curriculum. Ultimately, the recurrent cycle of course approval, delivery, and funding establishes a long-term interdependent reciprocal constitution between faculties, the students, and the CC. This refrain fortifies the durability of the institutionalisation of TDE across varying initiatives and cultural norms both within and outside the university.

Another challenge is how faculty colleagues translate their disciplinary expertise for transdisciplinary teaching and learning. Kligyte et al. (2022) highlight how the concept of transdisciplinarity can often be unfamiliar and challenging to understand and enact, leading to variability among individuals in their interpretation of TDE’s nature, significance, and applicability. The CC curriculum overcomes these challenges through a thematic coding that reterritorialises how disciplinary knowledge is expressed within the curriculum. Courses converge across four broad and overlapping Areas of Inquiries (AoIs), anchoring courses to commonalities and reinforcing TDE learning objectives while opening spaces for creative adaption. The four AoIs are Science, Technology, and Big Data; Arts and Humanities; Global Issues; and China: Culture, State, and Society include an organised and constantly updated document that outlines its conceptual framework and alignment to CC’s goals, sub-themes of critical issues, and learning outcomes to be addressed. The recent addition of a new AoI around Artificial Intelligence in response to its widespread proliferation illustrates the emergent potentials of the curriculum to remain adaptable.

The AoIs form leitmotifs and counterpoints of the refrains that rhythmically thread together differing disciplinary provenances to render a sense of cohesion and unity for the curriculum. Autonomous rhythmic components are kept in line, upholding consistency (Kleinherenbrink, 2015) and modulating the process of deterritorialisation, which is how the new and unfamiliar become incorporated into the curriculum refrain as well as being kept oriented towards the future. In drafting course proposals, academics must articulate how their proposed courses will address fundamental inquiries and concerns of the selected AoI goals and outline this adherence by presenting the essential ideas, practices, methods, and perspectives through a week-by-week schedule.

The process necessitates careful consideration of connections among topics, promoting coherent sequencing and scaffolding of course components. The assemblage effectively renders consistency to the flow of incoming desires and performatively inflects the trajectory of their transdisciplinary engagements. Such an AoI model has proven to be a reliable approach to achieving coherence of experience, intellectual rigour, and broadening students’ perspectives with 30–50 courses offered per thematic grouping. The approach facilitates students’ recognition of interconnections and fosters a more coherently authentic understanding of knowledge, capacities, and life trajectories. It prevents the curriculum from falling into a mechanical and dogmatic reproduction of the same.

The broad thematic construction and approval mechanisms enable existing and new courses to mobilise around emerging real-world contemporary contexts and interconnect with one another to form multiple epistemological perspectives. For instance, the AoIs act through deterritorialisation to renew the assemblage and allow emergences for an organic absorption of emerging knowledge domains such as bioengineering, artificial intelligence, Web3, global ethics and governance, social entrepreneurship, digitising cultural heritage, or game studies. Likewise, the introduction of formal Transdisciplinary Minors has enabled students to customise a cohesive, transdisciplinary learning pathway to complement their disciplinary majors. These “collectivities of enunciation” are then enabled to travel much more freely across the usual institutional boundaries. Again, the silo and ivory tower configurations are shifted into living networks and dynamic flows of a transdisciplinary assemblage.

CC course proposals are of course quite influenced by the academic staff’s disciplinary expertise, but they are also shaped by their own desires around specific topics. Annually, the CC receives 10–20 proposals for new courses intended to replace retiring ones, with around half of these accepted, and many, after revisions, reapply the following year. The cycle of course changes ensures that each annual refrain is different. The TDE curriculum assemblage is in a contingent and planned play of negotiation and incorporation, changing the complex context of correlative learning that is not constrained by a preconceived plan of narrow outcomes or a scaffolding of pre-requisites.

Students’ desires are also integrated into the expressions in the curriculum. Courses failing to achieve a minimum enrolment threshold are discontinued or require substantive revision, while substantial student enrolments per course validate the curriculum’s financial viability to faculties while concurrently effecting territorialisation through the expansive 17,000 + undergraduates per academic year. In addressing legitimate concerns related to varying course difficulty, the curriculum incorporates a stipulation that allows students taking six CC courses to exempt one course from contributing to their Cumulative Grade Point Average. This proviso encourages students to make course selections guided by interest and intellectual curiosity rather than simply the desire for a “good” grade.

The curriculum committee modulates grade distribution disparities, thereby mitigating potential aberrations in student enrolment patterns. Overall, courses are pragmatically evaluated and adapted in light of students’ feedback and expectations, a notable example of which has been the phasing out of traditional sit-down examinations from CC course assessments and moving towards more active project-based assessments. The success of the curriculum is also demonstrated by a gradual but consistent upward trend in the mean student evaluation scores of teaching across the first decade of the CC’s operation, marking a significant difference in comparison to the mean evaluation scores of disciplinary courses. This outcome serves as another data point for legitimating the continued engagement and stability of the assemblage within institutional refrains.

Given all of these components of the TDE assemblage and its constitution through the flows of desire, the CC has become an intersecting platform for exchanges across disciplinary boundaries and distribution of what is institutionally “sensible” and what is possible to be seen, heard, and felt (Rancière, 2004). The wealth of pedagogical innovations birthed by the CC courses is a testament to its successful institutionalisation and ongoing vitality. Each refrain enables the curriculum to gradually adjust and reinvent itself as all the refrains become woven into the evolving institutional assemblage of learning, research, collaboration, and experimentation.

Conclusions and openings

By framing the transdisciplinary curriculum as an assemblage of territorialisations and refrains, our study of the Common Core at The University of Hong Kong highlights the successful institutionalisation factors in a research-intensive university. We affirmed the importance of expressions that appropriate the existing rhythms of the broader institution—for example, policy and processes of enrolments, grading, schedules, decision-making, reporting, and funding—but also the necessarily differentiating practices that carve out a distinctive curriculum territory. This draws on and recombines disciplinary expertise into new configurations of teaching and research with flexible but recognisable boundaries. Disciplinarity is not repudiated—we all need specialisation—but complemented as it is reassembled along the lines of desire, intensities of activity, and a theory of institutional change based on reciprocal determinations across and beyond the university’s entire ecology. The curriculum assemblage is constituted through the orchestration process of the refrain, enabling creative entanglements to proliferate over time within the broader rhythms of the university’s interaction with the world at large.

The CC has been described by colleagues, students, and external reviewers as the “DNA” of the undergraduate experience at HKU, a stark contrast to the initial ambivalence of many during its very early configurations. This recursive arrangement is multi-faceted, but it enacts a structured flexibility that permits a (trans)mobility of meaning, values, norms, and resources to influence the CC’s inclusion and expansion within the university’s overall curricular ecosystem. The sustaining creativity of the CC clearly exemplifies the possibilities for research-intensive universities to tap into the deep specialisations of disciplines in order to further transdisciplinary undergraduate learning.

Such an assemblage creates a transversal curricular construction of refrains rather than one that relies on the tired dichotomies between the “specialised” and the “general” or the “horizontal” and the “vertical,” with all of the alignments of power associated with such a traditional orientation. The horizontal and vertical are now complemented by the diagonal. Our study makes a methodological and pragmatic contribution to the literature on the institutionalisation of transdisciplinarity by proposing an alternative framework for analysis and by advocating a highly sustainable model that reshapes, enlivens, and nourishes the participation of disciplinary domains in a generatively symbiotic relationship. This is, indeed, a transdisciplinary symphonic of learning with the vision and curricular power to address both the volatility and the possibilities afforded by our own historical moment of supercomplexity.