By Alfonso Montuori, Professor and Chair of the Transformative Inquiry Department
In the mid-1980s I was looking for a university where I could do my Ph.D. The experience was disconcerting. Every time I walked into a department and sat down to speak with the chair, he or she would mumble something about how interesting my research project was, and then politely add that this was probably not the department for me and I should try…. Well, psychology would point me to sociology, sociology to political science, political science to philosophy, philosophy to anthropology, and then, ironically, anthropology would lead me back to psychology.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of an earlier experience. In my late teens and early 20s I led a band in London. What kind of a band? Well, that’s the problem. We were a pretty good band, quite successful, arguably a lot of fun, definitely wacky, but…nobody could quite label us. We didn’t care, because we played to packed houses and had a good time. But when the record companies would come to hear us they hemmed and hawed. The trouble was, they didn’t know what record store bin to put us in. Was it Rock? Punk? Funk? Comedy?
In the end we almost got signed, but in true anarchic fashion we self-destructed by dancing on the tables of dining record company executives while they were eating at their Christmas party. The execs were apparently somewhat lacking in the humor department although arguably not quite as much as we were overendowed in the youthful folly department. Our inappropriate dancing displeased them even more than our un”bin”ability. So we ended up with a deal on a minor label, and then of course the band broke up.
Compounding matters, I am also a “Third Culture Child,” a rootless cosmopolitan. I didn’t live in the country that issued my passport until my late 40s when I became a US citizen. Again, the question was—where did I fit in? Was I Italian (my other passport)? Dutch (I was born in Holland)? English (nothing like high school and undergraduate to build identity)? But I do my best swearing in Greek, a language I learned as a boy, before learning English. That should count for something, surely.
I mention this because for me the underlying issues are the same. With music and education, I was passionate about something, there seemed to be some consensus that I was not completely off the wall—the band was successful, my ideas were not bad—but none of it fit anywhere. And I didn’t fit anywhere as a person. I was there, the music was there, the issues I wanted to address were there, but the existing categories didn’t recognize us. And it appeared that categories seemed to have the ability to deny the existence of people and things and issues that were patently there. I was homeless. I therefore had to create my home.
And that’s what my dissertation ended up being about: the theory base for a kind of learning environment that was not mutilated by disciplines and seemingly arbitrary restrictions, but fosters creativity, passion, and a focus on issues rather than disciplines.
Fast forward to the 21st century: So what if you’re passionate about a topic, but you don’t fit into a specific discipline? What if you want to draw on knowledge that is appropriate and pertinent to address the issue, but this knowledge lives in several different disciplines? The Transformative Studies PhD at CIIS is designed for individuals who are passionate about a particular topic, but don’t want to be confined exclusively by the boundaries of a single discipline. They are eager to push the envelope and see inquiry as a creative process.
The program encourages students to create, define, and engage the inquiry they are passionate about. Because many of our students don’t naturally fit into pre-existing categories, disciplines, and boxes, the program helps them to create themselves as unique scholars who can participate in the mainstream discourse, but also push the boundaries of that discourse, as any innovative contribution will do. And just to be on the safe side, we strongly advise our students against dancing on tables.