In my first post for this six-part series of commentaries, I reflected on the start of the “Psychedelic Pasts, Presents, and Futures” Borghesi-Mellon workshop when faculty, students, and community members gathered in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to discuss the importance of transdisciplinarity in psychedelic research and education. In this final post of the series, I return to transdisciplinarity after a semester of events, including a second discussion about transdisciplinarity on the other side of UW-Madison’s campus in the brutalist, concrete Helen C. White Hall. One of the aims of the organizers—Dr. Lucas Richert, Amanda Pratt, and myself–for this workshop was to foster conversations about what humanities and social sciences perspectives bring to psychedelic studies, particularly in relation to the role of transdisciplinarity at the new Transdisciplinary Center for Research on Psychoactive Substances (TCRPS) at UW-Madison.
Dr. Richert and Pratt led the second conversation on transdisciplinarity and drew on a few chapters from the collection Transdisciplinary Higher Education (2017). Most of the discussion focused on the relationships between higher education institutions and community partners, as well as the beginnings and barriers to enacting transdisciplinarity. The main question that the conversation centered around, though, was what it meant in practice for UW-Madison to have a transdisciplinary center and how to operationalize the TCRPS resources to continue these conversations, such as further programming, artists and scientists in residence, or even group studies instead of independent studies based around clusters of transdisciplinary problems related to psychedelics.
Each attendee offered their perspective on these questions, and despite the disparate views on how to best enact transdisciplinarity in practice, one common sentiment that emerged was how the current conversation and prior programming marked a step towards enacting transdisciplinarity at the TCRPS. What sparked the most conversation, though, was when Dr. Richert asked the group about their thoughts on the highest priorities in regards to enacting transdisciplinarity if the TCRPS was given $10 million. One idea that garnered widespread support was to create more public events and media in order to educate people about psychedelics and provide critical literacy skills to deconstruct hype-filled (or myth-filled) narratives common to the psychedelic renaissance. Another popular idea was to expand relationships with community and industry partners, whether with groups like DanceSafe that provide harm reduction services at festivals or industry groups that seek to invest in psychedelics.
The conversation concluded with a brief discussion about a major issue lurking in the background: politics. How, for instance, can an academic center position itself politically given that its research focus remains an illegal substance? What stance can an academic center take on decriminalization if it engages in community partnerships? What are the best approaches for public outreach when views and stigmas about drugs vary greatly based on geographic region and corresponding politics? How can we shift the narrative from focusing on how a few doses of psychedelics helps address depression to including political issues like housing, food insecurity, and poverty that all affect mental health? I do not have the answers to these questions (though, of course, I have my hunches and opinions), but what I’ve come to understand through these events and reflections is that transdisciplinarity is a high ideal in academic institutions but requires a level of institutional and community support that is often hard to muster and maintain because of institutional constraints, disciplinary gatekeeping, and industry influence. What I mean to say is that, although I agree with other attendees that these events and conversations began enacting transdisciplinarity around psychedelics on UW-Madison’s campus, much more is required to explore the full potential of transdisciplinary psychedelic research, education, and outreach, whether at UW-Madison or any other institution involved in the so-called psychedelic renaissance. Complex compounds like psychedelics require complex approaches like transdisciplinarity, despite the barriers that stall enacting such values in higher education.