“BEYOND TALKING HEADS” – Assoc. for Interdisciplinary Studies Conference 2017

After a long silence, I am writing this post in New York City, remembering my Fulbright year here in 2013-14. Back then, I had just begun developing an interdisciplinary approach to the comparative study of world news. Now, I am preparing for my doctoral defense in January 2018. Some things in my life and my research have changed since 2013 when I first got here, but one important thing hasn’t: I am still profoundly passionate about interdisciplinarity.

My current visit to the United States began with participation in the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS) 39th Annual Conference at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). This conference got me to think about what had originally motivated me to apply for a Fulbright scholarship: to learn from the interdisciplinary environment in American universities and introduce this knowledge in the Finnish academic context. As I was preparing my Fulbright application five years ago, I discovered that a wide range of universities across the United States promote programs explicitly called “Interdisciplinary Studies,” focusing on the integration of various disciplines. For instance, the Interdisciplinary Studies program (INDS) at UMBC “exists for students to design a unique major combining coursework from two or more academic programs. The program teaches a core curriculum of INDS classes that guide each student through a process of identifying the connections between insights offered by these disciplines” (source: UMBC website and INDS brochure).

Similar “Interdisciplinary Studies” programs do not, at least to my knowledge, exist in Finland. We do have several study programs that are multi- and interdisciplinary in character, focusing on complex topics such as the environment, or approaches like “area studies” – but they are constructed in a different manner, and relatively limited in the scope of departments and faculties involved. My personal struggle in Helsinki, trying to combine approaches of media studies and area studies – two faculties separated by a street and an invisible wall – has been described in the previous posts in this blog. During my Fulbright year at New York University, I had the opportunity to develop my work in a highly interdisciplinary atmosphere, as most NYU events were co-organized between various institutions and departments, and the seminars led by my research supervisor brought together students and scholars with very diverse backgrounds.

Thanks to this inspiring atmosphere at NYU, and the support of many open-minded scholars, I was able to pursue my work further, and as said, my doctoral project will be completed soon. But the 2017 AIS conference reminded me of the broader commitment I had made when accepting the Fulbright grant: to learn from the American interdisciplinary programs and promote them in my home country, so that more and more students and scholars could have the opportunity to explore the connections they see between various approaches, without having to limit their thinking based on the disciplinary preferences of the faculty and/or supervisor of a single study program or discipline.

Of course, even if the United States has more interdisciplinary study programs than Finland, this does not imply that Americans have come up with some master recipe for interdisciplinarity. All the Americans and Canadians I spoke with at the conference would tell me how they have encountered multiple barriers in their home universities and negative attitudes preventing true collaboration. Thus, it is a work in progress on this side of the Atlantic, too. But this conference showed that progress, indeed, is being made.

The theme of the AIS 2017 conference was “Beyond Talking Heads.” Many scholars have pointed out that interdisciplinarity is often limited to solemn speeches. Just claiming that some program or study is interdisciplinary, does not guarantee it is actually interdisciplinary. In my country, I have also witnessed how scholars and program leaders loudly talk about their own “interdisciplinary” approach as an accomplishment – in order to get prestige, funding, etc. – while simultaneously undermining and downplaying disciplines or approaches they consider inferior to their own.

Thus I was very delighted to discover that at the AIS conference, “beyond talking heads” was not just talk – most people were actually more keen on listening to and learning from others than telling their own success stories. I am still a doctoral student, and this was my first AIS conference and nobody knew me in advance, and yet so many people – including distinguished professors, artists and AIS board members – enthusiastically listened to what I had to say, and asked me more. I felt really relaxed as I stepped up to present my work, because I sensed that the atmosphere was open to diverse ideas and approaches. The open-mindedness was almost tangible, and I felt so welcome. Isn’t this how we should always receive scholars coming from elsewhere, from diverse regions, people who we haven’t met before but who may teach us something? Based on my previous experiences, I never take such warm welcome for granted.

I also witnessed debate and critical discussion at the conference – obviously, we still do not agree about many aspects of interdisciplinarity, and people with backgrounds in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences tend to have different expectations and needs when seeking for the common ground between various approaches. But this debate was open, too – nobody would argue that there was only one way to pursue interdisciplinarity. Everybody seemed to agree that it would be fruitful to define the best practices, but it was considered obvious that such practices could – and should – be further elaborated and critically considered whenever pursuing an interdisciplinary study. Interdisciplinarity should be a collective effort – this conference showed me what such collective effort can mean in practice.

Now what? I was the only Finnish participant at the AIS 2017 conference, exchanging sympathetic smiles with some Danish and Dutch scholars who had also found their way there, eagerly trying to discover how to promote more interdisciplinarity in their our own countries. I especially enjoyed discussions with Professor Machiel Keestra from the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Also the former President of the AIS, Professor Keestra openly explained the successes and challenges related to the establishment of an Interdisciplinary Studies program in the Netherlands. My conversations with Dr. Keestra and other colleagues from the University of Amsterdam filled me with hope, making me realize that the creation of such programs in Europe is no mission impossible – the bureaucracy and other challenges can be overcome with willpower and positive energy.

One of the most important things we talked about at the conference was the attitude toward failure. When combining approaches in a new and creative way, we can never know what we will come up with – and whether it will work out or not. The same goes for creating interdisciplinary programs – it may work out, or it may not. Under the current circumstances in our university, with severe budget cuts and excessive focus on profits rather than promoting education for its own sake, new interdisciplinary programs may seem much more likely to fail than to succeed. But the AIS 2017 conference also convinced me that difficult circumstances are not an excuse to give up and just complain. I am currently devouring the book “Holding Fast to Dreams” (2015) by Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski, President of the UMBC and the keynote speaker at AIS 2017. His struggle began as an African American in the segregated South, and was guided by loving and demanding parents and mentors supporting his passion for mathematics and music, among other things. Today, he leads a university known for inclusiveness and ambitious interdisciplinary programs. I would like to end this post with a quote from Hrabowski (p. 130):

How can we change our fundamental attitudes about who can succeed – and at what? One way is to embrace struggle. We must teach children that not grasping a concept right away is not the same as being “bad” at particular subject. The most brilliant of minds struggle with problems. This is the essence of innovation and even the human condition. However, people in different cultures tend to frame struggle differently, and Western cultures often equate struggle with weakness. (…) But if the educational culture shifted and started to respect struggle and see it as necessary for advancing knowledge, then students would more easily accept it…

I’m nowhere near convinced that creating an “Interdisciplinary studies” program, based on the American and Dutch model, is going to be possible in the Finnish context. But I now certainly believe it’s worth the struggle.

Back on Track: 2017

This blog has been silent for the past two years, mainly because I have hesitated: I find it is still difficult to openly discuss the problems of interdisciplinarity and lack of dialogue  between scholars in my home country. During the recent years, we have also witnessed many extremely qualified academics losing their jobs, and many professors ending up with much more work than they can possibly handle. Due to even scarcer resources, it may seem even more difficult to pursue interdisciplinary research – and even more unfair to criticize academics for not pursuing interdisciplinary approaches. After all, many scholars today have no choice but to keep doing what they always have been doing – they simply do not have time or resources to “reach beyond their comfort zones” and try to learn new things. That is, there is curiosity, but not time to satisfy it. On the other hand, the new situation may have also created new opportunities, as different departments are merging and bringing different scholars and disciplines closer to one another.

Despite the long silence, I am still here, thinking about interdisciplinarity. Stay tuned…

 

 

Exposure to the Unexpected: Fulbright Enrichment Programs

My recent article about Fulbright Enrichment programs in NYC organized by One To World has now been published in the Finnish Fulbright Center News magazine, pages 16-17. The online version is available here. While this article does not directly address interdisciplinarity, it describes how important it is to become exposed to different ideas, cultures, and people, during our Fulbright experience and beyond.

Sky is the Limit

Before I left for New York, some Finnish scholars were telling me I was dreaming too big. “I’m sure you will find good examples of interdisciplinarity in the US, but Americans must be struggling with very similar issues as we Finns are.”

True? Well, yes – it’s not perfect over there either. But I wasn’t expecting things to be perfect over the Atlantic. I was expecting some things – like communication – to be more fluent over there, and this certainly was the case. I was very sincerely shocked at realizing how open the atmosphere can be, and how incredibly well American scholars can argue their point, but also listen to one another and engage in true debate. But I also realized we Finns have knowledge and skills that Americans could, and should learn from.

Read more about these experiences in NYC in my new story published the League of Finnish-American Societies (pps. 24-26):

http://sayl.fi/suomi-usa-lehdet/suomi-usa-42014/

 

Cheers! American Bar on Tuesday, Oct 7th @ 5pm

INVITATION:

I will be speaking about my Fulbright experiences at the American Bar of Hotelli Torni (Kalevankatu 5, Helsinki) next Tuesday, October 7 between 5 – 6:30pm. The evening is hosted by the League of Finnish-American Societies (SAYL) and the main language will be Finnish. I will first talk briefly, and then there will be plenty of time for questions and comments.

Tervetuloa / Welcome 🙂

The Power of a Smile

Soon after returning to Helsinki from NYC in August, I noticed how Finnish people smile less than Americans. Indeed, many of those smiles I got in America seemed somewhat fake, and I did not necessarily cherish those. But even when considering just the genuine smiles – when you see that the person’s eyes are smiling too – , the difference is still remarkable. Finns smile less.

This observation reminds me of a public speaking workshop organized by One To World for Fulbright students in January. We all had to give a short, quite spontaneous speech in front of our Fulbright colleagues and teacher.

The one speech I’ll remember forever was given by an Egyptian girl wearing a headscarf. She talked about women’s rights in her home country.

It could have been just another speech criticizing the Islam or the country’s political situation; I’ve heard so many speeches, read so many articles about these issues. What made this speech so special, so unforgettable, was the fact that this girl smiled throughout her speech. She didn’t smile sarcastically, she smiled genuinely like a child who has been given permission to go to the park and play. She didn’t seem bitter, she didn’t seem depressed; she seemed enthusiastic, to change things. We applauded standing, and she also got very good feedback from our teacher. He said: all the power to change those things that you want to change is in that smile. We all felt that.

Smiling to a random person here in Finland can be a surprisingly difficult move; it can take a lot of guts. Why – because often people respond with this “What’s wrong with you, are you mad” look on their face. Since I’m married to a Dominican man and happiness seems to be implicit in his culture (in the merengue music at least), I often leave my house in the morning with a smile without any particular reason; I might even take a few dance steps when walking to the bus stop. The most shocking feedback I’ve received came from a Finnish student a few years ago. As soon as I walked into the classroom, she looked at me, head to toe, and shouted, “what are you smiling about?!” Some random people in the street have looked at me as if I had just escaped from a mental hospital, and I’ve overheard comments that I am “annoyingly positive” (for example if I say that rainy day doesn’t necessarily have to be a reason for moping).

Without sufficient self confidence, comments like this can easily take the smile out of my face, and this has certainly been the case in the past. Depression is more contagious than a stomach flu. Smile can still be perceived as a threat in our 21st century welfare state.

I’ve now decided to defy these kinds of people who want to destroy my smile. But who are they?

A very important point I want to make, in regard to this post as well as this blog as a whole, is that I am not “attacking” or criticizing any particular person, department or group in my home country – I am criticizing the system. I think there is something in the system that imposes on us the idea that we are not supposed to give a smile or be friendly to just anybody. Of course, our bad “mood” could be attributed simply to our culture, but I think that culture as a concept is too vague to explain what the phenomenon is really about.

The good thing is, this system or culture or whatever it is that imposes these practices on us, is not violent. Whenever I feel like I’m too shy to smile, and that I want to hide my enthusiasm from everyone just because they may – for whatever reason – get upset, I think about my Egyptian colleague whom I met in New York. Reading news about the violence in her home country and the region in general makes me realize how lucky I am – and how smiling really can’t be so difficult. If she can continue smiling in her home country while challenging ways in which women are treated there, I should most definitely have the guts to smile in a country like Finland.

So I will do my best to keep my spirits up, even when the dark fall comes.

Have a happy week everyone. Thanks to all of you – both friends and random people – who have welcomed me back to Finland with a smile. 🙂

 

2014: More hard work, work, work (and enjoying it!)

My apologies – I have not written in two months! I ended up spending January in my “reseach world,” after returning from the Dominican Republic, my husband’s home country where we traveled for the Xmas holidays. Furthermore, I have been overwhelmed with the new doctoral programs in Helsinki. All this talk about interdisciplinarity – still, I have to choose between the disciplines I am passionate about? (I.e., no possibility to combine Area studies and Communications; have supervisors from these fields engage in conversation, discussing the premises of my work, etc.?)

But instead of directing more criticism at these new doctoral programs, I still want to write about that trip to Santo Domingo, because this trip made me realize that I also still have to fix aspects about my own attitude in regard to interdisciplinarity. That is: complain less, work harder!

Day after day, I watched how my husband’s parents, approaching the age of 80, work every day: his father, a mechanic, fixing cars, his mother, helping at the local church. I believe they do this for two reasons: 1) because they love work, and 2), they need to work for their survival. There’s no pension system in Santo Domingo, like in my home country or in the U.S.

Every time I visit this beautiful country in the Caribbean, I see so much poverty – and so much gratitude and happiness at the same time. At the local beach of Guayacanes, a woman is selling fried fish – fish that her sons, the age of my daughter (4) and a little older (see photo below) have caught in their tumbledown rowboat with self-made nets, hooks and lines. Not only that – her young kids also clean the fish for frying, with knives half the size of the kids themselves. While feeding my privileged daughter with this salty white meat from the tropical sea, I couldn’t help asking myself: do these kids even get to go to school?

These people could have every excuse to give up. To demand that other people do this hard work for them, because they are too young or too old, too sick or too tired; they should deserve certain privileges like pension and education, without having to do anything else, right? But I heard no excuses, no complaints. I just saw hard-working, dedicated, and generous people.

My problems related to interdisciplinarity are absolutely nothing compared to what these people are experiencing in their everyday lives. While I have been complaining about the quality of university education – the fact that my thinking is being restricted to specific concepts or approaches, imposed by researchers who do not want to leave their comfort zones –, many Dominicans would certainly appreciate any kind of education, interdisciplinary or not. Being in the Dominican Republic always reminds me of how lucky I am – receiving free education in a welfare state like Finland –; hoping that the wealth in my home country could be distributed to other parts of the world too.

Still, some things are similar. Just like lack of money is among the principal reasons why these Dominican people are separated from those Dominicans who do receive education, pension etc., in our modern university as well, resources are often the principal factor which determines the extent to which different groups can or cannot engage with and learn from one another – when trying to get supervisors from different departments in Helsinki, this is the main reason I have frequently heard. I.e., we are expected to engage primarily with people with similar cultural capital, and this rule is imposed on us with economic terms.

Genuine interdisciplinarity would mean substantial changes in the university’s funding system as a whole, just like getting all poor people to get education or pension would involve significant improvements in the government – changes that do not happen overnight.

My point is: we can easily think that such changes are too difficult to be made, and give up completely. Or – we can do what these Dominicans that I’ve just described do. We may not be able to achieve a big change, but think that even a little improvement is much better than nothing, and work our butts off to make that little change.

I have started my year 2014 with these thoughts. No complaints – instead, I will opt for hard work, open mind and happiness to engage with other people, and learn from them.  Instead of thinking too big, I’ll start trying to bring Area studies and Communications closer to each other – examining how it is being done here at NYU, and bringing that model back home to Helsinki. If enough time, I can also explore in detail, how Anthropology, Communications and Area Studies are affiliated here, and make use of that practical understanding in Helsinki.

Also, many fascinating Fulbright and One To World events approaching – more very soon…

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Incentives for Interdisciplinary Research – a Model from the Business World

One of the highlights of my Fulbright experience has been acquaintance with One To World, organization which coordinates Fulbright Enrichment Programs in the New York area. Among their numerous activities, One To World provides Fulbrighters with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to meet with world-class leaders; Americans who have reached a high position in their careers and are willing to share their experiences with Fulbright students and scholars.

When receiving a personal invitation to go meet with Mr. J. Frank Brown, Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer at General Atlantic, I first hesitated – I know very little about the business world. But when browsing through the web pages of this global growth investment company, I realized that the principles they are promoting are also extremely important in the pursuits of interdisciplinarity: passion, patience, persistence, partnership, performance. Before joining General Atlantic, Mr. Brown had served as Dean for INSEAD, a leading international business school with campuses around the world. I was eager to know how he would link these principles – patience and persistence in particular – with business and education in an increasingly rapid and digitalized world, where time costs more and more money.

To my great surprise, Mr. Brown did not only talk about these principles and the importance of reciprocal learning – with his own behavior, he showed us what it means in practice. He first approached each one of us students, seeming genuinely interested in learning who we are, where we come from, and our particular academic and other interests. Only then, he started talking, making serious effort to answer our questions and contribute to the discussion drawing from what he knew, while remaining open to any insights we might have.  Not once during our two-hour meeting did he interrupt anybody, and I never saw him looking at his phone or the clock, although he is obviously a very busy man. He patiently devoted time and attention to everybody in that room who wanted to ask or say something.

Now, what is the key to sustainable growth and development? Mr. Brown reminded us that as soon as we start feeling too comfortable in our work; when we find ourselves using the same concepts over and over again without questioning their meaning, it is time to challenge ourselves to try to come up with new approaches and ideas. In Mr. Brown’s view, the precondition for innovative thinking is that entrepreneurs are granted incentives; not only financial support, but also an environment where creativity is fostered.

A central challenge that came up during this discussion with Mr. Brown was overcoming the fear of failure. Mr. Brown acknowledged that most new ideas are likely to fail; still, some new ideas will succeed. Of course, we will never know which ideas are fruitful if we do not listen to their creators; if we condemn anything that does not immediately ring a bell, before the ideas have even been fully developed.

I think all this is also true for interdisciplinarity. For me, it has been intimidating to present my ideas to scholars engaged in media studies, because, with my background in anthropology and area studies, I propose a very different approach to examining news frames and their dimensions. Will my ideas work? I do not know. I  still feel overwhelmed with the feedback from some scholars back in Finland who, without bothering to read a word of my proposal, simply suggested I should “play it safe” and rely on established definitions and approaches they are very familiar with and fond of. With these comments in my head, I frequently find myself thinking I am just doomed to fail. This fear of failure, again, is reflected in my insecurity, which often prevents me from speaking clearly and confidently. A vicious circle – how to get out?

When having the opportunity to speak with such open-minded people as Mr. Brown, I remember that the best part of interdisciplinary research is not hearing that one’s ideas actually “work,” and the worst part is not realizing that I have failed in my efforts. The worst part is when nobody wants to hear me out; when people interrupt and explain what is “the right way” to do something without devoting any time or attention to learning my own thoughts. The best part is the process; the chance to make serious effort exploring new horizons, coming up with something original, and then presenting these ideas to people who in their turn make serious effort listening and trying to understand my ideas. Here comes the partnership; when other people help me realize which part of my work may have potential for further development, and whether I have missed something important without realizing it. Throughout this process, I must remain open and sensitive to other people’s voices and views, just as they should remain open to mine. Such process could lead to discovering one or a few functional ideas; and probably rejecting several. But as long as people make serious effort to listen to each other, “failure” is much easier to handle – in this case, failure becomes something we can actually learn from, and move on to new ideas and directions.

Thus, letting people pursue their passions persistently and patiently, and then offering partnership to developing the best ideas further, could be a very recommendable model for business world and academia alike. Devoting time to seriously listening to different people and ideas is not necessarily wasted – it could pay off big time, both symbolically as well as materially.

Finally, Mr. Brown addressed a topic that is very close to me personally. Mr. Brown told us he has got to know many little children who speak two or more languages. Mr. Brown used this example to describe how he thinks people can become “globally literate” –  becoming exposed to many languages, and to those diverse worlds that these languages, with their concepts, meanings, definitions, and histories, open up. I told Mr. Brown how my four-year-old daughter is learning three languages at the same time, and some people think I am just torturing her. He came up with good advice: as long as these children have adults who devote time and attention to them, and support them in this learning process, they will certainly become broad-minded, globally engaged citizens.

It makes all the sense in the world to think that the construction of these environments where incentives are promoted and creativity is fostered, begins with the attitudes we transmit to our children, and what they learn at school. And, again  – by reciprocally listening to our children, we can get a sense of that imagination and broad-mindedness which is inherent in them before they enter school and become accostumed to the disciplinary boundaries separating peoples, schools and languages of thought. Thus even communication between parents and children should be strongly reciprocal, and both parties should be equally involved in listening and learning from the other.

Thank you, Mr. Brown – Thank you One To World. For those New Yorkers who saw a very happy Finnish mom walking, almost dancing, on Park Avenue on Thursday afternoon – that was me. I just got my motivation back – my passion, patience and persistence to pursue interdisciplinary research.

 

 

Little Things, Huge Deal

Before coming to the U.S., my Finnish colleagues were warning me, about the possibility that I was picturing the American universities – in regard to open-mindedness and collaboration – in a too positive light. That I’d come here and soon realize that very similar problems occur over here; scholars not wanting to leave their comfort zones and withdrawing into their own small departments with little or no willingness to learn from others and collaborate.

So far, I’ve experienced quite the opposite. I’m amazed at how much collaboration takes place between different research institutions, departments and  universities; a lot more than I could even imagine before coming here. I believe my American colleagues often take words and expressions like “co-organized,” “co-sponsored,” “hosted by X and organized by Y,” etc. for granted. People from very diverse backgrounds come together in seminars, colloquiums, and events.  They come prepared to ask many many questions. They exchange information, drawing from their own backgrounds. They participate with their minds open, curious about everything they see and hear. They don’t hesitate to acknowledge if they don’t understand something, because they want to understand (and not just get out of the situation).

Fair enough: I’ve been reading many books about problems of collaboration in American universities as well. And I’m sure that interdisciplinary events, where talented people participate with their minds open, have been and are being organized in Finland as well.

But here in the Americas, the atmosphere just seems to encourage such activities more. When I was at my Gateway orientation in Jackson, Mississippi, I was spellbound about how extremely friendly, generous, and curious people were. In my husband’s home country, the Dominican Republic, I’ve experienced the same. So the general response of Finns to this claim is, “yeah but they get so much sun shine. It’s easy to be friendly and talkative when the weather is nice.”

Here in New York, the weather is not always fantastic. Now it’s getting very cold and dark. Everybody is really busy; work is very important. Still, even here, people find time to smile at other people – friends and strangers alike -, and say hello, how are you, good, how are you. In the elevator; in the lobby of your apartment; in the coffee shop, store, you name it.  It’s just a friendly gesture; people move on with their own lives; people here don’t interfere with other people’s lives. Still, it is that little demonstration of friendliness; of taking that other person into consideration between your daily routines, instead of simply cutting them off by avoiding eye contact, that makes a difference.

I still have many departments to explore, many professors to speak to. I’m a bit afraid to approach them: what if they don’t even understand what I’m trying to say; I’m not such a good speaker like these Americans are. Still struggling with issues of insecurity, I may not manage to explain my research problems to them in an understandable way. But hearing them say “hi, how are you, how can I help you” with a smile, certainly encourages me to try.

In Finland, the first words – even before hearing what I was doing – often were: “So you’re from this and this department, our department doesn’t really collaborate with your department. So there’s not much that I can do for you.”

Interdisciplinarity should not lead to superficiality

Last Tuesday, I participated in a fascinating event at the NYU Institute of Public Knowledge. Caitlin Petre and Max Besbris, doctoral students at the NYU Department of Sociology, had conducted an extensive comparative study on U.S. journalism schools and how these schools have adapted to the changing media landscape.

I initially heard about this event from my supervisor; an Associate Professor at the NYU Department of Media, Culture, and Communication and the NYU Department of Sociology. Furthermore, the event was co-sponsored by the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepeneurial Journalism at CUNY and the  Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU. Thus this is another excellent example of interdisciplinary and inter-departmental collaboration and dialogue here – something that my American colleagues often seem to take for granted… Prominent guest commentators included Clay Shirky and Nick Lemann, and the event was moderated by C.W. Anderson.

The discussion at the event centered around the unstability of the media market today, and how difficult it is for journalists to find jobs upon graduation. Petre and Besbris had interviewed over 100 faculty members and administrators from 44 journalism schools across the country, finding that most educators still remain committed to the idea that the mission of journalism schools is to prepare students for jobs. However, the idea of what “journalism job” exactly is, has remarkably changed: nowadays, it can be anywhere from Human Rights Watch to CIA. Petre and Besbris’s astonishing finding is that recently, the distinctive line between journalism – trying to tell the truth and balancing different sides of the story – vs. PR –  explicitly promoting specific interests – has blurred.

From here, we come to their finding which for me was the most interesting: journalists no longer specialize in one particular genre such as television, radio, internet or newspaper writing, but rather, they have to become multi-experts who can handle everything. When conducting a study on Finnish science journalism at our public broadcaster YLE last spring, my findings were very similar: these journalists had worked for many different media, and they were expected to be able to smoothly shift from one genre to another. But this was also true in the sense that Finnish science journalists were no longer expected to draw essentially from their deep expertise in one particular academic field, but rather, their bosses assumed they should be able to cover almost any topic from biology to culture and politics, regardless of what they had previously studied.

Now, how is all this related to interdisciplinarity? While it is our ambition to manage many different areas of expertise at the same time, an inevitable consequence is that we will not be able to become experts in all the fields that our work somehow draws from. This will likely affect the quality of research we do on those fields we are not completely familiar with. Thus the work of an interdisciplinarist will probably be more superficial, in some aspects, than the work of those scholars who have deep knowledge in that particular field which the interdisciplinarist has not managed (or even wanted) to cover as fully. I think it is thus better to be a little bit less ambitious (i.e., not try to cover everything; recognize our own limits), and try to do a good job covering those fields that we are more familiar with. And simultaneously be open to the work of others and try to learn how our work could contribute to theirs’, and vice versa, in order to broaden and deepen everybody’s understanding of the matter.

What does all this mean for journalists? Even if journalists are expected to be able to manage any job – tv, radio, online news, newspapers -, they are likely to manage some areas better than others. Even if they become “multi-experts”, collaboration is still important. Petre and Besbris conclude that journalism schools should assess where their particular strengths lie, and focus on teaching them. Certainly, if all schools try to cover the whole range of knowledge needed for media production, the quality of teaching will likely suffer. But if everybody is focusing on that thing they can do best, the result can be wonderful: different specialists, from different schools and areas of expertise, working together.

Nevertheless, competition for scarce jobs (and in the academic world, for funding, respectively) may lead to a situation where collaboration is especially hard, as everybody tries to expand their own knowledge, without wanting to help and share their know-how with those who are competing for the same jobs (or grants). In the long run, though, I think both scholars and journalists would benefit from sharing their skills with colleagues with other kinds of profound expertise.

Caitlin Petre’s and Max Besbris’s wonderful report is available here.