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.