Last spring, a colleague kindly informed me about the Symposium of Science and Technology Studies, titled “Ideals and Practices of Interdisciplinary Research,” to be organized at the University of Tampere between June 14 – 15, 2018. Upon submitting my abstract, I could not help feeling a bit concerned: were my ideas relevant in terms of this conference, given that I only distantly discuss technology in my research?
Luckily, I learned that this symposium was not only open but also extremely fruitful to scholars with vastly different interests and backgrounds. As I have described in this blog, my path toward a doctoral degree was severely troubled by an obligation to affiliate either with area studies or media studies, rather than being able to create a bond between the two due to structural constraints at my university. As Dr. Jane Calvert from the University of Edinburgh opened the Symposium with her keynote talk emphasizing how she had never wanted to restrict her affiliation to any single discipline or department, instead wanting to work in multiple different fields simultaneously including sociology, anthropology, philosophy, science policy, and art and design, in an effort to contribute to the emerging field of synthetic biology, I realized I had come just to the right place – a place where I could learn from more experienced interdisciplinarists and where my own struggles would be taken seriously. Jane’s talk, I thought, was a fantastic demonstration of the kinds of innovative ideas that can occur when scholars are allowed to explore a common ground between diverse approaches; paving the way for a number of other brilliant presentations throughout the symposium.
The talk that most caught my attention was Rebecca Freeth’s presentation titled “At the edge: Practices to strengthen interdisciplinary collaboration.” South African by origin, Freeth had previously worked as dialogue facilitator in her politically, ethnically and economically divided home country, before becoming a member of a research team in sustainability science at Leuphana University in Germany. In her role as “Formative accompanying researcher (FAR),” Freeth has a dual task: researching the team as well as supporting the learning of the team. In other words, she has been hired to encourage people to talk across vast differences – differences between the natural and the social sciences, as well as between different nationalities, languages, working styles and temperaments. What a lucky research team to have her, I thought to myself, while again wondering why is it that researchers or research teams aiming to integrate vastly different ideas cannot – at least in our university – regularly count on such support. Our universities and the foundations we depend on require and expect interdisciplinarity, but it is often ignored that successful communication across boundaries requires time, skills, patience, and effort – should the researchers fall short of such resources, they will also likely fall short of their interdisciplinary goals.
It would be fantastic if each research group could count on an “FAR”, but I find this is not a realistic option, given the scarcity of financial resources at least in the fields of social sciences and humanities. This is why, in my understanding, we need interdisciplinary centers, so that such support can be institutionally guaranteed; spaces where scholars from different fields can easily meet and receive guidance in their efforts to integrate ideas. Rebecca Freeth’s talk urged me to think that interdisciplinary centers should regularly host sessions which aim to enhance communication across boundaries, helping researchers to understand the obstacles they are facing while providing practical tools to overcome them. For instance, many fields use similar terms and concepts, while defining them in radically different ways – a facilitator could encourage each team member to put forth their perspective, and then help the team to communicate in order to come up with a way to deal with these differences and create a more holistic understanding of the term, rather than allowing any field to impose its particular perspective over those of others.
In my own STS Conference presentation, titled “From Either-Or to Both+And Policy: Lessons for the Future of Interdisciplinarity in Finland and the United States,” I set forth the claim that institutional support for interdisciplinary communication should also be extended to facilitate the supervision of interdisciplinary graduate degree projects. When a student aims to combine two or more relatively distant fields, which have not been integrated in the past, the student needs the supervisors representing these diverse fields to come and discuss the ideas together with each other and the student, rather than the student having to always meet each supervisor individually and receive advice limited to that particular field in an isolated space pertaining to a particular faculty. If even advanced research teams need facilitators to enhance communication between members, how can we expect a student to survive on his/her own and deal with a range of conflicting terms, interests, theories and concepts –supervisors in different fields can be giving completely contradicting advice based on their own field and expertise, without even wanting to understand the perspective of the other fields involved, even if fundamentally relevant for the student’s research (I have been this student, so I know this situation can be extremely frustrating). Being able to meet in an interdisciplinary center could enable fruitful interaction between the different supervisors and the student; not only helping the student pursue the project in a holistic way, but also allowing the supervisors to learn from each other and from the student.
In my STS conference presentation I also argued that Finns could learn from the U.S. tradition of forming interdisciplinary dissertation committees – in many prominent U.S. universities and departments such as NYU MCC where I was a visiting scholar, a general requirement is that the dissertation must bring together different angles and the dissertation committees must consist of faculty members representing at least two different departments. These committees meet regularly to discuss the work of the student and evaluate any advances or issues in the process. This way, not only advanced research projects, but also student projects manage to unite professors and scholars and encourage them to explore a common ground, as they engage in their role as supervisors. The new SSH Research Center being planned at the University of Helsinki has, in my view, successfully tried to incorporate interests of different fields within the human sciences, but the whole project is being exclusively destined for advanced scholars, with the excuse that research and teaching/supervision cannot go hand in hand and that this is necessary to guarantee “research of excellence.” If this is true then why is that the top American universities such as Harvard, Princeton, NYU, etc., which are ranked much higher than any Finnish university, not only expect interdisciplinarity and radically new ideas from their students and young scholars as well, but also provide these younger thinkers with institutional support to pursue such action? This way, they create a much more sustainable model of interdisciplinarity, reaching not only across disciplines but also across generations. I am willing to argue that the success of these institutions and academics is at least partly due to their openness toward different ideas – not just ideas of their advanced peers but those of their students, too. Especially when discussing challenges related to digitalization, essentially addressed by the SSH working group, the perspective of young scholars in particularly timely and important and should not be ignored.
In her magnificent presentation at the STS Symposium, building on her broad experience as dialogue facilitator and the Learning Zone Model created by Tom Senninger, Rebecca Freeth elaborated on the space where learning occurs. Freeth noted that first of all, in order to learn new things, we indeed need to move beyond our comfort zones. But as we move too far, we enter the “panic” zone. In Freeth’s view, the point of maximum learning is situated right between the panic zone and the so-called learning zone. In other words, for maximum learning, scholars need to be able to lose some control and expose themselves to the unexpected. For those scholars who are already respected specialists in their own fields, this may seem like a particularly frustrating experience – it is much easier to stay in the inner zone where they are the experts, rather than putting themselves in a situation where they have more questions than answers. Again, I argue that we must create interdisciplinary centers which can facilitate this process – an open atmosphere which invites people to acknowledge our limits and learn from others without making anyone feel vulnerable or having to put on a defensive mode. In a way, I suggest embracing the panic as a collective, so that it becomes a fruitful rather than a threatening zone. Without efficient interdisciplinary centers which can help such processes, we are stuck with the current hierarchical model where some people, after reaching a certain academic degree, are never expected to leave their comfort zones (even while making bold claims about their commitment to interdisciplinarity) while less powerful but genuinely curious students and scholars are barely supported at all as we push ourselves toward the panic zone, readily recognizing our own limitations time and again.
I want to express my warmest thanks to President of the STS, Dr. Reetta Muhonen, as well as all the organizers and participants of the STS Symposium, for the magnificent experience and for so openly welcoming people from different fields and countries. Encouraged by this Symposium, I am now determined to establish an association to support Finnish graduate students and young scholars in our interdisciplinary pursuits, building on models being implemented in the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe. The association will not be directly affiliated with any university – instead, it seeks to create a network between different institutions and facilitate dialogue and interactions between them and the institutions involved. A principal activity would include hosting workshops and sessions where invited experts such as Rebecca Freeth could promote interdisciplinary dialogue within research groups and student projects. A new post will be dedicated to this soon. As always, comments and feedback warmly welcome.