Facilitating Communication Across Boundaries: the Finnish Science and Technology Studies Symposium 2018

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.

Rebecca Freeth’s illustration of the different zones and point of maximum learning, building on the Learning Zone Model by Tom Senninger. Copyright: Rebecca Freeth. Published with Rebecca Freeth’s permission.

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.

Fulfilling the Mission and Widening the Vision of J. William Fulbright

As scholars in interdisciplinary studies have repeatedly pointed out, many problems of our times are too complex to be understood, let alone solved, on the basis of any single discipline. The seminar “Making Democracies Resilient to Modern Threats,” organized by the Fulbright Finland Foundation on March 14, 2018 at the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, paved the way for understanding the causes and consequences of misinformation, network-based intrusions, and other challenges of our times in a multifaceted manner by integrating ideas of diverse disciplines including political science, media studies, and psychology. What is more, the event revealed the potential of cross-national collaboration and comparative research, introducing insights from the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom vis-à-vis the Finnish experience. Overall, the event was an exemplary effort to defend democracy around the world.

Of course, there is nothing really surprising about a Fulbright seminar excelling in interdisciplinary endeavors and international understanding. As Professor Richard J. Harknett from the University of Cincinnati emphasized during the Pre-seminar, “The original vision of J. William Fulbright was figuring out how to solve problems together, regardless of the disciplinary background.”  In previous posts of this blog, I have already discussed the implementation of Senator Fulbright’s important goal in the dozens of events I attended during my Fulbright year (2013-14) in New York City, organized by One To World and the Institute of International Education. Since then, I have eagerly participated in American and Finnish Fulbright events as an alumna. While the topics discussed and people involved in these events have varied, something has never changed, and that “something” was also present in the Fulbright Finland Seminar on March 14: an open atmosphere, inviting debate and dialogue between people representing a range of disciplines from different countries. Professor Harknett’s observation also reminded me of my inspiring encounter with Harriet Mayor Fulbright at the One To World Fulbright Awards Dinner in May 2014. At 80 years of age, she was (and still continues to be) whole-heartedly committed to her late husband’s mission of widening the views on the world; excited to meet with all of us foreign scholars and to learn from our experiences while eagerly sharing her own.

Since Senator Fulbright’s times, interdisciplinarity has become an increasingly popular term, constantly cultivated in research projects ranging from arts and humanities to environment and engineering. Yet leading scholars in interdisciplinary studies, including Julie Thompson Klein (1996) have noted how “interdisciplinary claims are common but for the most part exaggerated.” In the Fulbright community, again, I find that interdisciplinarity is almost always there, even if not explicitly pronounced – in fact, most events I have attended barely even mention the term. It almost seems as if interdisciplinarity were an internalized idea which we absorb during our Fulbright experience; a principle or world view that shapes our action and thinking in a way that we barely even notice, as we get so used to it. In other words, when it comes to the Fulbright community, I find explicit claims about interdisciplinarity to be less common than moments when integration of ideas and innovation are actually accomplished.

This said, it is important to also explicitly discuss and compare the practices of interdisciplinarity across countries and disciplines, so that academics with different backgrounds can learn from each other and about ways in that knowledge can be produced and shared in society. During his talk, Professor Harknett also emphasized the difference between multi- and interdisciplinarity. In my own research, I have created a connection between academic disciplines and news frames, perceiving both as limited views on the world. What is more, I have explored and discussed differences between “multiperspectival” and “interperspectival” forms of news, connecting these with multi- and interdisciplinary knowledge: the former indicates the development of different viewpoints in separated fashion, the big picture only being formed across larger segments combined in the end, whereas the latter designates that the perspectives become integrated already during the process of knowledge production, creating greater frameworks early on. In my study of American and Finnish foreign news, I found Finnish news to be mostly “multiperspectival” and the American news to be largely “interperspectival.” Rather than one form being superior to the other, my work has built on Rodney Benson’s (2013) thought that different forms of news and pluralist traditions can help promote different forms of democracy. 

The problem, inherent in both systems, is that when one frame becomes too dominant – either in the news, or in people’s minds, or both –, it can and does prevent people from seeing other possible frames or accepting any interpretations that differ from what they perceive as “truth.” This phenomenon was also aptly illustrated in the Fulbright Finland seminar. As for solid solutions, the Fulbright Finland seminar did not necessarily arrive at any. Yet I completely concur with Dr. Jonathan Albright, director of research at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, on that it is important to truly understand problems before trying to solve them. Such understanding also implies constant elaboration of J. William Fulbright’s original vision. Just as the challenges have developed from  Senator Fulbright’s time, now involving cyberspace and so forth, so have the disciplines. New frameworks establish themselves, creating their theories, methods and models, only to fall short of responding to some new current challenges and having to merge and connect with other inter-disciplines. At the same time, traditional disciplines are still needed, too – scholars with very particular specialties working side by side with experts with more ample interests. Even if the threats on democracy persist, along with many unsolved problems originating in the past, this seminar – like all Fulbright events – filled me with hope, seeing scholars from different countries so seriously committed to fulfilling Senator Fulbright’s mission while further widening his vision. Interdisciplinary and international dialogues like these, if anything, can ultimately lead to innovative solutions to the complex problems of past, present and current challenges.

I want to thank the organizers of this magnificent seminar: The Fulbright Finland Foundation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office in Finland; the US Department of State, and the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, for the insights and inspiration, which also helped me craft my ideas for the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS) 2018 Annual Conference, entitled “Inter/diversities”, a task I was working on right before arriving at the Fulbright seminar. A direct quote from the AIS Call for Proposals:

“This emergent concept, ‘Inter/diversities,’ ranges from going beyond an ‘either/or’ approach to an awareness of multiple definitions of ‘diversity’ at work coinciding simultaneously. This developing term signifies interest in integrating diverse disciplinary insights – a significant feature of interdisciplinary work – while at the same time being aware of and embracing the diversity among people and/or cultures with unique world views.”

It is not the first time I note a connection between the goals of AIS and the goals of J. William Fulbright. As a recently elected president of the Finnish Fulbright Alumni, it is my honor to try to further elaborate on such connections, while humbly and eagerly learning from the brilliant open minds around me.

“Making Democracies Resilient to Modern Threats” seminar website: http://www.fulbright.fi/en/making-democracies-resilient

Association for Interdisciplinary Studies website: https://oakland.edu/ais/

References cited in this post:

Benson, Rodney 2013: Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Klein, Julie Thompson 1996: Crossing Boundaries: Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisciplinarities. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia.

Helsinki Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies

Helsinki Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies: WORK IN PROGRESS.

In my previous post, I described my participation in the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS) conference at the University of Maryland in October 2017. This event inspired me to come up with the idea of creating the Helsinki Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (HIIDS).

I am happy to say that my idea has been received very warmly and enthusiastically by a number of Finnish colleagues in Helsinki. I especially want to thank Dr. Outi Hakola, Dr. Harri Kettunen, Dr. Antti Korpisaari and Professor Martti Pärssinen for already having dedicated so much time and thought to this important project, helping me figure out how this could be implemented in practice.

As mentioned in the previous post, we do already have many institutions in Helsinki which strive for interdisciplinarity. However, I argue that they are not sufficiently inter-connected. The idea of the HIIDS is not to create yet another institution, to compete with the pre-existing ones – on the contrary, the purpose of the HIIDS is to build a BRIDGE, between different pre-existing entities promoting different programs and interdisciplinarity and individual disciplines at our university. In other words, like the American and Dutch interdisciplinary programs, the HIIDS would be literally situated in between different disciplines and institutions, allowing scholars, students and supervisors affiliated with different faculties and institutions to connect and debate much more easily. The HIIDS would organize seminars and workshops and provide a “living room” for everybody interested in interdisciplinary research. The HIIDS would also specialize in teaching, creating a core curriculum of interdisciplinary theory and methods, available at different levels: undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate level as well as scholar level. Teachers would be invited from different faculties at our own university as well as elsewhere – essentially including European and North American universities.

The HIIDS project will hopefully be further elaborated soon after my doctoral defense on January 5, 2018 (see new section “Broadening Views in Tabloids and Tablets” in this blog). Hopefully, we will also have a chance to visit the University of Amsterdam and other universities in the U.S. soon, to learn from their experiences and their best practices.

The plan is to contact with many scholars, affiliated with different faculties, to form part of the planning and creation process.  Of course, the HIIDS will also need funding. But I believe that collaboration, and positive energy, matters even more than money at this point. So please join! Happy to receive feedback and thoughts at kirsi.cheas(at)helsinki.fi.

“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):



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


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…