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Internationalising Interdisciplinarity – Global Access Amid Covid-19

by Kirsi Cheas

Interdisciplinary practices and possibilities vary greatly in different parts of the world. In my home country of Finland, interdisciplinarity is an increasingly important approach emphasised in funding calls and university strategies. However, much still remains to be done to facilitate the integration of ideas and dialogue across fields in Finnish higher education. During my term as a visiting ASLA-Fulbright scholar at New York University in 2013-14 and my subsequent affiliation with the U.S.-based Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS), I have discovered numerous organisational ideas developed in distinct regions which can help enhance interdisciplinarity in my country and vice versa. Hence, my interdisciplinary orientation has always implied a serious commitment to internationalisation.

When I was attending the Board meeting of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies in Chicago in March 2020, the scope and seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic was becoming clear, and international travel became banned indefinitely. In a nearly empty plane en route back to Helsinki, I began experiencing emotions of despair: What lies ahead? For how long will we need to remain disconnected from our colleagues abroad? How will the closing of international borders impact interdisciplinary careers and knowledge in our countries and globally?

Others have shared my despair.  However,  since March 2020, technology has been rapidly adopted in ways not previously imagined, to connect scholars and educators across regions. AIS also embraced this opportunity during its annual conference organised virtually by Sonoma State University on November 6, 2020, aptly titled Interdisciplinary Responses to the Pandemic: An International Forum.

In preparation for this AIS conference, I reached out to three international interdisciplinary colleagues to see if we could arrange a panel discussion about the potentials and pitfalls of virtual travel and its impact on interdisciplinarity in the Covid-19 era. These colleagues, who accepted my invitation, included Dr Julie Thompson Klein (Professor of Humanities Emerita at Wayne State University, past president of AIS, and International Research Affiliate of the Transdisciplinarity Lab at ETH Zürich), Andi Hess (Director of the Interdisciplinary Translation and Integration Sciences Initiative at Arizona State University and President of the International Network for the Science of Team Science known as InSciTs); and Dr Bianca Vienni Baptista (Postdoctoral researcher at Td-Lab, ETH Zürich and  the SHAPE-ID project).

All of the panelists have remarkable experience in bridging ideas from around the globe. Building on our background and lessons learned in the process, our panel group jointly observed that travel is, indeed, fundamental for interdisciplinarity for a number of reasons:

  • Being exposed to different cultures, traditions, and practices
  • Learning about other perspectives and methods
  • Meeting new colleagues and exchanging perspectives
  • Creating new networks, trading zones, and communities of practice
  • Fostering inter/national cooperation, coordination, and collaboration
  • Engaging in cross-sector projects and resource building
  • Generating new research programs.

Yet, while readily recognising my initial concern that the pandemic is severely restricting international travel, with serious implications for the careers of those of us whose interdisciplinary aims have always depended on travel, Klein and Hess brought up the important fact that many scholars and students have never had the opportunity to travel. Institutional and intellectual barriers have prevented many students and scholars from accessing mutual areas of interest. Funding and grants are often scarce, so international travel has generally been an “elitist activity” of established faculty and privileged scholars and students. Scholars and students with different kinds of disabilities are often excluded from participation as well, limiting the scope of representation. At the same time, English-language literature in Europe, North America, and Australia dominates, minimising or outright ignoring work in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

With universities now impeding non-essential travel and prohibiting physical entrance to campuses, academia at large has been forced to re-think how to increase access through technological means. The pandemic is a great opportunity to recognise our own privileges and to consider how our future – virtual and physical – can be more inclusive.

In her presentation during the panel, Klein  identified a range of affordances in virtual environments:

  • Communication Tools: e.g., email, wikis, chat rooms, Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, blogs and vlogs, local online platforms for teaching and conferencing, a/synchronous exchanges, conference calls
  • Coordination Tools: e.g., shared calendars, scheduling software, visual displays, awareness and mapping tools for planning, implementing, and decision-making
  • Information Repositories: e.g., databases, shared files and document storage, lab notebooks, e-portfolios, websites, online archives for transactive memory of who knows what and is responsible for what, shared document editors, content management and groupware systems, online toolkits and toolboxes
  • Computational Infrastructure: e.g., system architecture, large-scale resources, networks, collaboratories, IT backup staff

At the same time, technological  affordances are accompanied by caveats that limit possibilities:

  • Scale and Distribution: Technology has not conquered distance.
  • Team Size: Greater diversity of expertise & participants to negotiate.
  • Time Zones: Some individuals cannot contribute at a reasonable time.
  • Institutional Calendars: Deadlines differ by semesters and quarters.
  • Work Schedules: Disciplines, fields, and professions follow different hours.
  • Technological Readiness: Individual competence and local capacity differ.
  • Appropriate Choice: Suitability for tasks and goals is not universal.
  • Access: Even “open access” is not free and the divide of haves/have-nots persists.
  • Communication Styles: Participation varies by culture, gender, and rank.
  • Leadership and Management: Strict norms and frequent monitoring required.
  • Commitment: It is easier to not be present and fully engaged.
  • The “Metastasising Zoom Meeting”: Workloads and expectations are escalating.

Andi Hess, in turn, reflected on the opportunities she has had because of her ability to physically travel, captured in photos from past AIS Conferences and her study abroad experiences. These connections are now being extended and maintained through virtual environments, as our panel demonstrates. While noting that “she is who she is” thanks to physical travel, Andi emphasised that the flexibility allowed by technology evens the playing field for many. Disability scholars in particular have pointed out that the pandemic prompted accommodations that many people were otherwise often denied, often as simple as telecommuting options.

Andi further highlighted the need to recognise that technology should not be used merely to substitute for physical travel, but rather to rethink what is possible in each modality. Zoom classrooms and physical classrooms offer different benefits, and as scholars and instructors she stresses that we should be reflective about the opportunities offered by each, rather than attempting to duplicate classroom experiences online. For example, she is currently teaching an art journaling class through Zoom rather than in person, which gave her a unique opportunity to rethink the course activities for a new format.

Andi hosts informal art journaling sessions for her students through Zoom. Screenshot by Andi Hess.

Bianca Vienni Baptista then shared insights from experiencing interdisciplinary research in the SHAPE-ID project. She specifically addressed factors of success and failure that European researchers consider relevant for their daily practice in inter- and transdisciplinary research (see SHAPE-ID survey report). As a relevant finding from this project, Bianca contended that diverse factors influence interdisciplinary research and are context-dependent. They can be transformed into enabling measures during the development of a research or policy process. She also brought some insights from a SHAPE-ID Learning Case Workshop hosted by ETH Zürich in which researchers, students, funders and artists experimented with methods and tools for co-producing knowledge in an online setting.

Bianca elaborated on the opportunity opened by the pandemic to reflect on how researchers can collaborate in more fruitful ways adapting methods and tools for inter- and transdisciplinary research to online and even asynchronous formats. This might be an opportunity for the Arts and Humanities to apply their methods in new settings and redesign tools and methods for collaborative work. In the same fashion, the Arts can become a means to achieving new interdisciplinary outcomes in online settings, in which emotions, values and perceptions are brought to the center of our attention.

To close the panel session, I concluded that, all the positive examples notwithstanding, we should not rush to replace all physical travel with virtual travel. Some sense-based experiences cannot be transferred into the virtual world. From the AIS conference in Amsterdam, I still recall excitement and fear as we rode bikes amid the local Dutch people, who were expertly advancing at exceptional speed. From the AIS Conference in Baltimore, I recall the scent of  local seafood I tasted with Andi and other colleagues. From the AIS conference in Detroit, I remember the crisp air of October, as I was standing  outside the hotel, exchanging new ideas with Lebanese colleagues. Jointly experienced, sense-based memories will always help bring us back to those moments, filling us with creative energy and a sense of belonging. Even as virtual tools allow access in new ways to students and scholars who have previously lacked opportunities to travel, these students and scholars also still deserve the chance to experience the physical travel and sense-based memories that we privileged scholars cherish so much, especially now that we are limited to the virtual world. Therefore, my main argument is that we cannot cut travel grants and other types of support for underprivileged students and scholars because they can now travel in the virtual world, because it is not altogether the same.

Dual commitment then – enhancing and expanding both physical and virtual connections –  underlines the goals of internationalisation and inclusion posited by the AIS conference and the organisation more broadly. Along with forthcoming physical conferences at Southern Utah University, Sonoma State University, and Texas Tech University in 2021, 2022, and 2023, respectively, AIS is actively planning future events in the virtual world while aiming to increase in-person access and incorporate people with as many diverse backgrounds as possible. As articulated by Yuval Noah Harari, complex challenges such as Covid-19 can only be solved through international collaboration. We are in this together.

Julie Thompson Klein’s extensive international experience ranges from positions as Visiting Professor at Shimane University in Japan and Fulbright Lecturer at Tribhuvan University in Nepal to numerous visits and connections in New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Switzerland, Sweden, and elsewhere. As Faculty Director of the Identity and Conflict in the Balkans Study Abroad Program, Andi Hess has spent much of her time on the road, exposing students to different cultures in an effort to enrich their interdisciplinary thought. With a PhD from the University of Granada, Spain, Bianca Vienni Baptista has also worked as Associate Professor at the Espacio Interdisciplinario of the Universidad de la República in Uruguay and as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lüneburg in Germany.

Kirsi Cheas is a postdoctoral researcher whose research integrates ideas from political communication, journalism studies, and interdisciplinary Latin American and Global South studies. Her new project, to be conducted at InnoLab at the University of Vaasa and New York University as of 2021 focuses on collaborative investigative journalism across the U.S.-Mexico border. She is an at-large board member and international liaison of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS). She is also founder and chair of Finterdis – the Finnish Interdisciplinary Society, which supports the interdisciplinary pursuits of early-career scholars in particular.

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