Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies: Fostering Fairer and More Inclusive Learning Communities

04/02/2019

Text by Kirsi Cheas

It is January 23, 2019; a day after the National Interdisciplinary Education Conference at the University of Utrecht (see previous blog post). I wake up early in the morning, open Google maps and type in: Science Park 904, Amsterdam; my mind already filled with excitement. A few hours later, I find myself staring at the building I have wanted to visit for so long. Finally, I am here: the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (IIS) at the University of Amsterdam.

I became acquainted with the IIS during my first Association for Interdisciplinary Studies Conference at the University of Maryland in 2017, following an intriguing encounter with Dr. Machiel Keestra, professor at the IIS and past president of AIS; and with Dr. Linda de Greef, program manager at the IIS. Until then, I had been familiar with similar institutions in the U.S. and wanting to import the model to Finland, while my Finnish colleagues would persistently argue that such an institution would not work well in the European context, and/or that interdisciplinary centers should focus on the work of advanced scholars and professors, rather than dedicating to the ideas of junior scholars like me. When beginning to inquire more about Amsterdam's IIS, I realized that it not only works well - it works fabulously, capturing perfectly the important goal of democratizing and diversifying knowledge, as the institute's various activities essentially focus on students and more junior staff, in close collaboration with more experienced faculty. As expressed on the IIS website:

The IIS aims to educate students who are able to make connections between ostensibly unrelated research areas and who can fall back on a broad range of knowledge in order to develop new solutions to complex issues. The IIS creates an environment where students learn to adopt an open attitude, develop creativity and are given the room to discover their talents. 

In other words, IIS places primary emphasis on the younger generations and their potential for tackling complex challenges of the future. In addition, the IIS provides support for faculty so that teachers and professors would be more able to help their younger peers to reach their ambitious goals and connect different perspectives:

The added value of the IIS lies in the inspiring interplay between its tasks, as a result of which it is able to provide in-house advice, development and implementation. This continuously leads to innovative, interdisciplinary educational activities.  

During my engagement with IIS, I have sensed a very genuine commitment among its faculty to these important goals. Ever since I mentioned the FINTERDIS initiative to Machiel and Linda have reached out to us, offering support, help, and guidance in whatever challenge or question that we have faced in the process. At the same time, the IIS staff has been open and curious, wanting to learn from our experiences and accomplishments, this way fostering reciprocal learning between Finnish and Dutch scholars in our joint efforts to increase junior scholars' possibilities for integrative thought. Following such curiosity, I was invited to give a talk about FINTERDIS to IIS colleagues and students over lunch while in Amsterdam.

As soon as I enter the IIS, I am warmly received by Machiel, who has reserved two hours of his valuable time to first just sit and talk with me and show me around the Institute. I have his full attention and interest, as I share with him the recent developments of FINTERDIS: the organization of our first activity, finding funding, and expanding our sphere of actions to a range of different educational institutions within Finland and reaching out to scholars in different fields, while aiming to promote intergenerational dialogue of interdisciplinarity in the Finnish context. This moment of conversation is a wonderful opportunity to share concerns, to plan future collaboration between FINTERDIS and IIS, and, more than anything, learn from practices and ideas developed at the IIS. 

As I get a tour around IIS, Machiel and I are joined by Linda, who kindly introduces me to different activities and programs within IIS, including, for instance, the Master's program in Brain and Cognitive Sciences, which brings together psychologists, neurobiologists, psychiatrists, philosophers, behavioral economists, logicians, and linguists. She also describes the Tesla minor program, which connects science, business, and society.  I get an overview of the key elements listed on the IIS Strategic Innovation Agenda 2018-2021:

· Integration of skills: to enable students to make connections between different disciplines in order to address complex challenges,

· Strengthening the connection between academia and society to produce graduates who can build a bridge between the academic world and society,

· To follow current developments in science and society,

· Driver of innovation in higher education: develop a long-term vision for interdisciplinary education.

At noon, some dozen students, colleagues and professors gather in a cozy seminar room, where we enjoy Dutch delicious sandwiches and Finnish chocolate while I explain the premise, goals, and current position of FINTERDIS. The Dutch fellows have many questions, starting with how we define junior scholar and whether this concept differs from Dutch practices - as I explain our system with the Title of Docents, it turns out the systems are somewhat similar. I see especially students and younger colleagues nodding as I explain the kinds of challenges junior scholars are facing in Finnish academia - these situations too occur in the Netherlands. And yet, the IIS has been a key player in providing a network and an open space for those young researchers interested in interdisciplinarity.

During my talk, I explain that in Finland we have many institutes for advanced studies where interdisciplinarity is encouraged, and our universities feature a number of graduate and postgraduate programs which combine different fields. However, when wanting to reach beyond these pre-tailored programs, Finnish students and junior scholars run into trouble, bumping into boundaries between faculties and teachers and supervisors reluctant or without time to acquaint themselves with the different fields involved. It is in situations like this that institutions like the IIS play the key role - providing an open atmosphere for both the junior scholar as well as their teachers and supervisors, supporting both the formation of new ideas as well as the development of dialogue and communication skills in the process.

Finnish scholars at all career stages will now have a wonderful opportunity to learn more from the IIS, as it will host the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies Conference in October 2019, for the first time in Europe. Toward the end of my visit, we discussed the conference, with the IIS staff happily welcoming submissions from Finland and from FINTERDIS. We would be excited to (co)host a session which focuses on the possibilities and challenges of junior scholars engaging in interdisciplinarity in different national contexts. In general, the AIS Conference hosted by IIS will also allow Finnish scholars a wonderful opportunity to engage with interdisciplinarists world wide and get to know leading scholars in the field in an open and inspirational atmosphere.

The author of this post wants to express her deepest gratitude toward Machiel, Linda, and the whole staff and students at the IIS for receiving me and treating me so kindly and for being so incredibly generous and helpful toward FINTERDIS ever since our first steps. 


*FINTERDIS is currently working on joint proposals for the AIS conference as well as applying funding from Finnish foundations to be able to support the conference attendance of its members. Want to be a part of our planning team? Please get in touch at info(at)finterdis.fi or kirsi.cheas(at)finterdis.fi