In Concert with the Dutch

04/02/2019

                Text by Kirsi Cheas

One of the long-term goals of FINTERDIS is to organize an annual conference on interdisciplinary research and education, bringing together scholars, teachers and students wanting to expand our knowledge, expose ourselves to new frameworks and skills, and learn from each other. The inspiration and model for such an event can be found in the Netherlands, where a third annual National Interdisciplinary Education (NIE) Conference was hosted on January 22, 2019 at the University of Utrecht under the theme "Integration." While FINTERDIS was honored to have the opportunity to present our Finnish initiative at the event, our main goal was to learn from our Dutch colleagues - how is interdisciplinarity carried out in the Netherlands? What does it take to organize a large conference and bring together students and scholars from many different fields and universities across the country as well as from abroad?

The character and goals of the NIE conference were fabulously captured in Dr. Jeroen Vermeulen's opening keynote, as he played a clip from the Spira Mirabalis rehearsal session. The Spira Mirabalis define themselves as "a group of committed and passionate professional musicians who want to study music together - a musical laboratory." While working hard and slowly to reach a consensus on how the piece is to sound like, Spira Mirabalis also defines its work as "risky," as one can never really predict the outcome - "in the middle of a concert, one player could take a spontaneous initiative and the rest of the group then reacts to it." Looking around in this great hall at the University of Utrecht, full of enthusiastic and talented scholars and students from the Netherlands, other parts of Europe, and North America, I felt like I was part of such an open, exploratory laboratory - a place where we all shared a common goal (to understand and embrace interdisciplinarity) but the only way to truly reach this goal was by exposing ourselves to the unique and unexpected interpretations, ideas, and knowhow of everyone involved.

The Spira Mirabalis is also a great symbol of this kind of interdisciplinary conference in regard to its leadership and internal dynamics: unlike traditional orchestras, Spira Mirabalis does not have a conductor but rather, the collective interpretation of the piece is created on the basis of debate and dialogue between all the musicians involved. In similar fashion, no one at the NIE conference got up on stage claiming, "Follow me, this is how you do it!" Rather, the presenters were keen on asking: "What do you think? How would you do it? What are your experiences about this?"

This principle of learning together was wonderfully explained also by Dr. Gerard van der Ree in his keynote, when he observed that "A form of thinking WITH requires a sense of empathy and interest, rather than knowing it beforehand." In retrospect, it was precisely this principle of "thinking WITH" - rather than thinking FOR, or thinking ON BEHALF OF - what made this conference so special for FINTERDIS, as our Finnish initiative is essentially committed to intergenerational and democratic (rather than top-down) implementation of interdisciplinarity. Despite featuring a number of big names in the field of interdisciplinary studies as organizers, keynote speakers, and hosts of workshops, it was clear right from the beginning that the NIE conference was a genuinely collective effort where everyone's view and background was taken into account; renown scholars were there to think WITH students and colleagues and to meet new people. Listening to the different participants engage in open dialogue throughout the conference was - literally - music to my ears, and of course, I also had a voice myself.

This interactive atmosphere shaped the NIE conference as a whole as well as the individual sessions within the conference. For instance, the workshop by Selin Dilli, Berfu Unal, and Indira van der Zande, titled "Global Challenges Local Solutions: Integrating Classroom into Real Life through Living Lab Projects" began by presenting the concept of the "Living Labs (LL)," then consulting with the participants on how the LL concept could be further improved. The organizers explained how the goal of the LL projects is to create a win-win situation: "Students learn to apply their academic knowledge in actual, real-life contexts and develop related skills (communication, collaboration, problem-solving, research) whereas public and private stakeholders get to work with talented young people who are able to provide insight into questions important for the region."

After this initial presentation of the concept and the main criteria used in the development and evaluation of the student projects, the participants were divided into groups to discuss the possibilities and challenges related to these aspects. The workshop culminated in a joint discussion shedding light to both possibilities as well as shortcomings related to the LL projects. These insights seemed helpful for the organizers to be able improve the Living Labs concept further, while simultaneously providing the whole group with a broader sense of how the Living Labs could be used in different contexts. Hence everyone - both the workshop organizers and participants - walked out of the room with a richer sense of the concept and its development potential. Other presentations included a description of the "Pressure Cooker" - an intensive transdisciplinary learning activity aimed at connecting science and society, organized by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Amsterdam. This presentation, too, was interactive, with the presenters not only sharing their concept, but also opening themselves to questions, suggestions and ideas from the audience.

A slide depicting goals of the interdisciplinary "Pressure Cooker," organized by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (IIS) at the University of Amsterdam, presented by Esther van Duin, Rutger Bults, Ger Post, and Jacintha Scherder
A slide depicting goals of the interdisciplinary "Pressure Cooker," organized by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (IIS) at the University of Amsterdam, presented by Esther van Duin, Rutger Bults, Ger Post, and Jacintha Scherder

Another great example of the interactive character of the NIE conference was a lunch meeting organized by Dr. Machiel Keestra and Dr. Linda de Greef from the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Amsterdam (https://iis.uva.nl/en). It was precisely the IIS which originally launched the NIE Conference tradition, and now, during the third NIE Conference, it was time to further discuss possibilities for expanding the network. The event was open to all interested conference participants regardless of career stage or national background - in fact, FINTERDIS was specifically invited to share and discuss the benefits and challenges of a national network such as the one we have just created in the Finnish context.

Before entering the meeting, I emphasized that FINTERDIS is a new initiative that we are still expanding and elaborating on and that I would not still have the experience or knowhow to provide any substantial advice to the Dutch colleagues, but I was warmly welcomed nonetheless. I was delighted to see many junior scholars and students in the meeting, sharing their thoughts and ideas by my side. Machiel and Linda are both prominent scholars with substantial experience and knowhow in the field of interdisciplinary studies, but as was typical of this conference, they spent most of the time listening and asking - what were the participants' wishes and expectations for such a network; how could different barriers be overcome. FINTERDIS already looks forward to collaboration with the new Dutch network, finding that we are very similar in our premise and commitment to inclusive and wide-ranging knowledge production. 

More information and detailed program of the National Interdisciplinary Education conference can be found online:

FINTERDIS wants to express our warmest thanks to the NIE Conference organizers: Dr. Rianne van Lambalgen; Dr. Merel van Goch; Dr. Iris van der Tuin; Dr. Karin Scager, Dr. Sabine Uijl, as well Dr. Machiel Keestra and Dr. Linda de Greef for welcoming our Society in the Conference and for providing us with inspiration as to how to create a harmonic, inclusive, and democratic event to foster interdisciplinarity.


*This blog post was written by Kirsi Cheas, who represented FINTERDIS at the NIE Conference. Kirsi's trip was paid by Kirsi herself, not sponsored by FINTERDIS. FINTERDIS is currently soliciting funds from different Finnish foundations to be able to support travel of its members to interdisciplinary conferences abroad. More information to be published in this regard soon.*