Transdisciplinarity, me and my anchors

It is the time of the year for our UWAS course ‘Film, Work and Labour’. It is a University-wide Art Studies course we run for the second time with two of my colleagues. The approach is interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary or ‘post-disciplinary’ as the UWAS slogan states. UWAS courses can have a good mix of students from all six Aalto schools and there should be no one discipline that is considered better than the other. In this sense, UWAS courses aim at transdisciplinarity. 

Our course this year has made me reflect my take-aways from such an environment, let it be teaching, research or activism. I feel that me reaching a truly multi-voiced dialogue takes time and energy because it requires me to become aware of  my preferred ways of thinking and working. However, my and others’ disciplinary anchors are not ‘bad’ for transdisciplinarity, quite the contrary. When things get complicated, it is useful to hold on to something familiar.

Photo by Denys Argyriou on Unsplash

I present you some of my (disciplinary) anchors based on my observations during this winter and early spring: 

  1. I’m inspired by people’s experiences about what they do. As a working life researcher I’m always excited to learn what people do for work, let it be waged work or non-waged work. For example, when I meet people, I often end up hearing stories about their work, for example subcontracting for a construction site, speech therapy or running a citizen cooperative for local food. As a result, I learn from various ways to understand and work around phenomena. But what really matters for an equal discussion and what cannot be overcome is valuing people’s own perspectives. People are experts when it comes to their own labour or work. This approach has also been referred to as the practice approach or lens, with an emphasis on practitioners’ knowledge. 
  2. This is something I learn every time I spend less time with others: My creativity is truly sparked off by others’ projects. As a result, my anchor is to spend (enough) time with others. I might get inspired by something I hear just briefly on a walk to a caféteria or it might be something I have followed for years. In February, I spoke with a UWAS colleague who works on a project with plants. It is truly remarkable in terms of artistic and scientific work. Another colleague has been studying young female scholars for years, and every time I hear or read about it, I’m so inspired. 
  3. Although at times I’m impatient (ask my family for evidence), transdisciplinary interactions take time. This doesn’t mean that it would be always difficult to grasp others perspectives (although it can be) but it is not straight-forward to find a common vocabulary, let alone trust someone who has a different vocabulary. Do I get them and do they get me? Therefore, it is important for me to meet others half way and try to adopt their language, bodily movements and ways of thinking. By learning about their perspectives it is then more likely that I can come across experiences that resonate with something I might be able to link to. And vice versa, I appreciate this approach from others.

Having written all this, transdisciplinary engagements reminds me of ethnographic work. Indeed, in ethnography I (and others) have an experience of ‘working within hyphen-spaces’, ie. working between certain clear positions, such as outsider, insider, same or different. Rather, we glide between the poles of, for example, outsider-insider or sameness-difference, during a project and within single moments during a project. Such a slide – or sometimes it feels like a strain – could be common in transdisciplinary projects as well.

Our course ‘Film, Work and Labour’ takes place again in early 2020. If you are an Aalto University student, you can register in late 2019. You are warmly welcomed to join us and experience some inter/transdisciplinary interactions!

Meeting your idol

This is too weird! My twenty-something-age-idol mentioned me in Twitter. It all started out when I was flipping through my Twitter feed and my eye caught a funny tweet by Lotta. She felt hip knowing Bieber and Beliebers pass the age of the normal suspects – but when asked couldn’t mention any songs. Then someone explained that the oh-baby-baby-song is Bieber’s. Based on the unique description of lyrics, I thought I’d been dancing to it lately during my dance lessons. (But it was Usher’s Scream, apparently very hip too.) And then my idol comes in and comments the chords, C-Am7-F-G. O.M.G.

Although I haven’t been following her music lately, I should confess that Maija Vilkkumaa is still my idol. Back in the days, she was one of the rock stars writing lyrics, composing, and completely rocking in Finnish, and as a result start a whole new genre. Super hip! She seems to do what she enjoys, which I always seem to respect.

Getting the kicks of her commenting something I was attached to (sounds so lame here), I thought of idoling. There is a saying about idols by Kirsi Piha (yet one idol of mine): Never meet your idol(s) because it might turn out that they are jerks despite all the inspiring stuff they created / wrote / composed / said / played etc. Before, I was extremely cautious to meet my idols. Also in the academia from my field, although It’d be possible as most of the people who inspire me academically are actually alive (unlike in Ancient philosophy). Yet, I stayed further away only enjoying their wisdom from the distance.

Why I feared my (academic) idols might turn out to be douchebags? We are all humans and occasionally humans are also irritating, right? At times, I’m also annoying, right? But that’s it, I thought my idols are somehow above me and my standards. I was allowed to be irritating but my idols weren’t. After all, they created something I was inspired by and seeing them as humans would have endangered my inspiration.

When I started teaching one of my first fears was that someone hates me. Then even a bigger fear emerged: What if someone thinks I’m very smart and then comes to talk to me and realises I’m a douchebag. And this is when I felt released from fears of meeting my idols: We are not perfect and that’s absolutely great.

Nowadays, I’m more willing to face my idols. Yet, it’s hard to figure out what to say. Should I confess that they are my idols? ‘Hello Ms. Villkumaa. You really rocked then and you rock now. Back on the days, we formed an air band every time we heard your song, no mater where we were. Usually I played the air drums. What’s up?’

The invisible side of teaching

My teaching for this autumn kicked off in early September. It was as great and thrilling as I suspected. In fact, I too had a dream the night before the first session. In my dream I was teaching but failing terribly and not being able to stick to my plan. The next day I was joking with a colleague that we should get paid for the teaching taking place in our sleep. Only half-joking, as a matter of fact. Getting ready for the actual thing by dreaming about it is not making you feel like you slept well.

Teaching or, rather, enabling learning involves some things that one might not think spontaneously before actually being responsible for it. When I prepared my first sessions some years ago I was amazed how much it requires time. It takes several hours to prepare a session of 90 minutes. The more I introduce new elements, the more I spend time planning. Of course preparation takes place in small bits, but eventually it adds up to hours.

Another invisible aspect is that teachers make up to 1 500 decisions during one day in the classroom. Not having read the original study, I suppose the figure goes for teachers having several hours of teaching daily. This high number excludes the decisions made before and after the session. Thus, you can say that teachers are, or should be, very good at improvising, despite how well they have prepared their session.

I am happy for the fact that I can be involved with enabling people to learn. Hopefully their learning includes things thought to be relevant in the curriculum, and not only learning for life. By the way, the category ‘learning for life’ is my personal motivator as a student when my expectations for a session are failed and I have to get my kicks from somewhere else. Like mentally redecorating the classroom or observing the group dynamics.

My classroom teaching is over in October for a current course. However, teaching the course continues with assessment tasks. And that is an interesting aspect of teaching, which requires a lot of fresh thinking and renewing traditions!