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"When Even the Changes are Changing": Safety, Interdisciplinarity, and the Challenge of Uncertainty

Published onNov 16, 2022
"When Even the Changes are Changing": Safety, Interdisciplinarity, and the Challenge of Uncertainty
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That the only constant is change is now taken to be something of a cliché. That universities should embrace change and be a force for change, is also taken as a given – the nature of science and education means that, by definition, a good university is at the forefront of knowledge and disseminates that knowledge to its students. Even the nature of our own university has changed, from a small Roman Catholic Business School founded in 1927, to an institution oriented towards the humanities and social sciences with over 20,000 students. In the latest strategy document, the Executive Board and Deans paint a picture of the nature of the change we now face as being different from the changes we have traditionally embraced and encouraged. This new type of change poses a challenge to our university, and “poses fundamental questions to us in all areas of thought and learning within our academic community”. What makes this change so demanding, as the university’s strategy says, is that “we live in a time when even the changes are changing”.

It is not at all clear what it means for “changes to change”. Two main “culprits” of this new kind of change are stated in the strategy document as (i) the development of the Anthropocene, in which human activity is having causative effects on the ecology and climate of the planet, and (ii) digitalization, in which information and processes are converted into digital technologies. These social and technological advancements, it is suggested, pose a challenge to the way in which a university functions, how it embraces change, and how it acts as a force for scientific innovation and educational development. But how these two developments cause “changes to change” is still ambiguous. In order to make sense of this phrase, it will be worth considering how the nature of change has the potential to challenge the institution of the university. If I may provide a brief suggestion, for change to cause fundamental disruption to science and academic practice it will probably have to involve at least one of three characteristics: (i) the rate of change will be so fast-paced that it becomes difficult to track and respond to, (ii) the way or process by which we create change becomes difficult to understand or something over which we have less control, or (iii) the outcome of change alters objects, people, institutions and relationships in such a way that makes them difficult to understand, difficult to control, or unrecognizable altogether. It is highly likely that the changes posed by developments in digitalization and the Anthropocene have the potential to create – and arguably are already creating – all three of these challenging “changes” to the nature of change.

If this is the case, then we really are living in a time of radical uncertainty, where the rate, process, and outcome of change result in unpredictability, unreliability and precarious conditions for science and education. The good university, therefore, becomes an institution that not only needs to respond to and be a force for change but one that must respond to the uncertainty that comes from this change. The strategy document makes it clear that it is in this challenge of uncertainty that the future vision of Tilburg University rests: “We are being challenged to set the course in a context in which much remains uncertain. We want to learn from the actions we take, respond to developments, and anticipate changes”.

In the light of this “changing change”, Weaving Minds & Characters offers an overarching general vision for Tilburg University picking out particular “threads” that will provide a focus for policy commitments over the next five to six years. Two of these threads are a commitment to ensuring “social safety”, and a commitment to “interdisciplinary” research and education. On the face of it, these two commitments for safety and interdisciplinarity seem uncontroversial. However, in what follows, I suggest that given the challenge of uncertainty, the good university should not be a “safe space”, nor should it settle for the limitations and ambiguity of interdisciplinarity. Given the nature of decision-making in light of unprecedented change, along with the university’s commitment to its four “C” values (curious, caring, connected, courageous), we need a university that is courageous enough to question the nature of safety and the value of interdisciplinarity, curious enough to explore the need for risk, and caring enough to create radical and ethical connections between its students, staff, and partners.

The “Safe” University

In several places in the strategic plan, it is mentioned that Tilburg University is, and strives to be, a “safe environment”. This need for safety seems specifically woven into the core values of Care and Connectedness: we care about each other, so we offer and contribute to a safe working and study environment; a safe campus gives rise to a community feeling that fosters connections with each other. There is no doubt that we want the university to be an institution free from unjust discrimination, exclusion, and harassment. The emphasis on “human dignity” requires that we treat each other with respect, and as such, Tilburg University is striving to become a fair and attractive employer, and a fair and caring advocate for its students. This is a timely and necessary commitment, but the exact details of how this will be further implemented are still yet to be seen – as admitted, these ideals are “not selfevident yet”. As a result of the uncertainty that comes with the fast-paced changes in social and digital developments, the strategy claims to be “rolling” and so will not commit itself to implementing any particular policy over the course of the next six years. However, there is no need to avoid committing to exacting procedures and policies to ensure the respect and fair treatment of all those connected to our university. These should have been made central to any strategic plan. Yes, we are living in a time of uncertainty that requires, in part, openness and flexibility. But our need to respond to injustice is not something about which we can merely be reactive.

If safety is to be defined and understood as “freedom from danger” and “the state of being protected from or guarded against hurt or injury” (OED, n. safety), then in some respects the university must strive for this without question. There are some unjust “dangers” or “harms”, or “injuries” that the university can and should aim to protect against, such as the harms of unjust discrimination, and physical injuries that may arise in the working or studying environment. However, the essential requirement to address systemic and localized issues of injustice is not the same as a general requirement for “safety” or guaranteed protection from harm. The general covering term “safety” is blind to a more careful and critical analysis of what counts as the kind of harms, dangers and risks we (as students and staff) need or want protection from. Are we courageous enough to ask whether some harms and injuries might be justified or necessary if we are to commit to our values, if we are to provide inspirational teaching based on innovative high-quality research? Are we courageous enough to ask whether the university’s commitment to courage and curiosity might sit at odds with its requirement for safety?

Inclusion and Sustainability are Not “Safe”

The Executive Board and the Deans have pointed at the different “threads” that will contribute to our safety, for example, sustainability, diversity, and inclusion. These are all neutral and descriptive nouns, and by themselves do not point to any necessary normative valence. Take for instance the word “inclusion”. In a more general sense, the word just means “the action or an act of including something or someone […]; the fact or condition of being included” (OED, n. inclusion). It is the opposite of “exclusion”, the act of excluding someone or something, the condition of being excluded. But by itself, this says nothing about why someone or something has been included or excluded, who we are including or excluding, and the extent to which this inclusion or exclusion is harmful.

By themselves, exclusion and discrimination are not necessarily harmful. We exclude and discriminate regularly and often for good reason. For example, we might need to discriminate (which just means to distinguish or differentiate) between those with disabilities and those without, so that we can provide extra resources to those who need the campus to be accessible in a certain way. When, for example, the School of Humanities and Digital Sciences (TSHD) hosts its summer barbecue for staff each year, only TSHD staff are invited – not our partners, not our children, not the students, not our colleagues from other Schools. This exclusivity enables TSHD to provide an important social event that provides a sense of community and connection-building amongst its staff that would not be possible at an event that was open to more people. When, for example, a student might violate academic integrity by knowingly and repeatedly plagiarizing, we might decide to exclude them from their study program. We need this exclusion; it allows us to uphold academic integrity in our institution. The inclusion of the student, and the failure to discriminate between good and bad academic practice, would be harmful to the values of the university. Inclusion is not necessarily just – it is our task to critically reflect on what or who we ought to include and exclude, to have the courage to include those who have a right to be included, and exclude those who should be excluded. Doing so might not be safe: the policy and relational changes involved will often require us to offend those who are still unaware of their biases, take financial risks, and commit us to breaking down (metaphorical) statues that represent and express injustice.

Take “sustainability” as another example. By itself, that something is sustainable just describes that it is capable of being “upheld” or “maintained” or “continued” (OED, adj. sustainable). But by itself, that something can be maintained or continued does not mean that it would be a good thing to do so. We might maintain the status quo and so preserve the unjust systemic discrimination of those who are underrepresented or preserve outdated technologies that hinder educational progress. Sustainability is not necessarily just, and it is our task to critically reflect on what we ought to sustain, or from what we ought to break free. Doing so might not be safe: the policy and behavior changes involved will often require us to break from tradition, to be a lone voice in a hostile crowd, and to make difficult choices that may end up offending or harming some yet benefitting others.

Daring to Take “Principled” Risks

It is not “safe” to ask questions and make decisions in the face of uncertainty. It is inevitable that the way to achieve success in eradicating entrenched expressions of injustice – both towards others and our environment – is by taking risks, daring to break with tradition, and making bold changes that have no precedence. Reducing work pressure for staff, providing accessible and quality education, exploring the developments of digitalization, ensuring that women academics are fairly represented and free from discrimination, reducing our carbon footprint, all require bold policy change that comes with risk. Safety is freedom from harm and following this to the letter would mean, for example, that we refuse to challenge our students, prevent them the emotional harm of receiving a low grade or critical feedback on their work, and spare them the necessary risks involved in thinking critically and creatively. But the strategy document is explicit that we don’t want this – we want a university in which we “dare to go against established views […] to make mistakes”.

As a result, the university need not promise us social or epistemic safety, but something more radical than that – it should outline and promote a set of basic and detailed principles that determine an unwavering commitment to the ethical, respectful, and just treatment of its staff and students. Some Schools have already recognized the need for a “principled” rather than a “safe” university. For instance, in its own strategy document, TSHD has outlined its commitment to using the concept of a “principled space” which “assumes a set of shared values that all members of the community observe” (Shaping our Future Society Together, 26). In some instances these principles will require us to keep each other safe, when we have determined that the harms, offenses, and risks at play are unjust. But sometimes our principles will require us to be unsafe, courageous, to make unpopular decisions, to cause offense, and take risks. Our task as a university should be to determine what principles we commit ourselves to, and what these principles require of us. It is only by taking a stand on what counts as unjust harm that we can begin to analyze how a call for “social safety” fits with the four “C” values that are emphasized as central to the strategic plan.

The good university will make a priority of developing in its staff and students the skills that are necessary to recognize and analyze what counts as unjust harm that we need protection from, the most appropriate way to respond to that injustice, and the nature of the biases that we bring with us. The recognition, understanding and evaluation of the nature and value of injustice necessitate literacy in critical thinking, logic, and a firm grounding in ethical theory. This is one of the reasons for the continued importance of Tilburg University’s educational requirement that all students take at least two philosophy courses in their Bachelor’s program. These courses ensure that students develop the vital skills to know the difference between safety that protects us from the effects of unjust harm, and safety that maintains a dangerous and unethical status quo.

Given the nature of uncertainty and the challenge that social and technological changes pose to us, the framework and constraints of justice change too. So not only must we develop the critical skills in which to make ethical decisions, but we must be committed to developing the skills that enable us to make decisions when there is no rule or law or framework that tells us what we ought to do. This uncertainty gives us an opportunity to shape not only the decisions that we make but how we make the decisions themselves. As Ruth Chang, Chair and Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University has claimed, making seemingly impossible decisions like these provide us with an opportunity to develop our rational and normative characters, putting our agency behind a choice and constituting what kind of person we want to be (Chang, 2017, p. 19). The idea to implement an interschool general course on digital science is an exciting and necessary prospect. But this should in no way be a replacement for the philosophy courses that our students are entitled to. Our university stands out in its commitment to critical thinking and character development – we should strive to keep it this way even in the face of digitalization and the uncertainty that this brings.

The “Interdisciplinary” University

There is one point in the strategy document where the need for safety is explicitly noted as being incompatible with conducting research and education in a time of fast-paced change. The Executive Board and Deans briefly mention that our scientific and educational responses to the challenges posed by digitalization and sustainability require “leaving the safe comfort zones of our own disciplines”. In this respect, interdisciplinarity is strongly emphasized, promoted, and even preferred, considered to guarantee “groundbreaking thinking”. The importance of interdisciplinary research is highlighted by some of the only concrete figures and goals mentioned in the document; it is stated that the university will aim for 10% of research to be interdisciplinary, a new chair of Interdisciplinary Studies will be appointed at the next anniversary, and a new Platform of Interdisciplinary Studies will be launched as part of a Tilburg-hosted international conference dedicated to interdisciplinary research and education.

These goals are courageous, especially given the risks involved when implementing institutionalized interdisciplinarity, such as the dilution of disciplinary competence, and a lack of clear and meaningful policy (see Abbott, 2001; MacLeod, 2018; Szostak, 2017). However, to an extent the university’s research and education are already interdisciplinary: there are researchers in different disciplines working on the same topics and problems from their different perspectives, and when it comes to teaching, each program already provides students with insights from other disciplines when it is relevant to the material or topic of the course. What the strategic plans seem to emphasize, however, is explicit collaboration, so that we can coordinate our research efforts between the disciplines to answer unified funding calls, and so that we can provide unified courses for students.

When it comes to education, the call for interdisciplinarity has the potential to dilute the quality of teaching that we provide to our students. The risk involved means that interdisciplinary education is not safe, insofar as it may produce harms that students need protection from. This can be easily seen when we look more closely at what interdisciplinarity involves. An interdisciplinary team will engage in a complex process: each participant must be able to conduct reliable and quality research in their own discipline, be able to clearly communicate their findings to others in the team, and negotiate with others through their different disciplinary perspectives to reach a shared research outcome (see Griffiths, 2022). As such, interdisciplinarity requires a firm grounding in your own discipline, the ability to disseminate the outcomes of your research to those outside the discipline, and the negotiation of shared research outcomes from other disciplines in which you are not an expert.

Students, by contrast, especially Bachelor’s and Master’s students, have only just started to understand what their own field of study requires of them. When they do conduct their own research, it will often be unreliable, with mistakes and lack of analysis. Attempts to present their research to others will often be unclear. These mistakes and insufficiencies are welcome as part of the learning process we expect from all our students – we would not want it otherwise. We want our students to leave their degree programs as practitioners in their own fields, with the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively with others. We are expected to provide students with the opportunity to develop communication, leadership and research skills, and to contribute effectively to a team when analyzing and solving problems. We need to be wary that the enthusiasm for interdisciplinarity does not detract from the necessary time and focus needed to develop disciplinary competence. Signaling to our students that they are ready for interdisciplinarity has the potential to breed false confidence, undermining the epistemic humility that is vital for science.

Importantly, interdisciplinarity is different from multidisciplinarity, which gives students multiple disciplinary perspectives when approaching a topic or question, and encourages the uptake of these perspectives to enhance the study of their own discipline. Some programs at our university already incorporate various disciplines, such as Organization Studies which is founded on a combination of disciplines including economics, psychology, and sociology. The inclusion of a new cross-School program or course in Digital Sciences will also be multidisciplinary. How these disciplines are combined is unique to each program of study, yet in the majority of cases, researchers working in a field that combines disciplines will specialize in only one of the contributing disciplines. For example, those working in the multidisciplinary field of Marketing will have trained individually in one discipline, such as psychology, economics, or data science. That these disciplines can come together as one field of research, or one program of study, is testament to how scientists collaborate with each other both in the classroom and in the (sometimes metaphorical) “lab”.

There is no question that multidisciplinarity should be promoted, and the strategic plan does mention this as an important educational focus. But this should not be at the expense of an excellent grounding in one’s own discipline or field of study. While it is valuable to teach students the skills necessary for interdisciplinary research – and we do this already as part of the Tilburg Educational Profile – this is not the same as, and should be kept distinct from, a questionable commitment to actually practicing interdisciplinarity in the classroom.

Interdisciplinary Research is Not Courageous Enough

Whilst interdisciplinary education is not safe enough, when it comes to research the call for interdisciplinarity may be too safe. If, as the strategic plan claims, even the nature of change is changing, then we are living in unprecedented times and our research will undoubtedly be affected by this. We will be expected to invent new ways to solve problems, find new problems that we do not yet expect, and be confronted with questions we could not yet predict. The good university will therefore be open to supporting research into new connections, themes and problems, and it is reassuring to see that Tilburg University’s strategic plan suggests that it will do just that. However, this suggestion of innovation seems to be strictly connected to interdisciplinarity, as if the interconnection and interrelation of disciplines in response to the topics chosen by certain funding institutions will be the answer to the unprecedented challenge science is facing in the midst of radical change.

Perhaps in response to these radical changes we also need a radical research strategy. As the philosopher Jacques Derrida has pointed out, “interdisciplinarity implies that you have given, identifiable competencies – say, a legal theorist, an architect, a philosopher, a literary critic – and that they work together on a specific, identifiable object. […] But when you discover a new object, an object that up until now has not been identified as such, or has no legitimacy in terms of academic fields, then you have to invent a new competency, a new type of research, a new discipline” (Derrida, 2021, pp. 7-8). What Derrida highlights here is the limitations of interdisciplinarity in the face of unexpected change and uncertainty, being bound by known disciplines and identifiable problems. If we really are to expect the kind of uncertainty forwarded by the strategic plan, then we need to demand something more open and more flexible than the normalized buzzword of interdisciplinarity. For example, Tilburg’s strategy does outline the development of an emerging discipline – albeit one that has been emerging now for some time – that of the “digital sciences”. Labelling this as a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary research field does it a disservice, by limiting it to the questions, knowledge and skills that are bound to individual disciplines and already carved-out questions, instead of paving the way to foster new competencies in response to new themes and objects of study that are still yet to be found.

Rather than limiting ourselves to a call for interdisciplinarity, instead, we ought to be supporting our researchers to conduct outstanding work in their own disciplines, and providing the resources that enable innovation, communication, and collaboration with others. This collaboration should include not just researchers in other disciplines, but also for instance, corporate, social, artistic, and political partners, as is already suggested by the Strategy’s mention of collaboration with external public and private institutions. To facilitate this, researchers need to be given adequate and appropriate resources, starting with more time in the task allocation for collaborative research so that the collaboration does not become a superficial token or dilute already existing research projects. Furthermore, a commitment to “open science” is paramount to allow for effective communication between partners and the social impact of research (see NWO, 2022), but interestingly this is only mentioned once in the Strategy document. Importantly, how can we begin to cross disciplinary boundaries if our colleagues’ work is inaccessible? What we mean by “open science”, and how our university will commit to the principles that govern it, should be a priority for the university. In fact, a change of emphasis altogether, from interdisciplinarity to “open science”, is much more appropriate given the kind of open, innovative, and collaborative scientific response that is required of us in the face of radical uncertainty.

Conclusion: Epistemic Humility and Making “Good” Choices

In the strategy document, the Executive Board and Deans write that they want to make “good choices”, create the “right conditions” and ensure that “the right things happen”. This intention is of course reassuring, yet what counts as the “right” and “good” choices with regards to the implementation of social safety and interdisciplinarity are still questionable and ambiguous. However, given the nature of uncertainty, we can never be sure if we have made the right or good choice until the future moment has already arrived. We do not really know if the decisions we make now will end up being those that produce a “good” university because the conditions that make something good or right are also expected to continually change. For now, as we navigate through these “changing changes”, it is our epistemic humility – the acknowledgement and acceptance that our knowledge and capacity to make decisions are limited and fallible – that will keep us open to the unprecedented developments that are inevitably coming our way.

References

Abbott, Andrew. 2001. Chaos of Disciplines. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

Chang, Ruth. 2017. “Hard Choices.” Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 3 (1): 1-21.

Derrida, Jacques. 2021. Deconstruction in a Nutshell. Edited by John D. Caputo. New York: Fordham University Press.

Griffiths, Paul E. 2017. “Why the ‘interdisciplinary push in universities is actually a dangerous antidisciplinary trend.” Accessed August 2, 2022. https://theconversation.com/whythe-interdisciplinary-push-in-universities-is-actually-a-dangerous-antidisciplinarytrend-175511.

MacLeod, M. 2018. “What makes interdisciplinarity difficult? Some consequences of domain specificity in interdisciplinary practice.” Synthese, 195: 697–720.

NWO. 2022. “Open Science.” Accessed August 2, 2022. https://www.nwo.nl/en/open-science.

OED Online. 2022. “inclusion, n.” Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed August 2, 2022. https://www-oed-com.tilburguniversity.idm.oclc.org/view/ Entry/93579?redirectedFrom=inclusion.

OED Online. 2022. “safety, n.” Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed August 2, 2022. https://www-oed-com.tilburguniversity.idm.oclc.org/view/ Entry/169687?rskey=teENTR&result=1&isAdvanced=false.

OED Online. 2022. “sustainable, adj.” Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed August 2, 2022. https://www-oed-com.tilburguniversity.idm.oclc.org/view/ Entry/195210?redirectedFrom=sustainable&.

Szostak, Rick. 2017. “Why we should not ignore interdisciplinarity’s critics.” Accessed August 2, 2022. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2017/12/07/why-we-should-not-ignoreinterdisciplinaritys-critics/.

Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences. 2022. Shaping our Future Society Together: Strategy 2022-2027.

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