Advantages of the ‘Interdisciplinary Dilemma’

“You are very unique.”

“Yes, I’ve often been called the weird kid.”


This week I arrived in Malta for the second half of my Fulbright Schuman experience.  The Fulbright Schuman is a unique program because it is jointly supported by the U.S. Department of State and the European Commission. It is also one of the few Fulbright awards that requires its recipients to do empirical (that’s experience-based, for all you non-academics) and transnational work.  An applicant must present a topic that is of interest to both the US and EU and justify why they need to live in two member states to conduct the research.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also the type of program that attracts, and thankfully welcomes, interdisciplinary people like me.

If you know me, or have read my CV, you know that I have training in a variety of fields.  I hold degrees in language, history, and political science, but rather than this representing a set of unrelated and flighty interests, all these areas fit together, complement the other, and reinforce weaknesses.  It makes it very difficult to check a box that describes who you are and what you do.

This has presented some difficulties in my career.   Multidisciplinary people are praised for their ability to understand the inter-tangled perspectives of many actors and issues, but there’s also suspicion as to how much of an ‘expert’ they can be in any one of them.  [I am the first one to admit that interdisciplinary work needs a focus, by the way.]  However, there is a minority of actual support (in my experience) that sees interdisciplinarianism  as a desirable trait- events don’t fit into neat packages, organized by discipline, department, or theory.

Any institution with a bureaucracy relies on box-checking.  If you fall between those boxes or check more of them then necessary they don’t know what to do with you.  People like neat packages even though intellectually they know reality isn’t that simple.  Does this mean that we should abandon interdisciplinary work?  No.  Understand that there are people who do appreciate it, but it may take a bit longer to find them, and your niche among them. I know my niche, but I am still searching for that place.

Yet, dwelling in those “between-the-box niches” can be advantageous.  As a historian and political scientist who understands global governance and examines finance, data protection and privacy in the international economy and national security (whew),  I work among, with, in between disciplines, because my research topics lay among, with, and in between professional worlds.  I have to learn a different jargon to interact with politicians, the financial services, and the technology enthusiasts.

Needless to say, my time here has been extremely productive, but professionally I’ve never felt more in my element.

EU officials were incredibly generous with their views, and I found the business community to be similarly engaged.   I have been able to use my understanding of  interstate politics, law, finance, and IT extensively, but I have learned much as well.  It’s been wonderful to switch those pieces of my brain back and forth, to compare and contrast, to test and retest what I know and try to make all the pieces of the research puzzle fit.  (Incidentally, all of the pieces will never fit.)

A few weeks ago someone explained the role of academics from the perspective of these groups – they perceive us as nontoxic neutrals (my phrase).  Academics can bring up subjects that are considered taboo, and this is the role researchers are expected to play. Academics are expected to ask those questions and draw attention to known and unknown issues.  They make those subjects somehow more palatable by forcing commentary from the outside. Academics don’t have to consider their electorates, or the shareholders, they are outsiders without an agenda.

I consider myself one of those neutral catalysts, and my multidisciplinary training allows me to play this role from a variety of perspectives.  As part of the ones “without an agenda” I can gently prompt more discussions on topics that are too sensitive for members of several circles to engage, but conversations that even they believe are necessary to have – even if they don’t realize it themselves.  As I do, I learn from them, and I (hopefully) see how their interests conflict, or better yet, work together.  That’s what they want – research that engages them, that they can use, and is not divorced from their realities.

I began this entry with a comment received from more than a few of my interviewees, which was given and received as a compliment.  I’ll say what I’ve always said  – it’s good to be the weird kid.  There’s some great niches there.

The Fulbright Seminar

I spent last week traipsing around Belgium and a little bit of Luxembourg for the Fulbright EU Seminar that the Belgian Fulbright Commission organizes every year for all the Fulbrighters in Europe.  (You can find their blog about the week here.  It was a very steady schedule that I won’t go into below.)

It was an eclectic group since it included all the programs in Europe.  English Teaching Assistants just out of college, some with plans for the future, others exploring their options. Research students finishing their Masters or Ph.D.  And finally, the smallest group, the Scholars, who were pursing topics in their expert fields.  Although this group was diverse in age, experience, and knowledge – everyone was doing something interesting.

I learned about Swedish campaign finance, nanotechnology, immunology, the psychology of gaming, sustainable energy, education programs in Finland, working as a journalist, art houses in Berlin, Roma populations in Romania and Bulgaria, Hungarian foreign direct investment, Portuguese imperialism and culture, the EU’s efforts to harmonize university education standards, competition law, the Common Agricultural Policy,  slow food in Italy, researching the Spanish Revolution, clearing checks in Cyprus after the banking crisis…and more.

Experiencing this level of intellectual interaction is not common, even as I live in the world of academia. Those who were recent graduates or graduate students were the people you always pray you will get to teach in your classes.  The Scholars were true peers of intellect and support.  One of the first things I noticed, as someone who does not generally feel comfortable around groups of people I do not know, was the high level of comfort.  The knowledge that you were part of the Fulbright experience meant that everyone felt at ease. We jumped from conversation to conversation eager to discover what the next person was doing.

It was also, we quickly  learned, an opportunity to “geek out.”  I assure you, as a geek (and nerd) myself, I consider it an excellent thing indeed.  In short, it was an intellectual and geek safe zone.  No stone was left unturned – gaming, comics, music of all genres, old school technology, etc. etc.

Anyway, since many of them were unfamiliar with the European Union, the seminar’s main purpose was to get them to as many EU institutions as possible in 4 days.  I think only a few of us were experts in these areas, and I used the opportunity to make contacts for my research, which made it a very productive week.  However, even when I wasn’t talking about my work (believe me being “on” for 4 days can get tiring) it was a joy to speak with officials to get their views on a variety of subjects – off the record of course.

So highlights of the trip: (Photos can be found here on their Flicker stream.)

1) The reception at the residence of the US Ambassador to Belgium.   Beautiful house, great food, wonderful performance by a former Fulbrighter and his wife (piano and violin), and hilariously many of us swiped an official hand towel from the bathrooms because they were embossed with the State Department seal.  The consensus was that it was just “too cool” not to.  Don’t worry, we left plenty.

State Department Towel



2) Sitting in a hearing at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.  Imagine every court case being heard in multiple languages at the same time.  There are booths on both sides with translators narrating the proceedings and ear pieces for everyone in the audience.  Much of it was in German so I could follow pretty well.  There was the plaintiff, a German corporation, advocates from any state that might want to comment (Germany and France in this case) and the lawyer for the European Commission.  While I’m not going into the facts of the case, I will say that as a lawyer it’s important to listen well to questions from the bench – least you get a little smackdown.

Oh and the ECJ has a fantastic art collection.

3) Tie – NATO & the College of Europe in Bruges

I wish I could prove that I’ve been to NATO HQ but they confiscated our phones! After the presentations we had lunch there and I got to talk a little International Relations with a member of the Policy & Planning office.  The last time I was in a NATO facility it was at the now defunct CAOC in Eskisehir, Turkey, which was a great experience too.

The College of Europe trains future EU leaders and is a 9 month Masters program, in both French and English.  However, there are many students who attend that go to international careers in the pubic and private sector outside of Europe.   Prof. Marco Rimanelli, another Fulbright Schuman Scholar, gave a fantastic overview of transatlantic relations to the students (there was nothing but praise afterward), while I got to hang out a with faculty member, and former Fulbrighter,  Prof. Michelle Chang.

Next post: Living in Belgium and the Culture of Compromise


I’ve been in Belgium a few days now, but before I begin blogging about my experiences I want to explain how I started on this journey.

I learned about the Fulbright program when I was an undergraduate at The Ohio State University.  As a dual degree student in International Studies and German, I could take classes from a host of departments.  It was really a 700 level course called “United States National Security and the Cold War” that solidified my future as an Historian and International Political Economist.  I successfully convinced Dr. Beyerchen that I belonged in a class that was clearly designed for graduate students. There were 6 of us. I was the only female and the only undergraduate.  The reading list was extensive, as were the writing requirements, and I had no background what-so-ever in the topic.

I loved every minute of it.

I still have that syllabus somewhere.  It keeps company with a few others that have contributed to how I look at the world.  (Some of them will show up in later entries.)

There were many readings that ignited my passion for intertwining history and policy, a few come to mind here:

–        Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation, about his time at the State Department and the art of diplomacy that continue to intrigue me.  His comments about the birth of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization started my obsession with NATO and nuclear strategy.

–        Bruce Jentleson, Pipeline Politics, about US attempts to undermine the USSR’s oil production with embargoes on certain equipment.  Jentleson altered me to oil politics and the role that dual-use technology plays in national security and economics.  It was, without me realizing it at the time, the first book on Political Economy I had read (not the last!).

–        Richard J. Barnet, The Alliance, was a rich narrative of early post-World War Two reconstruction and how the US established itself as a ‘European power’ to create a bulwark against Communism.  This was an absolutely enjoyable read (with lengthy sections on Japan as well).

So what does this have to do with the Fulbright? I learned about it in this class and immediately knew I wanted to become a part of it. This was the era where Americans were forced to go beyond their borders in every way possible – economically, culturally, militarily, and socially — because they suddenly had a bigger role to play in global affairs.  Now, the US needed to be out there and engaged in the world.  This is the context and spirit in which William J. Fulbright conceived of the program. Fulbright sought to promote education and cultural exchange for understanding, which he knew might lead to the possibility of agreement.  This is still important, indeed today it is absolutely essential for healthy international relations. The character of America’s relationships may have changed, but they still rest (or should rest) on these principles.   Knowing the ‘other side’s’ view only makes you stronger in the long run.

Within the history of this program is the aim to contribute to the world and make it a better place, both when you are abroad and after you return home.

I know it sounds hokey, but most of us want to connect to something; we want to understand and better ourselves and those around us.  That class, and the Fulbright, struck a chord in me because I am that kind of person.  I try to present events and perspectives as accurately as possible in my work with the aim to suggest solutions and facilitate dialogue among many different and often conflicting groups.  I am constantly seeking different ways of doing that.  I want that other angle, that other piece that might provide a more complete picture of a problem in the hope that it might make a difference.  I’ve been given a rare opportunity to find more pieces as a Fulbright-Schuman Scholar.

William J. Fulbright’s vision involved the exchange of ideas and the hope of understanding.  He knew that within those processes there needed to be personal and shared experience.  He wanted to create a cadre of American educational and cultural ambassadors, and open the United States to people in other parts of the world who felt the same way.

To me, the Fulbright represents the optimism of exploration.  Of finding something new or rediscovering something forgotten.  That’s what experience is – discovery.

So let’s go.