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Participants evaluate the Intercontinental Academia

by Richard Meckien - published May 07, 2016 10:30 AM - - last modified Jun 04, 2019 11:33 AM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa.

The novelty of integrating an interdisciplinary activity in which a series of conferences and discussions should lead to the production of a concrete product was one of the main challenges of the Intercontinental Academia, according to the interactions of the participants in the evaluation panel of the project's second phase in Nagoya, on March 11.

The need to get used to 13 different academic languages, corresponding to the areas of expertise of the participants, has also been highlighted. However, the challenges are not obstacles to the gains that the project will offer, according to the researchers. Some of them said they have benefited from participating in the Intercontinental Academia since they have adopted a new approach with their students, seeking to incorporate the views of other areas to usual and new problems of their disciplines.

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The general expectation is that the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on "Time" and the documentary on the project let students, researchers and institutions intereseted in organizing and participating in similar interdisciplinary activities.

Several suggestions for the improvement of future editions of the Intercontinental Academia have been presented: the importance of achieving a greater balance of gender, areas of expertise and cultural representation, and the organization of joint activities for participants and senior researchers.

Eduardo Almeida, a professor at USP, said that the big issues, such as time, are very important for discussions and experiments like the Intercontinental Academia. "It is good to be relatively young, but when we are in our 30s we are a bit matured and end up losing the link with these major issues."

He also pointed out the convenience of a group of people with eclectic education and able to build bridges between them. Almeida believes that the philosophers are the best ones to play this role. He said he learned this in practice thanks to the interaction with the representative of the University of Turku, Finnish philosopher Valtteri Arstila, and two other members "with philosophical inclinations": neuroscientist André Cravo Mascioli, from UFABC, and architect and art historian Nikki Moore, from Rice University.


German oceanographer Marius Müller, a researcher in postdoctoral studies at USP, said that one of the results that he is already experiencing is to have started to deal with new issues with his students without leaving behind the view of other disciplines. Müller believes that the project stimulates thinking research as a process applicable to various fields, "something that natural scientists tend to forget given the emphasis on obtaining results in the academic world."

Biologist Norihito Nakamishi, from the Nagoya University, also said to have benefited in his teaching activities. "In my case, this is not a big increase for research, but it is a great contribution to my work as a professor."


Mathematician Adriano De Cezaro, from UFRGS, highlighted the communicational development of who takes part in such a project: "Here we have 13 different "languages" and to learn them is something extraordinary." Specialist in medieval narrative Eva von Contzen, from the Ruhr University of Bochum, also considers communication as one of the key ingredients of the Intercontinental Academia: "We learned to communicate with each other, to listen to other 'languages', not only from other disciplines, but also from other cultures."

What has let communication easier was the possibility of the researchers to spend a good time together, according to Arstila. For him, this has been the differential in relation to other interdisciplinary projects in which he participated and that have not been very successful.


Boris Roman Gibhardt, a researcher at the University of Bielefeld's Center for Interdisciplinary Research, said that the project's emphasis on interdisciplinarity is important but not enough. "We should have greater ambitions and concern ourselves with critical thinking, for example," he said. For him, the Intercontinental Academia is a great project, but not something that lasts: "In academic life there is not much interest in supporting interdisciplinarity, unless in specific projects. This is a problem. In the humanities, the disciplines were established in the early 19th century. We must question whether they are still updated. There will only be interdisciplinarity when disciplines are dissolved."

Interdisciplinarity is a challenge, but its perspective is important for researchers and students, according to Kazuhisa Takeda, from Waseda University, one of the project's supporters. He said he shared the experience of participating in the São Paulo workshop with his students and noticed how this approach is attractive to young people. "Maybe the young researchers will be able to continue this approach and attract new students to it in the future."

Academic reflections

Mediator of the panel, von Contzen said that the project presented two common problems in academic life: the disproportion between genders in the group with only two women among the 13 participants, and the tiering among researchers: juniors (participants) and seniors (coordinators and speakers).

Mascioli added two further aspects that have emulated the academic routine: many workshops instead of more time to work and the need for a final product. "But here we have the freedom to question these things, which does not happen in academia and in other experiences that I took part in."


On the other hand, Mascioli considers it important that the project has the production of a MOOC as practical activity, for "doing an introductory course is good in order to bring the discourse to an understandable level to everyone." Arstila also enhanced the production of the course as a way to create a commitment between the participants."

Helder Nakaya, from USP, said he supported the MOOC from the beginning, "not because it is something new, but because it is something modern and a good way to communicate, as well as a great exercise." Moreover, he believes that society deserves to have access to such a product in exchange of the "investment to be in extraordinary places with extraordinary people." He believes that the MOOC can encourage many young people to try to attend university.

Three other possible changes have been suggested during the panel: Moore proposed that in future editions each participant should have the opportunity to present a paper at the beginning, for everyone to know them better and for them to be questioned by senior researchers; Arstila said that perhaps the work would be more productive if the number of involved disciplines were minor; Nakaya suggested that the speakers are asked to make more accessible presentations to all researchers in all areas.


At the end of the panel, the interventions of the participants were commented by Till Roenneberg, Eliezer Rabinovici and Martin Grossmann, members of the Senior Committee, and by Carsten Dose, general secretary of the project.

Roenneberg expressed his admiration for the commitment of the participants and agreed that during the immersions in São Paulo and Nagoya, given the need to build the scientific background (workshops and conferences) for the production of the MOOC, there was little time left to work directly for the outcome. The difficulty, he said, is how to get time to do this work at the same time as the participants return to their normal academic activities.

The merit of the project, according to Rabinovici, has been to provide the participants with knowledge of quality and the possibility of creating a network. "I do not know how much the created links are strong and durable, but the possibility of them lasting a few years is valuable. The project to be developed (MOOC) may succeed or not, but it will work as a test for the participants."

He considered the gender imbalance a major problem to be solved in the future, but stressed how the process of selection of participants was hard. He admitted, however, that there could have been made additional efforts to more women to sign up."

Dose reported that the feedback from the participants of this first edition of the Intercontinental Academia and the first phase (in Jerusalem) of the ongoing second edition (on human dignity) will be an important part of the discussion at the UBIAS directors' meeting next June at the University of Birmingham.


He considered it curious that the participants have discussed almost every aspect of the project but the central theme: time. For him, this shows that the theme was an appropriate intellectual challenge to work with.

Dose wanted to know what alternative theme could have been chosen; something that considered one of the great problems of society, as some of the participants commented. He also asked about another outcome of the project: some of the participants wanted to create a website together, accessible to a wide audience.

De Cezaro said that few issues are as comprehensive as time. For him, discussing time in specific societies would be more appropriate, however, restrictive. Regarding the usefulness to society, he said it occurs in the form of pure knowledge.

Part of the group aims to develop a parallel project, according to von Contzen, who cited the established connections: "The idea is to make a website that functions as a platform for publishing content in various formats, including academia and art, addressing a different topic on each update, and produced by people linked to the UBIAS."

Grossmann said that since the beginning of the planning of the project, the idea was to invest in risk and that the only concern with regard to the selection of the 13 participants was the quality of their work. The challenge now, he said, is the continuation of the cooperation network between researchers. In this regard, "the creation of a joint website is great news."

Critical thinking

Grossmann asked Gibhardt to talk more about his advocacy of greater concern to produce critical thinking. The representative of the University of Bielefeld said that this is a special issue for the humanities: "They can contribute to the future of academia particularly through critical thinking. We should be more intellectual and try to develop ideas in different contexts, such as the political and the social ones. The development of the right ideas, and at the right places and the right times, would be more important than developing a MOOC, a book or something similar. My idea has to do with education, which is not a specific product. It is invisible. This is idealism, I know, but I think it is a matter of attitude."