Looking for an interdisciplinary world: lessons from Idea Fest 2013

It is a common trope of our times, whether in news or entertainment, that we live in an increasingly complex world. Problems require us to engage with multiple perspectives and different bodies of knowledge and to amalgamate these cohesively as much as possible. Despite how we decry that increasingly commercialized world of academia, where the imperative of paper production and research is hegemonic, there are plenty of signs of educators and institutions are encouraging connections between often disparate knowledge bodies. The University of Victoria’s Idea Fest (March 4–15) is one such laudable example.

When I think about knowledge and the difficulties that arise when trying to put together distinctive pieces of it, I often think of Michel Foucault. Foucault was a French philosopher and social theorist — among other things — who worked throughout the 1940s right up to his death from HIV/AIDS in 1984. One of the things that has consistently impressed me about Foucault is the sheer breadth of material that he was able to draw upon in his writings. Whether expounding the history of madness in Western psychiatric medicine or detailing his methods of philosophical inquiry, he consistently expressed a willingness to draw upon materials that are impressively varied — from long-forgotten texts of psychiatry to the great works of Western philosophy. He remains one of the most uplifted recent exemplars of studiousness and erudition, and he set a precedent for the way in which we all study and create in the modern age. The imperatives of knowledge today are both specific and broad; one needs to have a broad command of numerous bodies of knowledge, as well as specialization(s) in order to achieve success.

As a researcher, I was able to participate in one of the larger events of Idea Fest 2013, the Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Awards (JCURA) Fair. It was there that more than 100 student researchers presented on topics from inherited retinal degeneration to the history of the detective novel and its relationship to the position of women in Western society. For my part, I discussed my exploration of identity-creation in Canada and the European Union. I also had the opportunity to speak about cross-cultural learning from my time living in Bangladesh while on an internship through the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI). Here, I expressed that the possibilities of learning from someone, especially someone who comes from a perspective vastly different from your own, is best conducted through experience. When we get up close and personal and slip into the mindset of someone else, the potential is unlimited.

There were many other talks over the course of the two weeks, all of them exemplary. These included discussions of the relationship between Alzheimer’s disease and zombie stereotypes, as well as a talk on the ability of video games to create social change. Whether thinking about the future of Canadian healthcare or debating the relationship between settler states and indigenous peoples, it is clear that the university has a large supply of people engaged in contemporary issues who have a willingness to share this knowledge with others — in fact, they’re desperate to.

As Idea Fest 2013 came to a close, I was left to think about the nature of the knowledge that is produced every day at UVic. Do we take advantage of the opportunities to connect with this knowledge? I don’t think so. Opportunities like this past week give us that chance, but we needn’t think that breaking out of our comfortable academic bubble need happen only once a year: we should strive at all times to connect with the things that we’re unsure of. We need to talk to friends in different fields from ours; ask questions of professors and leaders in the many fields that UVic excels in; and most importantly, to engage with the unknowns that surround us every day. Whether we’re fighting for social justice or against climate change, or simply trying to understand the varied opinions around us, we owe it to ourselves and more importantly to the world to seek out as diverse a body of knowledge and experience as possible.

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