Academic culture, boundary-crossing and pop-up

Sini Mikkola

The cult of the temporary

In 2015, The Guardian published an article discussing the pop-up phenomenon, referring to it as a ‘cult of the temporary’. This phenomenon, increasingly adapted in our culture during the past decade or so, can be seen as one method for arranging various short-term activities and creating temporary spaces for both commercial and cultural events.

In academia, the method or culture of the pop-up has already been in use for some time – though under slightly different description, such as ‘ad hoc’. Particularly in planning and developing teaching and in administrative tasks, ad hoc working groups are constantly being created for innovating and carrying out various tasks. In research, however, the pop-up culture seems to be a less valid culture to implement – even though academic work nowadays is most often project-based, and thus based on temporariness. During their career, a scholar may lead separate and even unconnected projects, one after the other. At the same time, the temporary, project-based working culture in academia favours not only developing ever-new insights, but also the crossing of boundaries. This is evident particularly when we consult the strategies of the funders of research.

The Finnish Academy, one of the most notable funders of academic research in Finland, explicates: ‘We promote the impact and renewal of research by encouraging researchers to submit boundary-crossing funding plans that involve risks but are of high scientific quality’. Even more explicitly, the current strategy of the Kone Foundation, another notable funder, states: ‘We value multidisciplinary approaches and bringing together unexpected perspectives. Alternative viewpoints and the challenging of norms help us understand the world better. […] We encourage researchers and artists to cross the boundaries between art and research and between various areas within art and research – as well as across national borders’. Interdisciplinarity, among other factors, is thought to enhance the effects and impact of research in the scientific community and beyond academia.

For a scholar, especially a young one, the risk involved in the project culture – the crossing of boundaries and creating unexpected perspectives – may be a very personal one. As a result of the often extremely high expectations laid on scholars from the very beginning of their career, they learn to perform in ways which live up to these expectations. Thereby, the planning of research may not be guided by the genuine interests and outlook for career advancement of the researchers themselves, but rather by those of others, such as project leaders and funders. (For reference for the thoughts in this chapter and more on the risks of interdisciplinarity for young researchers, see Dr Mona Mannevuo’s blog post.) 

Crossing boundaries between past and present, east and west

Whereas jumping from one project to another is the norm for the vast majority of young scholars, a small minority work in permanent positions as lecturers or have hopes of professorships after their tenure tracks. I belong to this smaller group since, despite being a young scholar, I work as a university lecturer in church history at the UEF. In this position, far-reaching research plans can be made without having to worry, for example, about funding. However, the time available to be used on factual research is, in practice, very limited. Despite this, the pressure to get a certain amount of research published every academic year is constantly present. In these conditions, I have noticed that joint research, even if executed in a pop-up style, is one interesting and fruitful way to get research done.

During the last two years, I – as a historian – have been reorienting my research towards the present, mainly due to the explosion of the Covid-19 pandemic. From the very beginning of the pandemic, I felt curious about how the Lutheran parishes would arrange their services, and especially celebrate the Eucharist, during these exceptional times. After discussing these interests with my colleagues from different disciplines in informal coffee table discussions, I learned that several of them had thought of similar issues and were interested in doing research together. Interdisciplinarity as such was familiar to me, since I had previously combined theories and methods of, for example, gender studies and systematic theology with church historical research (as in my doctoral thesis on the sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther’s anthropology), but I had no experience of working in an interdisciplinary group. Also, the step from the Reformation Era to this day was a rather big one to take. I have summarised some of the feelings that arose during the research process in a post published in Finnish on Akatemian jalkaväki’s blog.

Together with my colleagues from the fields of practical theology, Orthodox theology, and social sciences, we ended up forming not one but several pop-up research groups that have conducted questionnaires, written articles and applied for funding. Some research outputs have been published (in Finnish, like this article on communality during the pandemic in the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCF) and the Orthodox Church of Finland, or this article on the experiences of vicars of Eucharistic services in the ELCF), while others are yet to be published.

Pop-up research based on personal interests and existing collegiality

In the collection, Controversies and Interdisciplinarity: Beyond Disciplinary Fragmentation for a New Knowledge Model (2020),it is noted that the need for ‘real and sincere cooperation between experts from different disciplines’ is one of the key factors in investigating the complex phenomena and problems of today’s world. From the viewpoint of a historian, this notion can also be applied to investigations of the past. In the context of this writing, however, I would like to emphasise the phrase ‘real and sincere’. I believe it refers to the situation where interdisciplinary interests arise from the margins or on the fringes and are, thus, not rushed or otherwise compelled.

This is what happened in our pop-up research groups, which were created more by accident than design. I think we have had a fruitful opportunity to work together precisely because we had a shared curiosity that arose quite unexpectedly as the global situation changed. The already-existing academic relationships and collegiality, under the auspices of the School of Theology, have been vital. The crossing of boundaries has also been made possible by the working environment, which encourages boundary-crossing but does not compel it. As to whether our pop-up groups will transform into more long-term ones, this remains to be seen and depends on various factors. Even this short-term collaborative work and crossing of boundaries has, however, given me much food for thought for my further research and encouragement for using the collaborative method of the pop up in the future as well.

Dr Sini Mikkola is university lecturer in church history at the UEF. Her research interests include the Reformation era, Lutheran theology on the human being, gender history, Covid-19 and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland.