academy · research

Clarity for interdisciplinarity

Do you know anyone who doesn’t do interdisciplinary research? I don’t, but my acquaintance may be self-selective. As the buzz-word of at least the last decade, interdisciplinarity should be not only supported, but built-in at every level. If that’s the truth of your situation, I envy you, because in my world, I have to pragmatically acknowledge the barriers every single day, and take strategic decisions. Far from an idealized goal, interdisciplinarity constitutes many academics’ lived reality, yet research infrastructure still clings to the old disciplinary boundaries. For better or for worse. I think we should do more to explain our disciplinary assumptions, and to bring down those boundaries through clarity. You know, not in a “but I do important work, too,” defensive manner, but by doing what we know best: education.

The Better: Publication Expectations
Sometimes those boundaries are put in place to protect, rather than hinder academics. Case in point: publication output when it comes to funding. We all know that nowadays, *cough, cough* quantity rules. However, expectations regarding quantity differ wildly from one discipline to another. I follow people on Twitter who seem to be submitting another article every fortnight. In English, publishing the equivalent of one peer-reviewed article a year is the unspoken norm or median. Sure, there are exceptionally productive people whose output makes everyone else wonder about that person’s brush with divinity or his/her sleeping allotment. There are also people who publish less. And even though I’ve put this topic under the header of the “better,” there is a problem with the secrecy and disavowal of actual “expectations.” I’ve gone out on a limb to say this is the expectation, but it is a tacit one that I’ve heard of spoken in hushed tones in the hallways. No one, in my experience, puts it in the English Graduate Studies manual, unfortunately. This lack of transparency contributes to the culture of anxiety and fear, that ultimately works in favour of the neoliberal system by pitting us against one another. Clarity, people, clarity!

The Better: Methodologies
You do what? And you call it research? Well, fortunately, nobody has said anything like that to my face, but, especially for the humanities, our methodologies may seem rather murky to outsiders, and, dare I say it, even to ourselves. I don’t want to generalize, but I do wish we’d be more clear on what methodologies we work with, and how and why they are as rigorous as empirical studies. For our benefit as well as of people unfamiliar with scholarly practice, this is the best time to explain ourselves in a clear way. Start from scratch and lay out assumptions. You know, like we do in our introductory courses. If politicians or the general public seem to be at a loss as to what we research and how we do it, why don’t we educate them? Strike two for clarity.

For Worse: Lack of mobility
We can view these categories used to create benchmarks and standards as a pharmakon or, to make correct gramatical agreement, pharmaka. The same criteria that make one’s fellow discipline-dwellers acknowledge one’s research profile hinders others from conferring the validating nod. In the absence of clarity and education, someone from the social sciences would read even a prolific English Literature researcher’s CV as a study in slackerdom. You’ve published how much? And you’re still employed? By a university?

I know we *know* these issues. They’re part of the mythology of the university, right? The problem is with who “we” are. Academics become enraged, and with good reason, when political posturing targets them, with dire material results–as in stringent budget cuts–or when bureaucrats decide how research “excellence” is to be judged, more often quantitatively than not. So, can we find a way to educate the general public on what our standards are? Can we do more outreach? Can we bridge the gap that “inter-” leaves? What do you think?

What are your personal experience with interdisciplinarity and what do you think should be done about the obstacles?

2 thoughts on “Clarity for interdisciplinarity

  1. This is a very good, very practical post. I think clarity is so important. It would relieve a lot of anxiety if we did have a clear knowledge about publishing expectations. I was going to go into a long application of Heidegger's anxiety versus fear, but I will spare you that. . . instead, I think that people are more anxious because of the lack of clarity. Even knowing what the expectations are will not completely allay all fears because those expectations are high and can still be arbitrary. But some clear approximation would be helpful.

    As for methodologies. . . well, that is a problem that crops up for me across disciplines (I work primarily in English literature, but I also publish and research in social sciences/communication studies). Sometimes the methodology does seem a bit blurry and peer-reviewers want that to be clear. I've now established a habit of setting that up near the beginning of any paper I write. I'm also working on developing a methodology for approaching letters in lifewriting. But, like you mentioned, one of the key issues will be convincing people outside of humanities, or even just within the larger sphere of social sciences, that our methodologies are just as applicable and academically rigorous.

    And yes, the issue of mobility, which I suppose is also a form of disciplinary translation, is also a problem. I have not yet met up with this particular issue, but I am still just a graduate student. Oh actually that came up with the 3MT competition, but I was too busy recovering from my severe stage fright to really grasp that issue.

    So I applaud you, Margrit, for calling it like it is, but are there any other solutions you or any of the other more experienced academics out there might propose?

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  2. Thanks, Stephanie, for your detailed response. We seem to reside across the same disciplines. I fear the more I advance in my research career, the more ossified I am expected to become. The euphemism is focus, but it feels constraining. On the flip side, there has to be academic rigour, of course, and you're right that obfuscation does nobody any good.

    I guess it's up to us to keep this conversation alive, and to stretch our disciplines to accommodate research that is both innovative and rigorous.

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