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7 Tips on Being Interdisciplinary
September 23, 2013 - 4:00am

picture of front door of 221 Baker StreetEmily VanBuren is a PhD student in History at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydvb or at her blog, dighistorienne.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887), John Watson meets Sherlock Holmes for the first time and struggles to figure out what it is that his new roommate does, exactly. He is not a medical student, Watson determines, but what exactly is he then? He studies Holmes’s chemical-stained fingers, his peculiar habits, and his eclectic interests, in search of a pattern that might help to identify the man’s vocation. Holmes appears fascinated by and knowledgeable about an astounding mixture of subjects. But the gaps in his knowledge are equally astonishing. “Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing,” Watson explains. He discovers, surprisingly, that Holmes knows absolutely nothing about Copernican Theory. “That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun,” Watson declares, “appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.”

Learning to be interdisciplinary during graduate school, in my experience, feels a lot like this initial encounter between Watson and Holmes. As an aspiring cultural historian with a home base in a history department, I’ve also found an interdisciplinary hub that allows me to seek coursework and mentoring in theatre and performance history.

And like Watson, I’ve found myself trying to figure out what it is that my colleagues in other fields do. In the first graduate seminar I took outside of my home department, I peered around at my classmates with a sense of unease. Drawn from programs like Theatre & Drama or Rhetoric & Public Culture, they asked questions about the reading that never occurred to me. They cited theorists I knew little or nothing about. And I wondered if I had made a serious mistake in assuming I could keep afloat in the course. Fortunately, I decided to stick it out, and had a very fulfilling experience. Now, I find myself venturing into that new discipline with increasing frequency.

Here are a few tips I’d offer to anyone considering branching into a new field:

1. Denaturalize your own thought processes. “It was easier to know it than to explain why I know it,” Holmes tells Watson. If you take a course outside of your department, you will encounter this frustrating realization all the time. Observations that appear obvious to you will be completely baffling to someone else, because of the differences in your respective disciplinary training. This can be very surprising. You might find yourself asserting, like Holmes, “But the reason is very obvious!” When these moments occur, you will need to take a page from the famed detective and step back and explain each of the small, concrete steps in your thought process. This will train you to think more critically and deliberately about your own assumptions.

2. Be prepared to speak up and ask very specific questions. If you are like me, you might feel like Watson in most of your interdisciplinary encounters, as you struggle to understand basic concepts that your new colleagues take for granted. When a colleague or professor from another field makes an “obvious” observation that doesn’t seem obvious to you, say so (politely, of course). Nothing will become clearer by quietly hoping you will catch on. Ask the person to guide you through their reasoning process. Identify the steps you don’t understand, and ask your colleague to explain them.

3. Approach your interactions with colleagues in other fields as part of your pedagogical training. Learning to convey complicated ideas to someone with different training than you is an important part of becoming an effective educator. You will need to explain intricate concepts to students who have not yet acquired specialization. Interdisciplinary work is good practice for this. Similarly, when fostering critical thinking among your students, you will need to identify the traps and missteps in their thought processes. Learning to pull apart someone else’s observations, as in an interdisciplinary seminar, can help you with this skill.

4. Use this experience to stock your “brain-attic.” “You see,” Holmes explains to Watson,

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like an empty little attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the best tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.”

A foray into a new discipline can help you to develop a versatile skill set that will give you an added boost during the dissertation process. Understand that you won’t be able to use (or even remember) every new theory or methodology that you come across within another field. Feel free to try them out and then either store or discard them. For me, that’s the fun of being interdisciplinary in the first place.

5. Look for the commonalities between fields that appear radically different. One of the most exciting feelings, for me, is realizing that my colleagues and I are essentially searching for the same answer by different paths. Or that we are interested in the same idea for very different reasons. Some of my favorite seminar discussions are generated in these moments. These conversations help me to think about my research, and my field, in new ways.

6. Build a mentoring network of both professors and peers. This is important, especially if you intend to pursue long-term research in more than one discipline. This can be something as small as attending the office hours of a professor from another department with a research question, or as significant as forming a dissertation committee of professors from several different fields. Getting feedback from people with diverse training will force you to confront questions in your research that you might never have thought of. Connecting with graduate students in other disciplines is another great way to do this. I get some of my best reading suggestions from colleagues outside of my department, and in exchange, I’m able to offer them recommendations derived from my own training.

7. Know that this will be a humbling experience. It can be discouraging to sit in a seminar and feel as though you are a step behind the rest of the group. Of course, trying anything new is difficult, but you will be throwing yourself into a group of people who are advanced enough in their field to get into graduate school. Understand that it is completely reasonable to feel silly or lost every now and then, and know that this sensation will go away with time. If you accept this reality going into the situation, you will be able to focus on being a better listener and learner, unburdened by a bruised ego. And take heart in the moments when the tables are turned, and you get to be the person explaining concepts from your own field to your colleagues from another discipline.

Branching into a new field probably won’t teach you to outsmart criminal masterminds, but it will equip you to ask more sophisticated questions and to make new connections between disparate pieces of evidence. Like the Baker Street detective, you will learn to notice things that are easily taken for granted owing to discipline-specific axioms and expectations. And if you stick with it, the gnawing worry that you will never be able to think like your colleagues in other fields will subside, because you will learn to pull apart the components of their thinking and yours, identifying similarities and differences. As Holmes tells Watson, “You know a conjurer gets no credit when once he has explained his trick; and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.”

Have you ever taken a course outside of your home department? Do you have experience in an interdisciplinary field? What advice can you share? What challenges have you faced?

[Photo of Sherlock Holmes Museum courtesy of Flickr user shining.darkness via Creative Commons license.]



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