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The Trial and Triumphs of Interdisciplinarity
May 18, 2014 - 8:00pm

 

Graphic of road sign pointing to many pathsLiz Homan is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in English and Education at The University of Michigan. You can find her on Twitter at @lizhoman or on her blog, Gone DigitalThis post is adapted from a previous post on the Rackham Graduate School Blog, April 2014.

Interdisciplinarity is a hip thing these days. I can’t begin to count the number of interdisciplinary workshops, institutes, grants, and fellowships that have come across my email inbox or that I have applied for during my four years of graduate school. I even chose my graduate program because I wanted to work at the intersection of English and Education – and my program, a joint program, was quite literally the only program in the country that placed an equal emphasis on both. However, I have also struggled with interdisciplinarity and the ways in which it splits my attention across fields and conversations. Other GradHackers have offered tips on developing your own interdisciplinary thinking and reflected on the differences between fields and disciplines when it comes to job searching. Here, I reflect on some of the triumphs and trials of interdisciplinary work, and invite you to join in a conversation about the many ways in which “being interdisciplinary” challenges and benefits our academic thinking.

First, the Triumphs. My (and my field’s) love of interdisciplinarity has opened up a number of possibilities for my dissertation research and, I believe, made me a more creative and inquisitive researcher. My advisors, interdisciplinary thinkers themselves, have encouraged me to follow my interests wherever they may lead, and mine have led me into some unanticipated territory. As a lover of words, one might not have expected me to become a social network analyst, for example.

I have also come to appreciate interdisciplinarity through the lens of the natural sciences; my partner’s work lies at the crossroads of physics, biology, chemistry, and pharmacology. As one might imagine, conversations in our household often revolve around what it’s like to live in the academic middle-grounds, between-spaces, and intersections of fields and disciplines. To belong both everywhere and nowhere.

Then, the Trials. And ay, as Hamlet might say, there’s the rub. As I have moved through my program and am completing my fourth year of doctoral work, I have come to appreciate the very real trials that come with the many triumphs of existing in an interdisciplinary world. To begin with, it is difficult to belong everywhere and nowhere, all at once. I exaggerate, to be sure; I never belong “nowhere,” but there are certainly times when my identity feels “stretched” across multiple fields, demanding my attention in so many places that no one place ever gets full time and consideration. At conferences, which in my discipline often serve singular, fairly well-defined fields, I often feel “on the fringes” of popular conversations, not as well-versed in any one school of thought as some of my colleagues from other universities.

Along with these identity struggles come the very real difficulties of writing a mixed-methods dissertation examining teachers’ uses of digital technologies for professors whose areas of expertise span not only multiple fields, but major disciplines and methodological approaches. To use my own committee as an example, I have five members. They all bring valuable – and very unique – expertise to my particular project. One is a professor of educational measurement and quantitative methods, one is a professor of the Humanities in English and Women’s Studies, and yet another directs a writing center. A few live in a research world dominated by words and texts, while others have substantial experience analyzing and interpreting statistical trends. These differences in perspective of course mean differences in how each professor understands and responds to the design and implantation of my methods and the composition of my dissertation, among other things.

But interdisciplinarity, as a writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education points out, is not some radical move away from disciplinary thinking. Instead, Jacobs argues,

Successful interdisciplinary endeavors are thus transitional. Once they settle into maturity, they increasingly resemble the disciplines they sought to overthrow, at least in their organizational form. Promising new areas of inquiry should be nurtured whether or not they happen to cut across disciplinary lines. They should be encouraged because of their intellectual and practical promise—not because they are interdisciplinary.

“Interdisciplinarity,” then, is perhaps a fancy word for talking about areas of inquiry that force us to be creative in our design of studies, allowing our questions (not what feels comfortable and familiar) to drive us forward in our research and thinking.

As a graduate student only beginning to plant my proverbial flag in the vast landscape of academia, my program’s multi-disciplinary, multi-field, multi-methodological focus sometimes seems to complicate this process. It is as though I am stuck where New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah meet, and I just want to be a citizen of one state.

However, I would encourage future and current students in similar positions to remind themselves (as I often need to remind myself), how fortunate we are to benefit from the perspectives of individuals across fields and disciplines. Messy though this may sometimes feel, it also challenges us to consider how the work of individuals in fields vastly different from ours might inform our own research attitudes and epistemologies. Or to put it another way, even if I ultimately choose to live in Phoenix, I’ll know the quickest travel route to Denver.

What obstacles have you encountered in your interdisciplinary studies? And how have they shaped your growth as a scholar?

[Image by Pixabay.com user Nemo adapted and used under creative commons licensing.]

 

 

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