A Fleeting Thought on Interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity is one of the enduring keywords of academia in the past decade. I’ve been hearing it praised for so long now and seeing so little actual evidence of it, that I’m beginning to think all the praise is simply wish-fulfillment. And like most wishes, the wisher probably wouldn’t know what to do with it if it ever came true.

In the humanities, the closest we come to interdisciplinarity is arranging a panel which brings together a literary scholar, a historian, and maybe an artist, all talking about something entirely different. But they’re all on the same panel. And that’s interdisciplinarity.

It seems to me that if interdisciplinarity is happening at all at the university level, it is in the sciences. Chemists, physicists, and biologists have a lot more to say to each other–and work to produce together–than we in the humanities will ever admit to ourselves.

I wonder, what true interdisciplinary projects could bring together scholars and researchers from different fields in the humanities? What would such a project look like?

KOAN: A professor of poststructuralist literary theory, 17th century Armenian history, and Greek epic poetry walk into a bar. The bartender looks at the three and says, what is this, some kind of joke?

3 thoughts on “A Fleeting Thought on Interdisciplinarity

  1. “In the humanities, the closest we come to interdisciplinarity is arranging a panel which brings together a literary scholar, a historian, and maybe an artist, all talking about something entirely different. But they?re all on the same panel. And that?s interdisciplinarity.”

    I disagree:

    http://nora.lis.uiuc.edu/

  2. Thanks for the comment, Matt. I admit that I’m overstating my case a bit. I wrote my initial post after sitting through a particularly painful “interdisciplinary” panel. What I really meant is that simply saying something is “interdisciplinary” doesn’t make it so.

    True interdisciplinarity doesn’t just happen. There needs to be a framework, a scaffolding that guides, structures, and encourages cross-pollination of ideas, methods, and resources. The Nora Project you mention is a great example of this. The Visible Knowledge Project, which I’ve been involved with since its inception over five years ago, is another example of interdisciplinary work (in this case, based on a common interest, the scholarship of teaching and learning in technology-enhanced environments).

    In both NORA and VKP the goal doesn’t seem to be interdisciplinarity for its own sake. Rather, there’s a larger vision at stake, and interdisciplinarity is one way to work towards it. This is a marked difference from seminars, conferences, and departments who use the word simply because it’s sexy and it turns on professors and university administrators.

  3. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for pointing me to the Visible Knowledge Project, which I hadn’t previously been aware of. I agree that interdisciplinarity is far easier to say than to achieve (or as Stanley Fish likes to say, “Being interdisciplinary is hard.”) What strikes me as unique about digital humanities research is that more often than not it *is* a venue for real interdisciplinarity precisely because the work is collaborative by nature.

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