Reflections on running an interdisciplinary project

Sep 29, 2023 | Risks to Youth and Studenthood in Digital Spaces, Transformations (Issue 10)

Image courtesy of Gerd Altmann (Pixaby)

An eye-opening journey into the digital world of youth

Professor Mariann Hardey (Marketing and Management)
Dr Rille Rapper (Education)

We are writing to share our experiences of running an IAS project entitled “Risk to Youth and Studenthood in Digital Spaces”. This project was an interdisciplinary collaboration, bringing together scholars from Education, Business, Sociology, Anthropology, Computer Science, Philosophy, and Psychology. We were fortunate to have several international experts as Fellows and advisors, including Professor Katrin Tiidenberg (Tallinn University), Professor Philippa Collin (University of Western Sydney) and Professor Robert Hassan (University of Melbourne).

As part of the project, we conducted a series of workshops and seminars, and we also carried out an empirical study of student influencers and their participation in image-rich and real-time digital spaces. We have learned a great deal from the experience of running an interdisciplinary project. Here are some of the key lessons we have taken away:

  • Understanding disciplinarity within an interdisciplinary project. Our approach in this project was to start early and to create an opportunity to discuss what different parties can bring to the project and what their interests are. The year leading up to the project start date, we held a number of meetings with Co-Is, and we also organised a few online meetings with the IAS Fellows. The core focus of these sessions was to explore how colleagues from very different (and often epistemologically opposing) disciplinary traditions understand digital technology and its place in our society. By doing this, it exposed us to a wealth of disciplinary expertise and conceptual lenses that supported us in thinking about students as young people on social media.
  • Creating structure for interdisciplinary synergies. Our project was structured around weekly sessions for PIs, Co-Is and Fellows to work together. We called these days as ‘Project Tuesdays’. Involving plenty of coffee and biscuits at the IAS common room, we dedicated each session to a particular theme, e.g. exploring theories of digital technology or discussing a topical research paper. Each session taught us how to articulate our own thinking and disciplinary biases and how to listen and engage with ideas from scholarly traditions we were less familiar with. Working with scholars from different disciplines was a truly eye-opening experience. We learned so much from each other’s perspectives, and we were able to come up with new and innovative ideas that would not have been possible if we had worked in isolation.
  • Adding interdisciplinarity to data analysis.One of the most memorable ‘Project Tuesdays’ involved a joint analysis of a selection of interview transcripts we had produced as part of the empirical project. It was astonishing to experience how colleagues from different traditions and disciplines read and understood the same interview transcript from a very different perspective. Being able to speak about these differences and explain our readings, it opened up new avenues for inductive and deductive thematic analysis. It also revealed several important biases we all have when working with empirical data.
  • The importance of communication and outreach.Once we had mastered the language of interdisciplinarity, we started to make a concerted effort to communicate our findings to a broader audience. We invited colleagues from professional services (e.g. from student support, policy and knowledge exchange) to join our Project Tuesdays and we reached out to colleges to run workshops for students and staff. This opened a further opportunity to consider how we communicate the significance of our research and the emerging findings to those who are primarily concerned with the impact of academic research. Our empirical study of student influencers gave us a unique insight into the digital world of youth. We learned about the challenges and opportunities that young people face in these spaces, and we were able to identify some of the key factors that contribute to risk and resilience.
  • The value of diversity: Our project team was made up of people from all over the world, with different backgrounds and experiences. This diversity was essential to our success. It allowed us to see the world from different perspectives, and it helped us to develop a more nuanced understanding of the risks and opportunities associated with digital spaces.

We are grateful for the opportunity to have worked on this project. It has been an enriching and rewarding experience, and we have learned a great deal. We hope that our findings will be of interest to other scholars and practitioners who are working to understand the risks and opportunities associated with digital spaces. Furthermore, it is fair to say that we have finally understood what it means to do a truly interdisciplinary work.

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