Food for Thought: reflections on interdisciplinarity

Jan 9, 2024 | Fellows, Interdisciplinarity, Projects, Transformations (Issue 11)

Food for Thought: reflections on interdisciplinarity

Image courtesy of iStock

At the IAS, interdisciplinary conversations are part of our daily practice. We welcome and encourage project teams, IAS Fellows and Associate Fellows, Durham academics and students to engage with big societal and research problems that could all benefit from interdisciplinary thinking and collaborations. Our IAS Common Room, weekly seminars and evening lectures are the shared places to hold these conversations.

We invited a few of our recent IAS Fellows to reflect on what interdisciplinary research means to them. Below are some thought-provoking reflections from Professor Denise McCoskey (Miami University), Professor Tong King Lee (University of Hong Kong) and Dr Adam Gordon (University of Albany) who reflect on their challenges and successes with interdisciplinarity within and beyond their visit to the IAS.

Denise McCoskey, Professor of Classics and Affiliate in Black World Studies, Miami University

Image courtesy of Michele Allan, Durham University

Although I was trained fairly conventionally as a classical scholar, I was fortunate while in graduate school in the 1990s to became part of an interdisciplinary group of graduate students who were dedicated to the study of race.  While the passion and intellectual commitments of these friends—as well as their not-so-delicate prodding—fuelled in me a desire to learn more about race in the ancient world, I soon realised that the field of classics was unequipped to take on the topic, and was indeed often overtly resistant to it.

Retreating back to the questions I had been trained to ask was not an option, but for much of my time as a junior scholar, interdisciplinarity was defined first and foremost by struggle, not just the struggle to find time to learn more about how other fields thought about race, but also the struggle to defend interdisciplinary work to both colleagues and administrators, especially when its goals did not fit easily into the designated assessment criteria.

Given that experience, what has been perhaps most remarkable about my time at the IAS is the way the value of interdisciplinarity has been taken for granted, meaning that from our first day here we were encouraged to imagine the possibilities of interdisciplinarity rather than anticipating the obstructions. In profound ways, this succeeded in challenging our understanding of our own disciplines as well as our intellectual networks more broadly—who might be interested in our work and whose input, conversely, could help deepen our thinking and advance it in unexpected ways.

Thus, while the time to pursue new ideas has been invaluable, affiliation with the IAS has brought me, even more, a much-needed opportunity for openness and connection.  I have had the pleasure of meeting new and unexpected colleagues at the IAS and Durham more broadly; among my cohort itself everyone is pursuing the study of human life from very different perspectives—whether questioning origins, structures of political order, disorder and punishment, modes of storytelling, or ways of finding expression in and across diverse languages and technologies. By putting us together so often in formal and unformal settings, the IAS assumed that we would have a lot to say to one another and a lot to learn from one another, and, of course, we did and we do.

While it is still too early to tell how our cohort will be marked by our time together, I can say that it has already brought me renewed energy and purpose; it has reminded me that collaboration and conversation—and curiosity above all—are practices that remain imperative to any attempt to step beyond disciplinary boundaries and, in doing so, to both enhance and unsettle the ways we have been taught to think. And while interdisciplinarity has at times felt like a struggle, my time at the IAS has proven that there are ever-growing circles of colleagues and now friends who are ready to join in and provide support and inspiration along the way.

Tong King Lee, Professor of Language and Communication, School of English, University of Hong Kong

Image courtesy of Michele Allan, Durham University

Interdisciplinarity means allowing for serendipities to happen in the course of one’s research. Very often we are consciously or subconsciously bound by the labels that define our field of study: ‘I am a linguist, you are an economist, she is a classicist’, etc. These labels are discursive and institutional constructs, but they can have very real effects on our psyche and, by extension, our research potential. If we treat disciplinary labels too seriously, our minds will filter out sources of information or inspiration coming from fields which are prima facie unrelated to us. If you are anxious that you have nothing ‘new’ to say in your next article even after you have exhausted all the sources in your bibliography, the best solution is probably not to read another twenty articles written around the same keywords. You should rather be talking about your work with a friend or colleague from a completely different discipline without any preconception as to the outcome of that conversation. It is within this sort of conversation that what I call research ‘triggers’ or ‘hooks; will spring up serendipitously out of nowhere and give you a useful lead.

Of course, interdisciplinarity can also be pursued in a much more concerted and systematic way, for instance, by way of organising workshops and symposiums with participants from different academic backgrounds. Personally, however, I prefer interdisciplinarity to emerge by in unexpected ways through reading widely and conversing with people across different fields, all the while keeping an open mind. For me, this means sitting around in Waterstones, and picking up any book that catches my eye and reading a couple of pages here and there without expecting to find anything. Often, I am surprised how such random bits and bytes of reading can be recalled at a later stage of my research, synergising with what I already know to blossom into a new idea. Open-mindedness is key, at least in the beginning stages of any research. For if we put on a disciplinary lens on the outset, it would be very difficult to capture serendipitous moments which may prove value-adding to the eventual outcome of our research.

Adam Gordon, Associate Professor of Anthropology. University at Albany, State University of New York

Image courtesy of Michelle Alan, Durham University

Biological anthropology is interdisciplinary by nature, or at least it is a field where one would need to work at avoiding interdisciplinarity. As a PhD student, my cohort and I took courses in behavioural and evolutionary ecology, primate anatomy and functional morphology, palaeontology, sedimentary geology, and the other subfields of anthropology which draw on the humanities and the physical and social sciences. A subtle undercurrent running through it all was learning about the history of our discipline through the mechanism of discussing articles on the debates of the day that referenced the debates of previous generations. And while the specifics of our coursework were particular to our university, the general structure was (and still is) a common model for PhD programs in biological anthropology across the U.S.

The point was not for each of us to become expert in all of those fields – we each became expert in different areas – but rather to understand how those various disciplines could inform (separately and collectively) on the research questions that we were individually interested in. As graduate students, we would regularly have informal hangouts where we would bring our developing bodies of knowledge and expertise in different fields to bear on problems that each of us were chewing on in our own work. Those conversations with my fellow students were some of the most productive I had in graduate school (and after!) in terms of generating new ideas and new perspectives for investigating interesting questions. Those conversations, the various articles that we read and the discussions we had in seminars across multiple disciplines, and the collaborative efforts that grew out of them, highlighted a few points for me that remain critical to my understanding of interdisciplinarity today:

  1. It is important to establish clarity on what specific terms and concepts mean in different disciplines. Many fields use the same words to mean slightly or wildly different things, even when those fields are closely cognate. This can cause serious misunderstandings if not addressed early on.
  2. Interdisciplinary work presents an opportunity – and in my view, an obligation – to learn something about new fields, but I shouldn’t expect to become an expert in a new field in short order. I need to trust that my colleagues know their disciplines and to rely on their expertise.
  3. There is the potential to develop truly innovative new approaches to existing questions through interdisciplinarity, but many (most?) such efforts may not produce anything in the short term – and that’s okay. As in anything else, failure is instructive, and there are likely to be longer-term positive consequences of engaging in a ‘failed’ interdisciplinary effort that are not immediately obvious today.

In my own career, I have chosen to engage in collaborations across multiple fields. In line with my third point above, they have not always resulted in publications or other tangible products. But I believe that the resulting gaps in my publication record are more than made up for by the richness of perspective that I have gained which I bring to subsequent endeavours.  And it is just a fun way to work.

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