academy · best laid plans · change · ideas for change · research · slow academy · writing

Interdisciplinary? Phooey.

Hey! It’s another post about research! Because I’m on sabbatical!

I’m worried about interdisciplinarity. Mostly that we seem to think that interdisciplinary curricula are great for our undergraduate and sometimes our graduate students, but not for professors who are serious scholars. I don’t know that we’re ready for interdisciplinary research, in the humanities / social sciences. At least, not if you want to publish in scholarly journals.

Because, I begin to suspect, “interdisciplinary” is derived from the Latin for “has no home,” or “you are always a dilettante in someone’s discipline,” or “this journal doesn’t publish that kind of work.” Sometimes, when journals and conferences vaunt their interdisciplinary, they mean that they’ll accept papers from sociology OR communications studies, or that they’re willing to seriously consider work from either the British OR the North American cultural studies traditions. But God help you if you want to do … computer science and poetry, say. Unless you start your own journal.

I won my SSHRC Standard Research Grant last year having been adjudicated by the interdisciplinary committee, to which I had to petition exactly why said work was in fact interdisciplinary. Since I’ve dropped my canoe into that stream, I’ve had my happiest times and my worst, the best opportunities and the most stinging rejections. I’m tired. I thought “interdisciplinary” was the adjective of the future! What happened?

I don’t mind reading twice as much background research, theoretical texts, etc for about half the publication frequency. I am so excited to be reading so many fascinating ideas from so many different fields. It’s a privilege and drawing connections between all these disparate things is a joy. There are problems in the world that I want to solve, and I think I’m on my way to at least understanding what I don’t know. I love the research, the writing, the thinking. I don’t mind that kind of hard work.

What I do mind is being told I can’t use the word significant (to mean, “meaningful”) in an “interdisciplinary” new media studies journal because my data are not statistically significant. I mind when a social science reviewer from an “interdisciplinary” feminist journal tells me that close reading is “not a methodology.” I mind when literary journals tell me that material about the internet is irrelevant to their interests. I mind when digital humanities events tell me a historical take on programming is “not even interesting to this organization.” What I really mind is the underlying implication: It’s not that I’m not doing something well, it’s that they’re saying it shouldn’t be done at all. If you can’t frame a research question legibly in terms of one discipline, there’s no sense in even trying to answer it, is the implication.

And I don’t like that view of the world, either inside the academy or out of it.

I love working in my discipline, English. I love my training in English and what it has taught me to do. But my questions extend beyond the edges of English, and I don’t quite know how to get where I’m going, or even how to convince anyone that the journey might be worth taking.

Disciplines are a powerful generator of knowledge. But they’re limiting, too: the more expert you become, the fewer and fewer people can actually make sense of or employ what you create. What’s the right balance? I’m really wondering, I am! I know this sounds complain-y, like “Wah! Peer reviewers hurt my feelings!” but it’s not that, really (I mean, I got my SSHRC, and so far, knock wood, all my writing has eventually found a home). I am really wondering: what mix of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity offers the right balance between peer-reviewable excellence, and moving the ball forward in the academy and outside of it?

5 thoughts on “Interdisciplinary? Phooey.

  1. This is an excellent and timely post.

    It works both ways, of course. There is (sometimes warranted) suspicion in the disciplines about interdisciplinary work because if something falls between X and Y, the X-ers might leave your talk saying “well, maybe it's good Y” and vice-versa. The talk about disciplines as guardians of standards is not completely unfounded.

    The only solutions that come to mind for me are ones that have their drawbacks. For people being evaluated in a department, you should have committees with various sorts of expertise doing the evaluations, in part so evaluators don't fall prey to expecting everybody's research profile to look like their own (“where are the books!”). Maybe interdisciplinary journals not only need to have referees from different fields for each submission, but need to have the referees see what the other ref says, too, before their reports go out.

    Just what we need, right? Something that generates more service work.


  2. @ddvd, I like your idea of the referees conferring. I've just sent one piece out three times before getting a revise and resubmit for which I am eternally grateful. In each case, reviewer A **loved** the work and everything about–the research, the original idea, the context, the methodology. And in each case, seriously THREE TIMES, reviewer B hated exactly what reviewer A loved. The first two journals sided with “hate” and the third journals opted to publish, but asked me to respond to “both” reviewers. That's really hard to do when they disagree so fundamentally.

    You're absolutely right that disciplines have their methods and standards for a reason, and it's a good reason. And this gets played out in journals, particularly. One colleague has suggested to me that I'll have a way easier time placing my interdisciplinary book than placing individual articles, because peer review is more holistic and case-by-case at the book level. We'll see.


  3. Even as an incoming PhD candidate I can relate. I had one paper rejected three times. The first time was for an anthology and although the editors thought the paper was strong, it was not a good fit for the direction they wanted to go in with the collection, and I was advised to look at women's studies journals. I did some research, and chose a women's studies journal. They took 6 months to tell me that although they enjoyed the paper it was not a good fit for their journal. So I tried a film studies journal only to get bizarre feedback. I'm not the sort of person to ignore reviewer suggestions (I've had to hack, slash, and rewrite for a paper I was advised to revise and resubmit, so I embrace the reality) but the reviewers objected to a close textual reading of a film, and using only two examples. I was supposed to review an entire genre and not do close readings of any films. So clearly, not the right journal. But the question remains–where does it fit, then? If it is a good paper, and reviewers or editors like it, why is it, so far, unpublishable? I decided to reuse half of my material in condensed format for a conference paper so I could get some feedback and possibly advice for publication. But I definitely feel the strain of interdisciplinarity in publishing practice.


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