[Humanist] 23.324 claiming interdisciplinarity

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Sep 28 07:27:20 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 324.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 27 Sep 2009 10:08:03 -0300
        From: Richard Cunningham <richard.cunningham at acadiau.ca>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.322 claiming interdisciplinarity


I'd like to use Sterling Fluharty's thoughtful response to your  
invitation to think about interdisciplinarity, Willard, as an  
opportunity to enter into the conversation, but with a bit of  
trepidation because I fear I'll really simply be venting my  
frustration toward a particularly obstreperous colleague.

Sterling asks "Will some digital humanists obtain an additional degree  
in computer science and join truly interdisciplinary teams?"  and "At  
what point will traditional humanists feel threatened by the new  
methodologies and new kinds of knowledge coming out of the best work  
in the digital humanities?"

I'm a little envious of those who have not already encountered people  
representative of the second question, and am sceptical of the value  
implied by the first half of the first question.  Gerry Coulter is  
right, I think, in calling attention to "discipline" as it functions  
in the development of academic researchers, teachers, scholars.  The  
point of any practice is surely to embed it to the level of pseudo- 
instinct in her or him who practices, so that she or he will respond  
to any situation (new knowledge, in the case of academia) in a manner  
that conforms with best practice.  Swerving to avoid an object on the  
road, for example, rather than hammering the breaks and causing a pile- 
up.  In an academic example, when the English scholar encounters a law  
text, she or he reads it in accordance with the way she or he has been  
disciplined to read texts.  A lawyer will read the same text in  
accordance with her or his disciplinary practice, and the two are  
distinct.  Thus, the English scholar who claims to be  
interdisciplinary because she or he reads texts usually read within  
another discipline is exactly the person Richard Brook suggested needs  
to take a long hard look at her- or himself.

I think "join[ing] truly interdisciplinary teams"  is the only  
legitimate way to work in an interdisciplinary fashion.  The  
discipline into which one's ways of thinking are made to conform will  
always trump other ways of thinking about whatever content one  
approaches, won't they?  So as a single thoughtful entity I can  
approach a problem as a philosopher or as a historian, as an English  
scholar or an archivist, etc., but the best an individual will be able  
to do is to inform her or his primary mode of thought, primary  
discipline, with secondary influences from another.  Surely it will  
require a computer scientist to argue forcefully in favour of that  
disciplinary perspective in the face of the English scholar's  
disciplinary perspective, and vice versa, to produce a result that is  
equitably informed by both disciplines.

We ought not fool ourselves into believing that since we have obtained  
an additional degree we our now able to split ourselves into two  
sufficiently independent entities to produce genuinely  
interdisciplinary work.  I think the team, made up of individuals who  
swerve instinctively toward the computer science solution rather than  
the anthropological solution, etc., is a basic requirement of any work  
to be considered interdisciplinary.


Acadia University

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