[Humanist] 32.56 when do we stop

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed May 30 07:46:23 CEST 2018

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 56.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Jan Rybicki <jkrybicki at gmail.com>                         (76)
        Subject: RE:  32.51 when do we stop

  [2]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (29)
        Subject: being selective

        Date: Tue, 29 May 2018 10:06:43 +0200
        From: Jan Rybicki <jkrybicki at gmail.com>
        Subject: RE:  32.51 when do we stop
        In-Reply-To: <20180529053613.E66C417FC at s16382816.onlinehome-server.info>

Dear Willard and Manfred,

As my two gurus (is gurau the correct dual form in Sanskrit?) you will need to bear my own take on the subject.

A few years ago we applied for a big fat national Polish grant; its call was for an interdisciplinary project. My nuclear physicist friends who led the proposal invited us stylometrists, musicologists, physicians, economists and a few other -ists to prepare a cross-disciplinary study of complex systems in all our fields. We almost got the grant. In the final tally, we were the top ones who didn’t get funded. But the stated reason was: nah, too interdisciplinary.

The sad fact is that while interdisciplinarity is preached from all kinds of pulpits (especially humanist ones), it is then stabbed to death in the murky corridors of the academia. This not only happens to that unpleasant bastard child, the digital humanities, but even such seemingly well-born fields as translation studies, which, in many academic systems, often serve as hot potatoes thrown around between literary, linguistic or cultural studies departments. All the while it should be their beloved and joint trans-discipline. 

But enough ranting. I’ve just participated in a panel on a book that is a result of another grant project where an Italianist, a translation scholar and a stylometrist (moi) collaborated on the language of historical films and TV series and their translations between English, Italian and Polish: quite a number of variables in this equation, right? The panel was surprisingly well attended, also by people we have failed to include in our original proposal: the film studies crowd, who were quite enthusiastic about our very un-film-studies approach to the question. They've already bought the book! (Bad news: the book is in Polish).

That is not all. My old partner-in-crime Maciej Eder is now part of a project where chemists (the people who do chemistry, not the people who work in drugstores) approach chemical compounds as linguistic units. Isn’t that fun? You can come hear him talk about that on the last day of DH2018. In this way, stylometry gives something back to chemistry, since I am indebted to 3D visualization software developed by chemists to visualize my own distant readings of texts.

And perhaps this is how we can survive in the above-mentioned murky corridors.

Jan Rybicki

> From: Humanist Discussion Group
> Sent: Tuesday, May 29, 2018 07:57
> To: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
> Subject: [Humanist] 32.51 when do we stop

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 51.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 28 May 2018 09:46:24 +0200
        From: Manfred Thaller <manfred.thaller at uni-koeln.de>
        Subject: Re:  32.44 when do we stop?
        In-Reply-To: <20180525060758.680FC1589 at s16382816.onlinehome-server.info>

Dear Willard,

Am 25.05.2018 um 08:07 schrieb Humanist Discussion Group:
> how to persuade those in fields more constrained than mine
> that I'm saying anything at all.

it took me some time to think how to answer that, expressing my opinion, 
without spreading a flavour of pessimism, which I actually do NOT have.

I think (and that is, what might delude one into feeling of pessimism) 
that all superficial surface declarations not withstanding, the general 
interest in "interdisciplinarity", leave alone transdisciplinarity, is 
actually NOT particularly developed.

What the overwhelming majority of interdisciplinary projects I am aware 
of strive to accomplish, is to borrow some concept, method (or in the IT 
domain) tool from another discipline to solve a problem in your own 
discipline. Time being finite, preferably without having to learn 
anything about the other discipline, which is not immediately relevant 
to the loan you are going to make. (That is also the reason, why 
"interdisciplinary cooperation", where a scholar of discipline "A" 
assigns the work to be done in discipline "B" to a scholar active in 
that other discipline, is so immensely popular. It has the big 
advantage, that scholar "A" does not have to learn anything new.)

Let me stress, that I do NOT want to sound (or be read as) derogatory. I 
am fully aware, that time is finite and it IS a hard decision, to learn 
something new, where it is not immediately clear how it will be useful, 
while all those deadlines in your home discipline loom.

In my opinion, "interdisciplinarity" starts only, if you are taking an 
interest in a question of another discipline, because you find that 
question intriguing, NOT because you think, it could enhance your 
understanding of the question in your own discipline you have started 
from. And that is rare enough. (Even if the scholars of that other 
discipline are usually very welcoming (at least as long as they do not 
recognize competition for their traditional funding :=) ), being 
flattered about the unexpected interest from the outside.)

"That is rare enough": Formulated as it is, because I think, what you 
strive for is going beyond that. What you try to achieve, is not an 
interest in questions from two (or more disciplines), but of questions, 
which can only be recognized as such, when you have both sides in view. 
A.k.a. as "transdisciplinarity". And this is very dangerous ground. Peer 
reviewers of one discipline only notice what is missing from their own 
background, not understanding what the value added from the other 
background is.

So "transdisciplinarity" also usually works best, if it is very closely 
connected to the tradition of one set of disciplines and basically 
imports glamour from the rest. If you take it serious, well ...

> how to persuade those in fields more constrained than mine
> that I'm saying anything at all.

Can it not simply be fun to say (or just think) it? Even in very mundane 
things, completely outside of academia, only very few people will react 
immediately to a genuinely new proposal, though the may endorse it 
enthusiastically a weekend later.

Be happy in the sowing and do not worry too much about the harvest.

[ Yes, it is MUCH easier to have this attitude once you are retired: 

Kind regards,

        Date: Wed, 30 May 2018 06:35:18 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: being selective
        In-Reply-To: <20180529053613.E66C417FC at s16382816.onlinehome-server.info>

A member of this group wrote to me privately with the following 
objection to my note about going wide rather than deep:

> to proliferate "witnesses" -- bits of evidence -- will only increase
> uncertainty rather than (as hoped) decrease it, just because to do so
> increases the number of occasions for interpretation

This objection he attributed to Stanley Fish but didn't have the 
reference in the Fishian corpus. Does anyone here?

Anyhow, my answer would be that as we go wide we select our witnesses, 
not collect everything. The problem that I see, however, is exhaustion, 
i.e. which gets exhausted first seems clear: the researcher, not the 
amount to be collected, filtered then fitted into the developing 
pattern. My solution -- since I cannot help myself in this regard -- is 
to school myself (and I hope my readers) into being content with 
suggestive ventures rather than bulletproof arguments. Ventures to keep 
the conversation moving along.

I can get away with this (sort of) because I report to no one. But 
on occasion I do get reviewers saying, e.g. 'What's he saying? 
Suggestive, arresting analogies. But where's the argument?' Such was in 
my mind when I said in the earlier note that sometimes one has 
difficulty getting one's colleagues to acknowledge that you've said 
anything at all. Made some noise, perhaps....


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor emeritus, Department of
Digital Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western
Sydney University; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews

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