On Interdisciplinarity

I'm halfway through my PhD and one thing that has routinely stymied my work is the intensely disciplinary structure of the university. It's something I think about a lot. Constantly, actually. Because it presents a perpetual roadblock that I haven't yet learned how to navigate. I can't publish the kind of work I want within the context of a discipline, and this is particularly true in a field like technology, which by its very nature, is impossible to situate within a particular discipline. So, why do universities continuously uphold arcane disciplinary boundaries? There are a number of reasons, (including, the tenure system, the peer-review publishing process, and the general bureaucratic nature of the university) but, more to the point, I believe that disciplines hinder innovation and prevent many academic researchers from effectively engaging with the tech industry.

I was pleased to see an interview with James C. Scott in the latest issue of Gastronimca. (Food--another topic that is fundamentally interdisciplinary!--has deep connections across a variety of fields and yet it often gets boxed up in the specific language and contexts of say, nutrition or anthropology.) Scott's work cuts across a variety of disciplines, as he writes about politics, environmentalism, power, history, and so forth. I first encountered his book, Seeing Like a State, (highly recommended!) in a geography class and was pleasantly surprised to see that Paul Dourish has, in several instances, brilliantly connected this work to HCI. When asked about his career, the interviewer asked if Scott considered himself to be "undisciplined." What a wonderful term. And what a wonderful thing to be! Scott's response really captures the way I've been thinking about this issue. He says:

"Definitely! I was trained as a political scientist and the profession bores me, to be frank. I am truly bored by mainstream work in my discipline, which strikes me as a kind of medieval scholasticism of a special kind. People ask me about the intellectual organization of my interdisciplinary work, and I have to say, it's the consequence of boredom and the knowledge that so many other things had been written about peasants that are more interesting than anything political scientists have written about them, that I should go to those places and learn these things and read things outside of the discipline like Balzac and Zola, novels about peasantry and memoirs. If you spend all your time reading mainstream political science, you are going to reproduce mainstream political science. Nothing else can happen from that particular place. It seems to me, anything interesting that happens in political science is probably an import from some exotic place outside political science and I happen to go to different exotic places than other people and once in a while I stumble upon something that helps me understand. The thing that attracted me to anthropology is that it insisted upon a kind of eyes-wide-open fieldwork and total immersion in a peasant community and so I went from political science to a kind of anthropology envy. I can remember the first time I gave a talk in Toronto, and they didn't know what discipline I came from, and they said "Jim Scott, social anthropologist from Yale" and I thought, oh my God, I've finally passed. I felt so proud that they didn't know I was a political scientist; I had succeeded in transcending my background."

This, I think, is an excellent goal for all academics: transcend your background. It's certainly something I wish I could do. I have found myself housed in so many disciplines over the past decade: philosophy, media studies, creative writing, cultural studies, HCI, that I really don't feel any particular allegiance to one field. It's like choosing your favorite child; you love them all the same, even though they are all different. And I need them all. I cannot do the kind of work that I do without drawing from all of these fields. But the problem is, I have constantly been told that in order to succeed in academia you must choose. You must situate your work in a field. You must speak to a particular audience. You must "build your brand." (Is there a worse phrase in contemporary culture?) Perhaps this is why the Scott interview jumped out at me. He's one of very few scholars who have been able to succeed without choosing, without limiting himself to a discipline.

Why are there so few people who do this? In my experience, it is because the vast majority of professors actively discourage the pursuit of interdisciplinary work. I can count on one hand the few people who have enthusiastically supported my work and encouraged me to write from the margins (and don't get me wrong, I am so thankful for these people). But more than individual people, it has been the institutionalized structures that prevent interdisciplinary work. Where should this kind of work be published? What conferences are available? How would you get tenure if your track record shows publications that are not consistent? Let alone tenure, how will you get an academic job at all if a hiring committee doesn't know how to "place" you? I am routinely struck by how conservative research universities can be, how incredibly slowly they advance knowledge, and how unwilling academics are to take risks. It's the exact opposite of start-up culture, where risk-taking and failure are valued, at least to the extent that they advance the development of the product. One of the reasons interdisciplinary thinking promotes innovation is because it's much more effective to consider a problem from multiple perspectives rather than one. This is why multi-disciplinary teams are so important. If you put five designers in a room, you may end up with a solution, but it probably won't be the best one. But, if you put a designer, an engineer, a writer, a scientist, and an artist in a room, you will definitely solve the problem. To the detriment of every field, this kind of cross-pollination rarely occurs in academia, even though it is common practice in the tech industry. I often wonder, what would happen if the poets collaborated with the engineers, if the biologists collaborated with the painters. I have the feeling that wonderfully innovative things would happen, but how can these partnerships thrive in the context of a university. The entire system would have to change.

I was particularly drawn to Scott's comment about being "bored by mainstream work in the discipline." Bored. This is a word, and a terribly depressing state of mind, that has plagued me for a long time, but I suppose it captures my feelings exactly. I have been bored for the past two years. I am actually astounded at how boring PhD research can be. And what I have finally realized is that this has everything to do with disciplinarity and the limitations it creates. In my field, I see a deepening divide between technology research and technology development. The conversations that happen in my department feel very removed from the reality of what is presently happening in the tech industry. This is, of course, a common criticism of academia generally, but I find it particularly surprising in an applied field like HCI. To make matters worse, the most interesting  tech writing isn't being published in peer-reviewed journals. It's being published on Medium or in The Atlantic, and this is because there are no arbitrary limitations on how topics should be framed or what constitutes an appropriate research question. I wish more academics would engage with popular publications because it would allow us to expand our engagement with, what Scott refers to as, exotic places. At any rate, it would allow us to converse with industry folks and to better understand how product development actually works and how theoretical perspectives can be of use in the design process.  

I am absolutely certain that the most interesting work in HCI is the work that draws heavily from other fields, however, I have seen many brilliant papers rejected from major conferences in the field because they draw too much from another field. It shouldn't matter how one arrives at an explanation; it is the idea and the exploration that matters. But, academics seem very unwilling to break the rules. In many ways, I have been frustrated by my PhD experience, but I also believe that, however slowly, the university will eventually promote interdisciplinary work. Disciplines will die and the university will become a better place for it. I am reminded of the d.school's Stanford Project, which reimagines the future of higher ed, and suggests an "axis flip" in which the university is organized around general skills rather than specific subjects. This seems like an ideal way to approach education, and I hope that informatics and computing fields, in particular, find better ways to bridge the gap between theory and practice. We should all strive to be more like Scott; I look forward to the day when all professors refer to themselves as undisciplined