So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be interdisciplinary. My dissertation draws from many different fields (literature, art, visual studies, cultural studies, psychology, anthropology, material culture, archival studies), and as a graduate student, I’m left asking how much of each of these fields I should try to tackle. I was thinking about the setting of a university and what a great place this is that combined so much knowledge from so many different disciplines. In the English department, we stress the value in interdisciplinary projects, so I began wondering if there might be an opporunity to glean from experts in other fields here on campus.
I ended up emailed a professor in the psychology department to ask if I could meet with him to see if my project made sense from a psychological perspective. He specializes in personality assessment, and I thought he might be interested in my project since I’ve found some personality tests that attempt to interpret a doodler’s characteristics in light of their doodles. The doodle by its nature is subconscious, so I wanted to find out if he had any guidance for me as I went about interpreting these images. I ended up meeting with him several weeks ago and left feeling really weird about the experience. He basically gave me a book of Freud’s essays, told me he didn’t think he could help me, and warned me to be careful not to exceed the scope of my project. He also redirected me back to a faculty member in my own department who he said had dabbled in psychoanalysis.
I left feeling very frustrated about the interdisciplinary nature of my project. If we (myself included) can’t articulate across disciplines, then what right do we have to hold on to this tenuous label? But last week I had an unexpected encounter with a computer science professor at a Ph.D. candidates luncheon that gave me hope that I not all people are so resistant to helping students in other departments. This particular professor was extremely conversant. His Ph.D. was in math, but he had read Beckett and could talk fluently with me about my project. We talked about some of the mathematical doodles in Beckett’s manuscripts, and he made some insights into how they might be interpreted in a modernist context. He also referenced a famous math doodler who’s marginal calculations are only now just being proved. I only felt bad that I couldn’t discuss his current research on the human genome projectwith such clarity of thought.
I do believe that interdisciplinary projects have their weaknesses. There is some truth in the advice to know the scope of my project. Time is limited, and I can’t master all of these fields. I am in a literature program, so there is a point in time where I have to recognize that my dissertation will be predominantly a literary one. This is the subject I have been trained in and know best. But I have enjoyed expanding my knowledge of other subjects and feel that this will make me a more marketable candidate at some point.
Literature is unique in that by its nature, it has the capacity to encompass all other subjects. It’s a shame not all professors in other departments are willing to see that.