On Radical Interdisciplinarity

I spent this past year as a Research Fellow with the Futures Initiative, a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Queens College, a HASTAC Scholar, and a student in Cathy Davidson and Bill Kelly’s “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education” course. I also was, and continue to be, a doctoral student in the English department at The Graduate Center, at the City University of New York.


Much of my year was spent trying to make sense of how all of these different projects fit together. It was a year in which I experienced radical interdisciplinarity: interactions, conversations, and collaborations with academics whose assumptions, histories, methodologies, and objectives are radically distinct from my own. Not only did my work span multiple areas of humanities research and teaching, as well as multiple kinds of learning environments and institutions, it also stretched across disciplines as I worked with colleagues in the sciences. While it’s not uncommon to collaborate within the humanities, very rarely will a doctoral student (or tenured professor) in English join an academic conversation with a doctoral student (or tenured professor) in chemistry as a peer and as a collaborator. In doing so, I was prompted to critically reflect on my own intellectual investments in the study of rhetoric, culture, aesthetics, politics, history, and power. These experiences challenged me to interrogate the very foundations of everything I know—what counts as a meaningful object of analysis, how it can be studied, what can be said about it, and to what effects. English courses have allowed me to explore the many ways in which language, culture, experience, and emotions can matter—i.e., how they relate to social change. However, in the interdisciplinary spaces opened up by the Futures Initiative, I was challenged to argue for the value of what, in many conversations within English departments, we have the pleasure of taking for granted (and truly, it is a pleasure—it feels good). I often struggled to articulate why we should even be discussing rhetoric, culture, aesthetics, politics, and history, in the first place, especially when talking to colleagues whose fields of study yield outcomes that are far easier to measure and quantify.


I use “struggle” here deliberately.

It often felt as if the rug had been pulled out from beneath my feet.

I had not been trained for this.


As a scholar of literary and cultural studies, I have, however, been trained to understand affective, visceral reactions to experiences as primary points of entry into meaningful research questions. My feelings of discomfort and anxiety in these radically interdisciplinary spaces are not to be pushed aside in order to get to the factual truth of the matter; rather, how we experience things is key to understanding how the world works.


Many times, in interdisciplinary conversations, I felt like I was failing to articulate a compelling argument as to why our classroom experiences, analyzed, for instance, alongside the work of educational theorists like Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Adrienne Rich, were sufficient evidence enough. Sure, we can try to quantify the learning outcomes of student-centered pedagogy, but is this the only way to understand its importance? What power relations are produced through acts of calculation and quantification—transforming the world into data? I thought through these questions as Cathy Davidson and I co-authored an annotated bibliography documenting gender bias in academe, as I worked to develop a pedagogy appropriate for my “Introduction to Narrative” course, as I designed two graduate seminar class sessions on student-centered pedagogy, and as I helped organize  an event on teaching antiracism with my Mentoring Future Faculty of Color co-conspirators.


In our contemporary siloed academic environment, it is rare to have these kinds of radical interdisciplinary experiences. Most doctoral programs are more concerned that students take X number of courses within their own field to demonstrate both depth and breadth of disciplinary knowledge. Rarely are departments concerned with immersing students in the lifeworlds of other disciplines; in fact, one could easily earn a degree from the majority of graduate programs in the humanities without ever taking a course in either the social or hard sciences. While deep engagement with the history, objects, and methodologies of a given field is immensely important, and is the reason that so many of us choose to pursue graduate studies, this year has taught me that there is also tremendous value in encountering the work of other disciplines. These encounters changed how I understand the exigency of my teaching and research, and have helped me see the two as complementary efforts to move towards a more just, equitable, and pleasurable world. Though I can’t speak for my colleagues in the sciences, I listened carefully to the ways in which they narrated the transformations that occurred as they began asking humanist questions about (and in) their classrooms.


“But…but…labor! and race! and gender!” I felt like I was stammering, sometimes to an audience of skeptically-cocked heads and raised eyebrows, with an air of “there she goes again.”


To be clear, thinking in terms of disciplines has always felt inadequate, and in many ways my work has always challenged disciplinary boundaries—just not to this extent. When I speak of confronting other disciplines, I really mean confronting the structures of power and legitimation that allow us to articulate certain research questions. Assumptions, objects, and methodologies do not always fall along disciplinary lines. For instance, I’ve learned that because of my methodological approach (cultural studies) I may share more foundational assumptions with someone working in music, or art history, than with someone doing a dissertation on Shakespeare. This, however, is a softer form of interdisciplinarity—interdisciplinarity within the humanities that doesn’t necessarily produce the kinds of jarring, epistemic crises that occur when interacting with practitioners of the hard and social sciences.


This year has helped me better understand the inextricability of what we research (and by research, I mean, what we work to change), and how we research it (by which I mean, how we work to change it). Through my encounters with scholars in other disciplines, I’ve learned to better understand why literary and cultural studies, women of color feminism, and queer studies feel so important to the production of a more just, equitable, and pleasurable world. These critical genealogies teach us to challenge what gets to count as “reason,” “logic,” “common sense,” and “evidence”—to understand the ways in which all modes of knowing are also suffused with power relations. They remind us that our contemporary notions of what counts and what matters are not necessarily a) natural b) neutral c) inevitable or d) desirable.


This year, I witnessed several colleagues sit through painstaking Institutional Review Board (IRB) trainings and protocol submissions—something that many literary scholars rarely, if ever, encounter. Watching them try to memorize what others have deemed the standards for ethical research, I realized that part of what makes research in literary and cultural studies so important is the transformative, painstaking, reflexive labor it involves as we try to ethically work our way towards the knowledge we want. Figuring out how to transform the world in a socially just and generous manner is a slow, sustained, and dialogical process that involves both self- and world- making. While many would agree that research is work to change the world, what often gets overlooked is how we are transformed in the process.


Embracing, rather than shying away from, the challenges of radical interdisciplinarity—allowing it to change how we know, and the means by which we know—entails letting go of expertise, mastery, and a good deal of comfort. Radical interdisciplinary encounters issue constant reminders of how little we know. You will more often find yourself asking questions, rather than providing answers. You will agonize even more over your writing and research, asking how it will affect both a general and specialized audience. You will make yourself even more vulnerable to critiques from scholars firmly ensconced within their disciplines, in addition to public scrutiny (if you choose to go that route). While these may all sound negative, I can’t emphasize strongly enough how transformative—if uncomfortable—these experiences have been for me. Radically interdisciplinary encounters remind us that we, like the students we teach, are in the lifelong journey of learning and research. By which I mean, working to change the world.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309