Interdisciplinary Research – Reading Across Disciplines
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This is the last post in our series on the topic of interdisciplinary research. Each member of the current blogging team is involved in some form of interdisciplinary research, and we’ve been sharing our individual experiences of this over the past month. The previous posts discussed getting used to interdisciplinary changes, how robotics and psychology work together in an interdisciplinary aspect and the positive challenges that make interdisciplinary research worthwhile and important.
For my entire academic career, I’ve always been intrigued by various aspects from different fields and how they work together to create a more complete story. This type of thinking and approaches to different methodologies is often encouraged at schools in the United States. During my undergrad I had to take at least two courses in every discipline, from art to science and the dreaded (for me) maths that falls in between. At the time, I knew I wanted to major in English literature and writing so these requirements slightly annoyed me. Now as a PGR, however, I find that those very requirements helped prepare me for the interdisciplinary research I’m currently involved with and the difficulties that often arise.
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My research involves looking at early nineteenth-century comic art representations of gender, race and class. In order to offer a proper, well-rounded analysis of these categories, I have to first understand their history and the methodological theories available for each. This, in turn, requires quick, intense reading of each subject area in order to build a stable foundation for the continuation of my project. Unfortunately, reading across disciplines is not that easy when you actually need a firm understanding of content you didn’t get, and aren’t getting, a degree in.
For me, the most difficult cross-discipline reading I’ve had to do for my research lie in the realms of sociology and politics. Though I’m comfortable with the broad history of politics, my mind has to work double time to process not only the intricacies of historical politics but the style of writing that goes along with it as well.
Every researcher knows that writing style changes across the disciplines. For example, personal voice is slightly more accepted in the arts than it is in the sciences, social and political included. I have three degrees in the arts and none in any form of science. So adjusting to reading an unfamiliar style, and then having to adjust the information to fit my very different style, was a challenge of interdisciplinary research I wasn’t entirely expecting. After reading several articles and a handful of books that I couldn’t completely grasp, I came up with a method to save my sanity and make the process much faster.
When I read material outside of my own primary discipline, I make it a point to familiarise myself with the entire piece of work (article, book, etc.) before actually beginning to read: I look at the structure of the paper and note the format used for citing sources (I sometimes also read academic reviews of the piece in order to help me look out for specific themes). I then read the abstract or introduction first in order to have an easier understanding of what the work is trying to get across and to pinpoint any terms I’m unfamiliar with so I know what to expect. If that still doesn’t work, I’ll jump ahead to the conclusion, which, by definition, provides a nice summary of everything discussed throughout. While I’m reading, I make sure to take descriptive notes on exactly how what I’m reading connects to my work and how I’ll implement the material into my writing. This might already be common practice for some people, but because I was used to just jumping in to bodies of work from my primary discipline, this approach has been quite new for me. It’s also been incredibly successful in building my confidence when writing about the areas that I haven’t spent the past five years studying.
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Though the intricacies of interdisciplinary work sometimes stress me out, I’m glad that I have the opportunity to pursue this research as well as the support from my supervisors. And by far, the best aspect of my interdisciplinary research is being able to see all the ways our worlds, our disciplines, and our research combine to help us make better sense of whatever it is we choose to study.