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'Bread and butter': Welsh professors discuss the state of interdisciplinary research at event Thursday

Everyone is already interdisciplinary, according to three professors from Wales.

The English and history faculty—all from the University of Cardiff—emphasized the ubiquity of interdisciplinary study and discussed collaboration culture in a round table discussion Thursday. The event was a sponsored by the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory.

“Interdisciplinarity is bread and butter… How we [practice] it is a very difficult question to answer because we do it all the time,” said Keir Waddington, professor of history at the School of History, Archaeology and Religion. “We’re just as likely to cite post-colonial theory as we are to cite Charles Rosenberg’s work on framing disease.”

The three scholars agreed that “interdisciplinarity” has become a buzzword and that people need to be more fine-grained in explaining the interdisciplinary work they do. 

“I think 'interdisciplinarity' is done,” said Martin Willis, professor of English literature in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy. “I don’t think the term is useful anymore.”

Willis, who is also chair of the British Society of Literature and Science, said he could no longer even define “interdisciplinarity” because everyone—from sociologists to historians—practices it in a different way. Classically defined as having expertise in more than one discipline, interdisciplinary study has now shifted to be more open—more “undisciplined.”

At Cardiff, Waddington and Willis are co-directors of the Collaborative Interdisciplinary Study for Science, Medicine and the Imagination Research Group. Waddington explained that they work together by learning from each other. Instead of approaching a problem from two different sides and agreeing somewhere in the middle, they draw from each other’s knowledge and tackle the problem from the ground up. 

“We co-write not by learning each other’s disciplines, but…by [learning] each other’s disciplinary methods to the extent that we have productive conversations to reach that middle ground,” Willis said. 

James Castell, lecturer in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, also emphasized the value of humility and openness in collaborative work. Citing their mutual interest in “transdisciplinarity”—the crossing of multiple disciplinary boundaries—Castell explained that Waddington and Willis’s collaboration method exemplified “cross-pollinating” disciplines and going beyond the mix. 

“Awareness of the limitations of your own discipline and the limitations other people’s disciplines even while recognizing the… expertise is very important,” Castell said.

Although the scholars excitedly reflected on their interdisciplinary work, they also lamented how difficult it was to teach interdisciplinary courses in the United Kingdom. 

“The three of us work in the same building…but we do not teach together,” Waddington said. “It would be extremely difficult because we work in two different departments. The structures do not allow us.”

Priscilla Wald, R. Florence Brinkley professor of English at Duke, said the culture in the United States is different. She said she has been approached by scientists at the University who are keen on collaborating.

The three professors from Wales also agreed that most of their time and effort is spent on disciplinary work, such as teaching. Willis and Waddington said most of their time is spent teaching students a particular subject—Victorian literature for the former and the social history of medicine for the latter.  

The professors added that even interdisciplinary projects must be given a disciplinary framework to motivate people to think about things in a new way. 

“What got me my job was my interdisciplinary interests but… I felt like I’ve had to tame it,” Castell said. "Especially on the publishing front… one might do better by specializing.” 


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