On Interdisciplinarity: Some Long Overdue Meditations

Madeleine Hunter is a second year PhD candidate studying media convergence and recombination in twenty-first century children’s media. She studies film, television, comics, toys and of course books, as well as how they all interact in the contemporary media environment. She is very tired. 

In many ways, to be an academic in the field of children’s literature is to be betwixt and between. We occupy an interesting position in the larger constellation of academia – are we educationalists or are we literary critics? Do we belong in the English Department or are we perhaps better placed elsewhere? What should be the object of our study – the book or the child? And should we just be focused on books or do other media produced for children fall within our purview?

Betweeness is a fundamental condition of our existence here at the University of Cambridge. We are, after all, a research centre populated primarily by literary critics housed in an Education Faculty – subjects of both and neither discipline – whose research reflects the increasingly mutable and malleable nature of children’s literature. We have scholars working on film, on animation, on videogames and on toys; we have literary geographers, post-humanists and eco-critics; narratologists, new materialists, adaptation theorists and critical race theorists. From the outside we may seem like a niche discipline – but we contain multitudes.

Our multiplicity is our necessity. Dedicated children’s literature programs such as ours are few and far between, eclectically dispersed across English, Education, Library Sciences, Sociology and who-knows-what-else faculties. Departments dedicated to other media forms addressed to children – film, television, video games, comics – are non-existent. We are scholars of a subject that doesn’t fit in any one particular place, and so we need to market ourselves as capable of inhabiting the multiple academic spaces upon which our research increasingly touches.

All of which brings us to the subject of interdisciplinarity: what does mean to approach research from an interdisciplinary perspective and how does one perform interdisciplinarity? These questions have been rolling around in the back of my head for a while now, inspired by a graduate symposium last October and brought more sharply into focus by working on a chapter on children’s television in the context of the digital (and also by a brief but very insightful conversation with our own Dr. Zoe Jaques – my go-to for post-PhD career advice). While it may have the ring of the industry buzzword about it, interdisciplinarity as a concept is really quite straight forward; all it means is that your research draws on work from a host of different critical and theoretical traditions. In my case, it’s children’s literary studies, intermediality and cultural memory (speaking very broadly); for others, it’s cognitive narratology and feminist literary theory; ecocriticism and embodiment; remix studies and new materialism (okay, that one’s me too – ask me about LEGO!). Defining interdisciplinarity, at least in a broad sense, is fairly simple; it’s the execution that’s the challenge.

The challenge is not so much holding the knowledge of all of these disparate fields in your head – that’s tricky too, but I like to think the feeling of knowledge overload is how I know I’m doing my job right. It’s finding ways to weave together your otherwise disparate threads into something that is intelligible to those in your field. When you enter a discipline you enter a dialogue, and when you enter a dialogue you enter a tradition. That tradition will define what constitutes common knowledge in your field and what will constitute a new approach or new information. At a more granular level, it will also define terminology – is what you study a text or a media object? What is the relationship between form and content and are these words that your intended audience will be comfortable with, or is even thinking in those terms heresy?

My meditations on this subject begun last year, in response to being told during a bilateral graduate symposium on intermediality and multimodality that the language I was using was not truly interdisciplinary. It was a criticism that manifested several times throughout the day in relation to several different papers, and while I understood the basis of the criticism I also couldn’t agree with it primarily because it spoke to a very different vision of what it means to be interdisciplinary, one that seemed to require that I gave up the language of my own field in favour of embracing one “neutral” language. No such thing exists, and even if it did, that would not make those who practiced it interdisciplinary; it would just make them a new discipline. Instead, I prefer to think of my task as finding ways to accommodate new concepts into the language of my own field – my disciplinary home, to borrow a phrase from an academic at my last institution. That means understanding your field, knowing its traditions and respecting them.

We are all participating in an ongoing dialogue, and participating means engaging and engaging requires a shared language. Otherwise, who are you talking to?

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