Thursday, 3 March 2011

Interdisciplinarity: Whatever it Takes to Understand



I'm in Dundee for the Poetry Beyond Text conference.  Before I go out and investigate the city for food and a dram of something or other I wanted to post the talk I'm giving tomorrow on interdisciplinarity.  It's more of a reflective piece intended to provoke discussion rather than a presentation of research, but hopefully anyone interested in combining disciplines, particularly with English Studies, will get something out of it.  Apologies in advance for weird italics, line breaks, punctuation etc. just my tics of writing things to be read out.


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Expanding on Discipline: Whatever it Takes to Understand

I'd like to discuss three things: I'd like to offer some thoughts about a specific definition of interdisciplinarity; discuss why my thesis draws on a few different disciplines; and then look briefly at a research paper that I'm intending to explore in my own work, and use it as an example of some of the possibilities and challenges that come from looking a bit further from home.

1. Interdisciplinarity.
I've come to understand “interdisciplinarity” as the production of work which truly adopts, not multiple discourses, or even multiple practices, but instead a synthesis of a newly integrated methodology and accompanying language. Regenia Gagnier, in her opening remarks to the 2009 Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference, described interdisciplinarity as “a way to combine the objects and methods of different disciplines in order to solve a particular problem or tell a particular story.” There are some problems that are too complex for a single way of looking at the world, and that require new models which can only be produced by imbedding yourself in a discipline which differs from that in which you have previously trained, written, or worked, or by collaborating with a practitioner from another discipline and allowing your voices to merge. And I'd like to make it clear that, at this stage of my research career, I'm only very rarely able to attempt either.

Collaboration will, I hope, come about soon, and indeed plans are underway for a study into digital screen reading undertaken alongside a Neuropsychology researcher from the University of Nottingham. But until this comes about, if I want to be interdisciplinary under the definition that I've just given, then I've got to synthesise, or write as part of a newly synthesised discourse that doesn't yet exist in my home discipline of English Studies or the field that I draw on.

It's worth briefly clarifying how I'm thinking of some of the distinct ways of combining disciplines, besides interdisciplinarity, that come up most frequently.

Cross- and multidisciplinarities are the most common forms of linking fields, and also seem to be the methods most often confused with interdisciplinarity. They revolve around study where the item that your research focuses on would often be considered the province of disciplines different to your own. For example: a geographer writing about Quantum Mechanics would be crossdisciplinary; writing about Quantum Mechanics, English Studies, Biology, and History they would be multidisciplinary.

It should not be considered an interdisciplinary project, however, if the geographer doesn't adapt her methodology to combine the fields. In the same talk mentioned above Gagnier describes disciplines as being at least partially “defined by what they count as evidence.” If an English Studies researcher draws on work from Mathematics, but eventually relies on a form of textual interpretation rather than the production of coherent proofs, then they haven't produced interdisciplinary work, as they are relying on the same conditions of evidence that they always have. If they were instead to draw on Physics and produce empirical evidence via proof or practice, then again the work is not interdisciplinary, they are just doing Physics. The researcher has certainly moved across disciplinary lines, but no blending has occurred, and most importantly, no problems resistant to solution by either discipline can be solved by her movement.

This is not to denigrate cross- or multidisciplinarity; sometimes work from one discipline can readily solve a problem in another, and the two simply require a medium to force them to communicate. But, in line with Gagnier, some problems are just too big, or rather too complex, for this approach to function.

Lastly, though a discussion of the contested nuances of transdisciplinarity is beyond the scope of this paper, it's well worth noting that it can loosely be thought of as the breakdown of disciplinary boundaries in order to produce an attempt at a unified and holistic knowledge of a subject. Interdisciplinarity doesn't call for us to dispense with disciplinarity in this way, only the perceived inviolability of its boundaries.

2. My own research.
With these definitions in mind I'd like to turn to the experience of my own research.

I've always found disciplinarity challenging. During my Creative Writing undergraduate, where I quickly realised that I wasn't the novelist I imagined, and ended up trying to write about atomic structures and the chemistry of paint molecules in ekphrastic poetry, I developed an interest in Critical Theory, and it was during my Critical Theory MA that I really got into Copyright Law. So during the first year of my PhD I sat in on some classes for a Copyright MA, and it must have been sifting through legal history for another two years that got me interested in Cognitive and Neuropsychology.

Now I find myself in an English department finishing up a PhD on the new technology of reading from portable screens where the first half of the thesis looks at Neuropsychology and STS studies in order to attempt to better understand the class of objects we refer to as technologies, and the second half focuses on the tactile experience of reading on a screen and eventually depends on a mix of Evolutionary Biology and Phenomenology to make its claims about how we experience and adjust to objects over time.

Whilst it's become clear that I might well have commitment issues, I'm unfortunately not polymathic and don't pretend to be. But the idea of going to whatever is required, whatever you think might help, whatever it takes in order to better understand something that escapes you, that fascinates me.

Often when I meet someone at an English Studies conference who asks me what my thesis is on, and I say that I look at the new technologies of reading, and try and see why so many people dislike and mistrust reading on screen, then I get a warm smile, and an approving nod. “Yeah, they're horrible aren't they?” they say, “nothing like reading a book.”

“I agree,” I say, “I'm learning that it's really nothing like reading a book, despite the fact it's still just words passing in front of our eyes. That's what got me started on the project really, wondering why I prefer reading from paper so much.”

And then there's a couple of stock responses: “Well, it's obvious really, isn't it, they just don't feel right, do they?” or, more weirdly, “they don't smell right,” and “you can't read them in the bath.” Or, the best one, “well, we weren't meant to read from a screen, were we? And that makes it so bad for people's brains of course.” Variants of this last one are coming up a lot more lately.

But I've held all of these views myself, every last one: Paper feels better; it's more robust; it's more interesting to touch; and technology is this unnatural thing which might get in the way, and might even do us harm. But my two favourite questions are “how?” and “why?” and it turns out that when you attack these stock responses, these stock attitudes, with how and why then you get some very unsatisfactory results.

“Screens stop people paying attention” - how? “Because it's nothing like reading a book” - why? The words are the same. “Well, because it doesn't feel right” - why? “Because paper feels better than plastic and glass,” and then we descend into this childish game, why why why why why? And it really doesn't feel like there's a bottom to those “whys” because often people, myself certainly included, don't even contemplate why they might hold the beliefs about certain kinds of objects that they do.

The physical world, of which physical books are a very pleasant part, is just something most of us accept as meeting our hands and eyes unmediated. The idea that what we feel, I mean rawly, viscerally, gravity goes down, stone is hard, feathers are light, feel, that our emotional response to such fundamental sensations could be even subtly different from person to person, based on occasionally borderline hegemonic cultural preconceptions, this is something that we rarely consider.

As to the “fact” of a screen being worse for a brain to read from then a physical book: whether that's true or not I want to know the how and the why of it before I'll advocate imposing the mythology of codex reading onto the next generation of readers, a group who might, conceivably, be far better off without the fetishisation of linear print on paper, and the types of intelligence it fosters.

Sometimes, if departmental wine has been involved, I might even attempt a version of this diatribe, at which point my hypothetical interlocutor is good enough to ask: “well, how can you find evidence for this either way?” and the missing words and intonation are clear “how can you find the evidence: you're an English student.”

It's certainly a fair question; English Studies, traditionally, only has a few successful ways of thinking about such things.

Research investigating the materiality of texts has been around for a very long time in Humanities circles, and Book History and Textual Scholarship are well established fields. We've gotten pretty good at understanding what makes a codex do what it does from a textual standpoint, and there's a whole language readily available for explaining how an author or an editor might alter page space, binding, editions, and myriad other material decisions, to produce particular effects.

Phenomenology has become increasingly available to English Studies researchers interested in objects' and bodies. But Phenomenology, at least at its inception with Husserl, and then to varying degrees with later adopters, is marked out as a philosophy which initially strips out both the transcendent and the scientific in its quest to see things “as they are,” to remove any prior apprehensions we might be working under, and to get to things, phenomena, as they are manifested.

Although its true blending with English Studies should definitely be considered as interdisciplinary, because Phenomenology is not primarily seen as being empirically evidence-based, researchers in English can feel that Philosophy is so much of a sister discipline that they are able, for better or worse, to simply glom the findings and language of Phenomenology onto their usual work with relative ease.

The digitisation of texts, the rise of the Digital Humanities, and the so called “computational turn” in general, have also produced numerous approaches to discussing materiality whilst working with written materials, and represent, as with Textual Scholarship, a genuine demonstration of not only the power of interdisciplinarity, but also the potential for Humanities scholars to move well outside of the previously fixed boundaries of their disciplines and add immense value both to their own scholarly background, and to the new fields that they encounter. The new databases, languages, artworks, games, tools, and entire disciplines that are emerging out of this work are often the products of synthesis, not just of juxtaposition, and as such they can be better equipped to tackle novel complex problems and narratives.

So English Studies has, to my mind, three compelling discourses fairly readily available to it to discuss the material effects of reading: Textual Scholarship and Book History; some aspects of Phenomenology; and work still emerging out of the Digital Humanities.

But when it comes to understanding the impacts of digitisation on reading; on research; on thought; on pedagogy at all ages; on development at all ages; then researchers in English need to realise that this is an inherently material affair. This is all about bodies, objects, and changes in their embodiment, and if English Studies wants to be truly engaged, and truly useful in this conversation then we need to face up to its size and complexity, and this might mean asking if our current strategies are enough.

3. A research paper
I would like to finish by suggesting that Cognitive Neuroscience, particularly as a naturalised form of Phenomenology, is a great site for interdisciplinary and crossdisciplinary research, from the Sciences and the Humanities, into the impact of digitisation on reading.

In December of 2009 Christopher Davoli, Feng Du, Juan Montana, Susan Garverick, and Richard Abrams published a research paper entitled: “When meaning matters, look but don’t touch: The effects of posture on reading.” The paper is interested not so much with posture as with hands, and asks: if our hands are physically near written material, does this affect our textual interpretation skills?

If you happen to be a Psychologist then that this paper exists is probably not too surprising, but to me it was a revelation. I've just gotten to the stage of my second chapter where I need to support the notion that hands and bodies affect cognition, and that this might be part of the reason that people worry about changes to reading activities which involve new uses, or even the absence of use of the hands, at least at some subconscious level. And here's a paper which addresses that exact issue. Does holding a text for reading have a different effect than when the hands are removed from the visual field, for example when words are up on a computer screen?

The short answer appears to be yes, but not in the way, I suspect, unless you're familiar with the paper, that you might be thinking. In fact holding a text in the hands appears to be worse for comprehension.

The paper begins by citing numerous studies which demonstrate the brain's acute interest in visual and spatial information directly surrounding the hands. This makes intuitive sense when we think about tool use: we need incredibly precise information about our hands' position in space when we dextrously and accurately manipulate objects.

But this incredible precision - and it really is remarkable, particularly when you compare even the infants of our species to our closest primate relatives -, this precision comes at a cost, and Davoli et al identify that cost as manifesting in decreased semantic understanding: when our hands are near something the drain of producing a heightened spatial awareness interferes with the comprehension of information required by another realm.

This conclusion comes from Davoli's team carrying out Stroop tests, a standard test in experimental Psychology for determining the speed of semantic processing, where the congruence or incongruence of the example was indicated by the test subject either pressing a button to the left or right side of the screen, i.e. their hands were near the text, or pressing a button on their left or right leg, i.e. their hands were away from the text.


The team found a statistically significant, and in some cases dramatic drop in response times when the answer was indicated with the hands by the sides of the screen over being indicated with button pushes on the legs. Their conclusion, iterated in the title of their paper, is that when it comes to semantic comprehension: look, but don't touch.

Naturally I want to incorporate this research into my thesis because it provides a compelling counter-narrative to those who say that screen reading impedes comprehension. Things might not be so simple: Adjustment to a new reading practice may well cause a drop in comprehension, but reading from a desktop screen seems fundamentally no more, and could potentially be less cognitively demanding than reading a text held in the hands.

So how do I use this work? And why might it be hard to?

When it comes to use I have three choices.

  1. I do some Cognitive or Neuropsychology, I get involved in the production of data, and this is what I'm actually hoping to do with the researcher from Nottingham that I mentioned earlier: we're trying to devise a useful follow up experiment and publish the results in different forms in both a Psychology journal and an interdisciplinary Humanities journal, sharing the task of writing in different proportion for each write up. This work could either be cross- or interdisciplinary depending on how we affect one another's practices, and whether we enter into a discourse which doesn't already exist in disciplinary Psychology or English Studies.
  2. Secondly I could quote the paper as evidence for an assertion. This is the solo crossdisciplinary approach, where I'd simply draw on work which would normally be considered outside of my field and bring it into my existing study.
  3. Lastly I could work alone to use the paper as part of worrying out a new interdisciplinary approach.

My second chapter attempts a blend of Evolutionary Epistemology and Phenomenology in order to discuss tactility and digital reading, and I hope that the language that emerges out of that combination is new, and productive, and, yes, interdisciplinary.

But rather than producing a new language, my work could also enter into the existing interdisciplinary “middle” language that Shaun Gallagher describes in his work How the Body Shapes the Mind, a discourse which Gallagher believes must sit between Phenomenology and Cognitive Neuroscience in order to best allow them to talk to one another.

Regardless of the specifics, there are obvious potential upsides to drawing on such work, most notably finding a way to provide evidence and understanding of something that would otherwise be unavailable to me via the conventional discourses of my discipline.

But it's also clearly not easy, not just in the intellectual activity, but also in some of the basic problems of drawing on another field. For instance: I'm not so familiar with Neuropsychological research that I can accurately or intuitively contextualise this particular paper. I've studied various flavours of English at university level for nearly eight years, but I've looked at even the tiny aspect of Psychology that I'm immediately interested in for only about 20 months. And this disparity isn't going to fix itself in even another 10 years of work.

I will always know the history and discourse of English Studies better than I know Neuropsychology, unless I give up English and start my Neuropsych undergrad tomorrow. This may seem an obvious point, but everyone seems to know a researcher doing inter- or crossdisciplinary work who believes that it is a problem surmountable in the short term. To put it bluntly I think that they are hugely mistaken, and that it is disingenuous to presume even a roughly comparable sufficiency to disciplinary practitioners in the new discipline, even just in the niche that they're investigating, until they've been occupying that new field for a period of several years. Disciplines are just too dense.

A related problem is that I have no idea what this means. 


Really, none. I have no training in statistics, and therefore I rely on others, either in their discussion sections, in reviews, in forums, in emails, or in face-to-face conversations to aid me in interpreting results. This keeps you very humble, but these harsh displays of disciplinary inadequacy can also be a great reminder of the need for balance.

On the one hand, to intentionally blind ourselves to aspects of an object under discussion isn't a workable strategy if we wish to progress in our understanding. On the other, however, for most of us the requirement of polymathism simply isn’t an option. But I don't think that a lack of extensive contextual knowledge or specific skills are reasons to abandon attempts at interdisciplinary work, or any work which questions the rigidity of disciplinary boundaries. Instead I firmly believe that, as Merlin Donald describes the incomplete data available to evolutionary psychologists, “some knowledge is better than none,” provided we fully realise and acknowledge our limitations.

Recourse to a few lines of abstract ‘science’ is not enough to expand, let alone explode a discourse; there must be an attempt to engage with the new discipline on its own terms, at the same time as acknowledging when to refer readers to the relevant disciplinary materials if they want to pursue the roots that lie beneath the synthesised, adapted, or appropriated idea, metaphor, or concept you've explored.

Dialogue, generosity, and a deference to established expertise can only strengthen a position which doesn't offer the pretence of comprehending every aspect of a problem, but which instead demonstrates the complexity of the issue of understanding, and calls for a blended methodology suitable to the task.

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