Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A few thoughts on disciplinarity and an aside on convalescence

Latin convalescere, from com- + valescere to grow strong, from valEre to be strong, be well

I got outside yesterday after a whole bloody week in bed. I don't remember the last time I was so sick - or the last time sunshine and fresh air felt so enlivening. Of course, since I managed to sleep as much as the cat every day, I figure I needed the rest.

And now that my brain isn't quite so addled, I can read danah's post about interdisciplinarity. The thing that caught my attention this morning was her comment about the underwhelming quality of job talks she's seen/heard recently, and her question: "Why aren't there scholars right now who make my jaw drop?"

I should first admit that my own jaw dropped at her question. I can think of all sorts of scholars who "help me see the world from an entirely new perspective" but then I'm not looking for "the next Foucault". And given that I've begun the great academic job search, and I hope to be giving my own job talks soon enough, her expectations startled me.

In the comments Doug Tygar writes:

"Turning now to the 'jaw dropping factor', I think many grad students in SIMS aspire to tenure track faculty appointments at top tier universities. Now, if a grad student believes she is at that level, isn't it natural that her jaw may be able to stay in a normal position through many talks -- the grad student know how good she is and it is human to rank people against ourselves (or at least our images of ourselves.)

Furthermore, having over my career met with about 200 to 300 candidates on job interviews, I can assure you that one is not at one's best when interviewing for a job at a super-competitive place like Berkeley. Usually the candidate is nervous... I can assure you that the correlation between quality of job talk and quality of faculty member is less strong than one might think.

[O]ne way young researchers flop big time is by proposing grand theories that should be jaw dropping ... but inevitably make them look like dilettantes."

No grand theories. Check. No looking like a dilettante. Check. No super-competitive places. Check?

Now I'm fully confident in my abilities and potential but I don't take that as any reason to assume I won't be sending out my version of this letter soon enough. After all, the application and interview processes are necessarily selective. Still, I do need to believe that the people making the selections are fully aware of these constraints and can imagine me without them.

(Aside: I support the idea that grad students should attend every defense and job talk they can. Just becoming familiar with the performance is invaluable, and it doesn't take long before you start to find your own way as well.)

But back to danah's post: unlike her, I don't think that interdisciplinarity and community (or cohort) are mutually exclusive. Wait. Maybe I do? If interdisciplinarity is something that happens between disciplines then doesn't it make its own field of study from these different disciplines? Like some sort of network(ed) scholarship? And how is that different from multidisciplinarity? I like multiplicities and multitudes. And I believe that communities can be formed or shaped by difference as much as by similarity. So where does this leave me?

(Aside: Social software almost always assumes that people come together because of shared interests and/or values. The mistake is to think that this is the only productive or creative kind of social relationship.)

The most satisfying inter/multi/disciplinary work in which I've participated allowed everyone to do what they do best, then to try on different hats, and again do what they do best, only better. Perhaps my dream is the kind of work that allows me to move from being a specialist to a generalist over-and-over again. That's not danah's "identity crisis" - it's simply shifting contexts, being social.

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