We’re privileged to hear once again from our regular guest blogger, Kate Maxwell. Kate writes about themes of collaboration in research from Norway, and in this post she sheds light on some of the dangers of cross-disciplinary collaboration, sharing Norwegian researchers’ responses to them.
In my last blog for Piirus, I ended on the rather depressing note of barbarians lurking in the ranks. In this follow-up, I explore how collaboration ultimately relies on trust, and the dangers that this can pose.
I am currently shadowing Norwegian cross-disciplinary projects, and if there is on thing that my observations have shown, it is that the success of collaboration depends on the individuals involved. In other words: some people will work well in a group, whatever their discipline. It takes passion, energy, drive, commitment, imagination, and collaboration – in both deed and word. That means, inevitably, that some scholars will thrive in cross-disciplinary collaboration, and some will not. Scholars who can transmit scientific knowledge – whether hard or soft science – engagingly, understandably, and accurately, are clearly pre-disposed to working across fields.
This point about communication is essential, especially when the collaboration runs across disciplinary boundaries. If you are the sole microbiologist on your cross-disciplinary team, not only do you have to present your ongoing research in such a manner that it can be understood by everyone, you also have to face up to the following question: who’s going to spot it if you make a mistake? Or, even more dangerously, if you overstate your results and thus mislead your collaborators, unwittingly or not, will this go unchecked? Even peer-reviewed journals regularly have to retract papers (as evidenced in the Retraction Watch blog) so this could to happen to you, to all of your group, because of an error that was missed due to the cross-disciplinary, collaborative nature of the work.
In my last post I discussed Professor Stephen Greenblatt, whose engagingly written scholarship is so highly regarded that he has just received Norway’s most prestigious prize for research in the humanities. Yet a large number of scholars agree that his work is not just inaccurate, but dangerously flawed. In other words, if fine rhetoric can fool the best of us in our own disciplines, how can cross-disciplinary collaboration safeguard against mistakes?
There is no simple answer to this question, but I see how the Norwegian groups are tackling the issue, or, more accurately, ensuring that the issue doesn’t arise at all. One way is that many of the researchers in the groups are themselves interdisciplinary. (Note: for these purposes I differentiate between interdisciplinary, to denote work between related disciplines, and cross-disciplinary, where the disciplines are unrelated.) So an expert in computational chemistry is also known for her work in organic chemistry, for example. Another way is that said chemistry scholar supervises a PhD student, who does the majority of the labwork but whose calculations are checked by the supervisor and a co-supervisor before being presented to the research group. There are also scholars who have changed fields in their time: I’m continually surprised at how many social scientists I meet actually have previous degrees in, say, marine biology or computer science. One again, for a scholar with this kind of background, cross-disciplinary work is particularly appealing: it is a chance to reactivate skills and spark that researcher’s creativity in an area that combines new and old. For the cross-disciplinary team, such field-hoppers provide a foundation level of knowledge in addition to their own particular area of expertise.
Of course, this is not to say that you need interdisciplinary experience or previous work in a different field to collaborate. No. What you do need, however experienced you may be, are the skills of close reading, and close listening, across boundaries. And these are skills that are inherent in the humanities disciplines. To put it another way (in case any vice chancellors are reading this): if you can read, analyse, and engage with a sixth-century text, then you’ll have no problems with the latest research in solar energy.
The humanities give us a chance to read across languages and cultural differences in order to understand the vast range of perspectives in and on this world. How else can we imagine living together without this ability to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known, and to understand that, in some abiding and urgent sense, we share a world? … An active and sensate democracy requires that we learn how to read well, not just texts but images and sounds, to translate across languages, across media, ways of performing, listening, acting, making art and theory.
Judith Butler, Commencement address to McGill University, 30th May 2013. (Cited by Maria Popova, in brainpickings, 6th July 2013. Last accessed 31st May 2016, my emphasis)
It is not just graduates and scholars who need the skills of the humanities, but policy makers and voters too. Society doesn’t need barbarians, but it does need people who can read well and think well, people who can listen well and speak well, people who can make important professional and personal decisions for their lives and their world. The way forward is not about pitting one side of the disciplinary spectrum against another, nor is it of forced integration for survival. Collaborative work should be further encouraged and rewarded: in this way every subject’s unique characteristics can be put to the broader good of society.
About the author: Kate Maxwell is an Associate Professor in music history at the University of Tromsø. Her research focuses on multimodality in medieval manuscripts, the notion of ‘performance’, and medieval French song. She is co-PI of the ‘idélab fellowship project’, funded by the Research Council of Norway, which serves to unite the projects funded by the 2014 idélab, as well as researching their cross-disciplinarity in action. She is also a clarinettist and composer, and proudly lives with her ‘goats’ (kids) in the Arctic circle. @skatemaxwell