Blog Post

Problems in Intradisciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity is en vogue at the moment.  One need look no further than the mission statement of HASTAC to see that the calls for understanding and engagement across disciplines are the hotness.  A related but underdiscussed issue for graduate students (and scholars in general) is the gap that can exist within a discipline between a scholar studying an issue that, while technically within the field, is markedly different from his or her peers.  This post is my first attempt to unpack my experiences as a relative (scholarly) outsider within my own department and perhaps get discussion going with others who are in a similar situation.

When I began my graduate career as a masters student way back in 2009, I admittedly did not really have a clue what I was doing.  I knew I wanted to work with film and media, but I lacked direction.  I also knew that I was deeply interested in digital culture, but had never encountered a way to engage with it as an undergraduate.  For all I knew, it was not even a subject for scholarly study.  However, as I progressed as a grad student, I began to see avenues to integrate digital studies into my interest media studies in general.

In the process of doing so, though, I found myself being distanced from the rest of my colleagues who were interested in what we might call more traditional engagement with film (and it is mostly film, despite the Film and Media Studies moniker).  This is not to denigrate or belittle their work; rather, it highlights the relative scholarly loneliness that one can feel even inside one's own department.

How, then, does someone who is doing work that is markedly different from his or her peers interact with them regarding scholarship?  There are no easy answers for this, especially because each department (and this is not unique to Film and Media Studies) has its own scholarly culture and individuals with different areas of research.  My experiences will not be universal, but I believe I have developed some techniques to help bridge the gap between grad students studying digital issues and their peers engaged in more 'traditional' areas of study within the discipline.

The first and most effective way I have found to connect my research to that of my colleagues is to discuss it in terms of method and approach.  This works because even though the subject matter may be radically different, the methods for conducting research can be applicable to most projects.  For example, as part of my dissertation research I have been interviewing users of filesharing sites.  By contrast, another grad student in my department was working on an article about Star Museums in small towns across the United States.  He also had to interview people as part of his research and while my interviews were conducted digitally and not face-to-face (a process which presents different challenges), I was able to connect with him discussing the challenges of not only interviewing, but also the IRB process, something to which we were both new.

Another helpful approach towards bridging the intradisciplinary divide is to look for intersections between your digital interests to areas of the field that are more populated, so to speak.  The effect of this tactic not only allows you to converse with your colleagues about material that interests everyone, but it can also spark an interest in others in your area of study.  Recently, I completed an article about the Sony hack of 2014 and found that I was able to engage my peers with issues in hacking more generally when it had an immediate application to the film industry.  It doesn't hurt that my interests in film mainly are industrial at this time, but the point remains!

Finally, I think one of the best things scholars interested in digital research can do is to connect digital practices back to an analogue past (or present).  Not only will this approach create commonground between peers, but it also forces the digital scholar to shy away from technologically deterministic points of view.  Considering the myriad social, cultural, economic, and political (etc etc etc etc) contexts in which digital technologies and platforms developed is, in my opinion, incredibly important to instill a more rigorous attitude within scholars.  For instance, while my dissertation focuses on social practices of movie filesharing communities, I devote a chapter to examining previous cultures of home media consumption, in particular focusing on the early period of VCR adoption in the United States.  This component of my research has sparked plenty of discussions within my department with grad students who don't even know what BitTorrent is.  It also strengthens my overall argument.  Two birds with one stone; not bad.

Hopefully these approaches towards bridging divides within one's discipline are a good starting point to continue the discussion (I should also note that on a personal level I am friends with most of my colleagues).  I would love to hear from others who have been (or are in) similar situations and what their experiences have been.  I may be in the twilight of my grad career, but alternative perspectives are always helpful!


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