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By Susan Carter

I’m returning to a theme that intrigued me back when, as a doctoral learning advisor, I worked across disciplines with doctoral students who consulted me with their problems (Carter, 2011). Candidates sometimes wanted to talk about problems that surfaced specifically in the borderlands of doctoral interdisciplinarity. Back then, research interdisciplinarity was recognised as valuable but in my experience as a doctoral learning advisor, there was never a cohort of peers to ask for advice and mutual support.

Now, post-Covid, and in the face of evident climate change, it seems that solutions to tough global challenges might be best found by working across disciplines and we need to establish support for interdisciplinary doctoral research. And yet my hunch is that, in the tradition-hugging entrenched disciplinary norms and biases of academia, candidates could run into the same problems. Here’s my practice-based list of what can be tough.

  • doctoral level research undertaken in areas where the candidate doesn’t have relevant undergraduate level knowledge
  • trouble finding supervisors with the confidence to work in new and unknown ways;
  • supervisors competing with each other for dominance of their discipline’s epistemology;
  • everyone involved is always out of their comfort zone at some stage—that can cause project-damaging emotion;
  • difficulty finding examiners (potential examiners fear their own inability to understand the project in all its aspects and this makes it easy to say no to a chore);
  • innovation looks riskier when it’s coupled with interdisciplinarity;
  • employment post-graduation can be difficult to get, and for those wanting academic work, can mean teaching content that is not well-known when the only job offer is in the least well-known discipline; and
  • crossing writing styles along with crossing disciplines can make it hard to get the thesis done

Because this blog is writing focused, it is the last item on the list I am addressing here, although I know from previous doctoral learning advisor experience that often intellectual discomfort and emotional insecurity make interdisciplinary writing’s style and voice really hard to produce.

Inevitably in those past conversations we’d end up back with the practicalities: you will have to decide which journals to target, where you want to work afterwards, what you want to teach if you aspire to become an academic.

Grounded reality often directed choices about writing style.

We’d turn to consider the journals, looking at conventions regarding referencing systems, predominance of active or passive verbs, and use of personal pronouns, sub-titles, metaphors, quotation and other markers of epistemology. Choice needed to be based on where genuine passion resided in the interdisciplinary project. The student’s preference in style when they read should guide too: it helps with perseverance to like your own writing style.

Often interdisciplinarians would make the case that no particular discipline dominated their research so it felt inauthentic and untrue to their research to arbitrarily privilege one of them. But they would recognise that interdisciplinary jobs aligned with what they were doing would be unlikely to crop up. Preference of one discipline then became important if an academic job was a goal. If it wasn’t, thinking quite practically about the likely places that might offer work also suggests the kind of writing style that might be acceptable there.

Writing for journals may then become making a case for bringing in practices, literature, methods etc. from a different discipline to contribute to thinking within the discipline of the target journal. Framing becomes important. It can get round reviewer dislike of the unfamiliar to explain overtly ‘To [what is usual and familiar in this journal] I bring the benefit of [the unfamiliar] because this theory [or scholarship or methods] enables insight into [whatever it helps].

Well, framing is always important; one of the most important skills that doctoral candidates learn is that researchers must take what they find and frame it so that the worth of their original contribution to knowledge becomes clear to examiners, and to their discourse communities, and in the best case scenarios, to the rest of the world.

The need to publish may shed some light on decisions. Talk about journals as the starting point might seem off track when the most immediate need is to choose style for the thesis, but the style within the thesis should be a good fit for future publication. The upside of interdisciplarity is that research framing may make it possible to take the same research findings into two articles in different disciplinary outlets. 

Then within the interdisciplinary thesis, defence of writing choices can deflect examiner criticism. Here’s an example: ‘I chose the epistemology of Social Science with respect to how crucial it is in this area to factor in the cultural, social and political preference of users. Thus personal pronouns governing active verbs occur in many places in this Engineering thesis.’

One candidate drew on hard science methods in a highly cultural and spiritual research project ‘to counter any possibility that what I find would be dismissed as native “mumbo jumbo”’ (Baker, 2014, p. 26). Baker’s (2014) thesis is worth looking at for how bravely it crosses disciplines with a fixed purpose, how firmly it defends the crossing and how rich the result is.

That leads back to the idea of borderlands. When I wrote on interdisciplinary doctorates in 2011, I used borderland theory. That functions as an extended metaphor for the trade that people make across borderlands: often illicit, so both risky and potentially very profitable; often with rules that shift; always working across cultures. Does it help with thesis-writing to keep that metaphor in mind as confirmation that borderland crossing is something people have done for ever, because it is worth doing?

If you have experience in supporting interdisciplinary doctoral writing, please post a comment, or let us know if you would like to offer a blog post on this topic. Interdisciplinary research seems more relevant now than it was in 2011, and we could share ways to support it.

And as a postscript, that borderlands metaphor is in play in a Special Issue of Teaching in Higher Education journal on doctoral education: ‘Working in the borderlands: critical perspectives on doctoral education’ which is now formally published as Volume 26, Issue 3. 

References

Mary-Anne Cheryl Tapu Augustine Baker, M-A. C. T. A. (2014). He Ariariatanga Whakangawari No te Maori: He Rangimarietanga i Tua o Te Arai: A Theory of Maori Palliation: A Peaceful Journey through the Veil. PhD, University of Auckland.

Carter, S. (2011). Interdisciplinary thesis practicalities: How to negotiate the borderlands. In Batchelor, J. & Roche, L (Eds.), Student Retention and Success: Sharing and Evaluating Best Practice: Proceedings of the 2009 Annual International Conference of the Association of Tertiary Learning Advisors of Aotearoa/New Zealand (ATLAANZ) (pp. 1- 10). Christchurch: ATLAANZ.