Interdisciplinary nature of contemporary scholarship

Sorry for the crazy title. I almost feel like a fake using “scholarship” in one of my blog posts. I am a college student of the social sciences, English, environmental science, physical science, ecology, communications, and much more. I have written a few papers so far. First year papers were fairly simple, but I find my second year papers to be much more complex (as they should be), not just because the subject matters are increasingly complex, but because of my tendency to draw in resources from other disciplines as I research and write.

Just as kids these days are “Googling” everything and receiving millions of sources in response — they don’t go to the bookshelf and pull out a dictionary or encyclopedia as I did as a child — when I am required to write a paper, I get online and log in to the college library’s interface with databases on every subject at my fingertips.

As I was reading a paper on the ethnography of Native American religion and ritual (writing a speech on a particular ceremony), I zipped over to a database that accesses legal decisions and opinions on those decisions (rights of Native Americans to use items considered illegal under U.S. law in their rituals and ceremonies, along with access to sacred sites). I often access social science databases for English papers as I argue about conformity in tribal life (Beowulf) or a feminist theme that refers to psychological issues that arise from oppression.

I thought about what this means going forward, deeper into scholarly waters, gradually narrowing the scope of study until I have specialized.

Interdisciplinary scholarship is much more common now than ever before which means an English student must have a decent understanding of psychology (or at least its vocabulary) not only to find the appropriate books and articles that support arguments and ideas, but also in addressing literary works from unique perspectives.

I feel as though I am juggling disciplines at best and attempting to multi-task my college career at worst. And since experts have proven that it is impossible to multi-task (the human brain can only focus on one task at a time), is interdisciplinary scholarship a good thing?

For deep, specialized scholarship, I believe immersion is vital. I know for me, I cannot write a good paper unless I have huge chunks of time devoted to that paper with no other tasks on my schedule. I cannot read a chapter for Environmental Science for a couple of hours and then put in three hours research on my Beowulf paper. I just can’t. I have always struggled with this need to hyperfocus. When I was doing web design, I had to be able to carry an entire project around in my head for weeks with no other projects interjecting and making demands on my brain (hence my inability to undertake web design today — my brain was damaged from Lyme disease). That is just how I work. I am a big to small kind of processor. Give me an overview, explaining what you want or what the project should look like at completion, and then I can map out the steps necessary to arrive at a completed project. I feel completely lost if I am being given step-by-step instructions with no context.

English scholars regularly draw on archaeological finds, the considerations and findings of ethnographers, and most definitely historical information. Add to that psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines and you might feel as though you need to be a “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

This new interdisciplinary tendency is everywhere, in all of my classes. This is a wonderful thing and a potentially distracting thing. I absolutely love it because I am always challenged, never bored.

And yet, will this scholarly multi-tasking end the era of specialized study which can result in brilliant, notable scholars?

Will students be hindered from a deep level of study that in the past gave the world scholars such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Seamus Heaney?

I wonder. I remain concerned. We shall see, or not see (how do you see what is not there?).

Oh wait! Interdisciplinary means being able to see the big picture, not just its individual components separately. Okay, maybe this is what the world needs, and what I need. I still have concerns, but see the greater value in interdisciplinary study. Not at the expense or instead of very specialized study, but as a way to use a wide-angled lens sometimes instead of only using a microscope.

Thanks for letting me muse this morning (while I should be writing that speech).


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